Lower East Side Story


By Saul Austerlitz

Published July 21, 2006, issue of July 21, 2006.
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Up from Orchard Street

Eleanor Widmer

Bantam, 400 pages, $23.

* * *

Orchard Street: The name alone conjures images from the collective memory, snapshots of street peddlers, of rat-infested tenements, of aged scholars pacing the streets, their sidelocks rhythmically clapping against their ears. For readers of Jewish literature, the Lower East Side brings to mind names like Henry Roth and Anzia Yezierska, poets of the impoverished souls who inhabited Orchard and Essex and Grand Streets in the early years of the 20th century. Much like Roth, whose “Mercy of a Rude Stream” cycle of novels returned, at the end of his life, to the events of his youth, Eleanor Widmer has come full circle, in her ninth decade, returning at the end of her life to the events at its start.

Widmer’s lightly fictionalized story — she calls it “part memoir, part social history, and part fiction. Nevertheless, every word is true” — occurs in and around 12 Orchard Street, where narrator Elka’s grandmother Manya runs a bustling restaurant. Holding court from her kitchen, where she prepares elaborate old-country meals for neighborhood working folk (including the hungry writers at the Jewish Daily Forward, on East Broadway), Manya is the glue that holds the incongruent forces of her family together. Her son Jack is more interested in selling ladies’ garments and betting on horses than taking care of his two children, and his wife, Lil, also a product of the East Side streets, fancies herself an uptown swell, on her way “up from Orchard Street” to greener pastures. She instructs her children to give out their address as Orchard Lane, with its hint of rural placidity and, as Jack tells 9-year-old Elka when the family puts on an impromptu theatrical production, “No matter how people applaud, run offstage as soon as possible. Your mother is the star.” Relegated to the sidelines of her own life by her glamorous, irresponsible parents, Elka finds her deepest bond with Manya, the irrepressible life force.

Manya, still young even as a grandmother, reduces men to helpless blobs of quivering desire in her presence. The men are aroused as much by the smell of her cooking, and the bits of food that cling to her clothing, as her natural allure. “Up from Orchard Street” is alive to the central role of food in the lives of its characters, and its close relationship with sex. Indeed, there is a shocking openness about sexuality here, from both Widmer and her characters. Whether a contemporary grafting onto the past, or a product of the ghetto’s lack of privacy, “Up from Orchard Street” is bathed in the dazzling light of eros, and even for Elka, too young to grasp its value, sex is everywhere.

It is found, most of all, in Connecticut, where the family scrimps and saves all year to spend their summers. Jack and Lil, refusing to act poor, tell all their newfound friends they live in Yonkers, where their Uncle Goodman lives in baronial splendor, rather than Orchard Street. Their summer idylls become a paradise for Elka and her family, an escape from the misery of the Lower East Side. Elka falls in love with the young men, aspiring doctors and lawyers, who serve as hotel waiters for the summer, finding in them models of Jewish grace and noblesse oblige. Unfortunately, so does her mother, who comes dangerously close to destroying her family with her disastrous passion for a young golden boy. Elka is torn between her desire to stay in Connecticut forever and the urge to pull down the curtain once and for all on her family’s charade. She longs to blurt out all the family’s carefully held secrets: “We’re from 12 Orchard Street. We have rats in our building and millions of roaches, icicles in the winter and the toilet is in the hall and we bathe in a tin bathtub, and every one of us has an illness, and my Bubby’s business is falling apart, and my mother hasn’t worked a single day at Saks Fifth even though she wants to, and Mister Elkin left my grandmother, and we had to hock everything we owned in order to come here and we’re as poor as the children you take in for charity on Front Street.”

Up from Orchard Street

By Eleanor Widmer

Bantam, 400 pages, $23.

* * *

Widmer’s book is nostalgic for the hardships of her childhood, and the enforced closeness between Elka and her grandmother. Her writing possesses the wisdom of age, kind enough to chide rather than castigate. Nonetheless, Jack and Lil are models of the kind of adult Elka never wants to be — shallow, indifferent, and loveless: “Standing on the ferry, I swore to myself that I would not ever emulate my mother. She was beautiful. Yes. She could melt your heart with her singing. Yes. I could not equal her ease with men. But I didn’t want to grow up and be like her.”

Widmer, who made her living as a food critic and English teacher, died in November 2004, shortly after completing revisions to the novel, her first. “Up from Orchard Street” stands as her last word, the culmination of a life writing and thinking about words. By turns sentimental, romantic, impassioned, and unstinting, “Up from Orchard Street” will take its place, along with Roth’s “Call It Sleep,” Yezierska’s “Hungry Hearts” and Daniel Fuchs’s “Williamsburg Trilogy,” on the short bookshelf of worthy novels of Jewish immigrant life.

Saul Austerlitz is a writer in New York City.

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