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What Is It About the Lower East Side?

Nothing has replaced it in our collective imagination. As a starting place, reference point and standard for community, the few square miles of New York City’s Lower East Side still loom with almost biblical significance over Jewish life on this continent. Even now, decades after the Jewish population of North America has moved beyond and away, every year there are new books published that reflect upon this seminal place and time in the Jewish experience. Indeed it hardly would be surprising to learn that some of the Forward’s own readers continue to subscribe to and read this paper in part to continue their connection to the mythical recent past.

Romanticizing a former home is nothing new. Look at Eden. And more recently, the complex and hardly Edenic shtetl life in Eastern Europe has been swallowed and regurgitated for mass consumption into the world of “Fiddler on the Roof.” What makes the Lower East Side so compelling for us, though, is not just that the home is gone: Despite the few remaining synagogues, delis and pickle shops, and some demographic return of young Jews to the area, the Lower East Side never will be the insular, vibrant, desperate and disease-ridden ghetto it once was. What makes the Lower East Side a thrilling story to tell and retell is the fact that it has a happy ending.

However one romanticizes the shtetl, its story ends in destruction. The story of the Lower East Side — that is, the story of the Jew in modern America — has not ended, but subsequent chapters have included hundreds of thousands of Jewish success stories, happy families, financial empires, artistic achievements, and a general albeit incomplete acceptance into mainstream American culture. For all its pain, poverty and suffering, we read stories of the Lower East Side from the vantage point of those who came out on the other side, who built lives out of this struggle. In this sense, the Lower East Side is the classic American story, the one about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps — it’s the story of Alger Hiss, Andrew Carnegie and Bill Gates. Or should I say the reverse: The classic American story is that of the Lower East Side Jew, because, as Neal Gabler and others have pointed out, Jewish Hollywood has been central in perpetuating the myth of the American tycoon starting from nothing.

But there’s another reason that the Lower East Side still compels us to read and watch and listen. As successful as our lives might be, Jewish life since the ghetto has none of the picturesque dynamism of the early years of the 20th century. Jewish life after World War II is more comfortable, more stable, more mainstream, more culturally diverse and accomplished — but it lacks the drama, the picturesque conflict of the ghetto. The raw beauty and fascination of Michael Gold and Anzia Yezierska’s writings pale in comparison with the accomplishment of the next generation, which includes Saul Bellow, Cynthia Ozick and Bernard Malamud. And yet, Jewish life of the 1950s hardly spawns an equivalent mountain of verbiage. In our subsequent success, we look back on our formative years the way a portly businessman looks back on his days as a paperboy. Yes, it was hard, but I was so much more alive then. It’s self-fulfilling nostalgia, because as long as the man thinks this, it will continue to be true.

And so we have “The Tenement Saga,” another memoir/history about the Lower East Side from Sanford Sternlicht, a professor of English at Syracuse University who grew up on the Lower East Side in the late 1930s and early ’40s. Sternlicht’s teaching work has included taking students on field trips to Manhattan, and he writes with a local’s sense of the streets and neighborhoods. The book comprises two sections: The first draws a general portrait of the Lower East Side, including descriptions of the kinds of work immigrants did, the struggles faced by women, the importance of education, etc.; the second section turns to the writers of the period, providing a brief introduction to the development of Jewish American literature, followed by short entries about individual authors. The book reads like Sternlicht’s compiled lecture notes, and he is clearly an effective teacher whose personal history intersects with his material. He uses his own recollections to good effect by keeping them specific and contained, remarking, for instance, on his own relationship to the Seward Park branch of the New York Public Library while discussing the impact of the free library system generally. Sternlicht’s scholarship is mostly compiled. No new ground is claimed, nor do the memoir sections make great claims for Sternlicht’s individual experiences over anyone else’s.

This begs the question, then: Why the book? Sternlicht’s overview of Jewish life on the Lower East Side and his individual entries on important authors from the period are engaging, but dozens of other books are equally engaging while being also more original or insightful. Sternlicht does focus on some relatively obscure authors who merit more attention, including Rose Cohen and Marya Zaturenska. But if his entries on these authors consist of brief biographies and plot summaries, how much can they accomplish? Certainly the book might serve as a useful primer for a student new to the material, but so could Alfred Kazin’s “A Walker in the City,” Moses Rischin’s “The Promised City,” Irving Howe’s “World of Our Fathers,” one of Abe Cahan’s or Anzia Yezierska’s novels, or the scholarly work of

any number of historians, literary critics and sociologists.

No one at University of Wisconsin Press can honestly believe that this work will forge new thinking or enlighten the public with regard to its subject. But I imagine that the editors there believe — perhaps rightly so — that there is a built-in market for this book, because of the personal reputation of the author, but more troublingly because of the assumption that any book on the Lower East Side will find readers among those who consider the subject holy.

It is clear that the experience of life on the Lower East Side will continue to generate studies, memoirs and portraits as long as Jews live in this hemisphere, not necessarily because of the importance of re-examining our origins — which is laudable, even crucial — but because that time and place serve as a myth-making device for those whose relationship to Judaism is strictly historical. Sternlicht points out that his parents’ generation were “content to leave the maintenance” of Jewish religion to the “devout minority… [who] provided the cultural constant.” This equation of cultural constancy with religious orthodoxy belies a different, and dangerously pervasive, aspect of contemporary Jewish life that Sternlicht’s book itself embodies — namely, the equation of Jewish culture with the celebration of the Jewish past. Not that no room remains for serious scholarship on the period: on the contrary. But with the wealth of good studies already in print, a book must make a substantial claim to justify its existence, or else it must rely on a reading public willing to merely lounge on its couch and return to the same stories over again without thoughtful reconsideration. If a well-meaning but ultimately derivative book such as this one can be published and expect a readership because there are some who only associate their Jewishness with the recitation of the colorful story of its first generations’ experience in America, have we not fallen victim to the same homogenizing impulse that Jewish studies departments, publishers, leaders and readers are trying to overcome? Can’t our Jewishness move beyond nostalgia?

There are plenty of ways to claim the history and culture of the Lower East Side and make it vibrant and exciting. Historians like Deborah Dash Moore and Steven Cassedy are broadening and deepening our understanding of the period. Young musicians like the band Hasidic New Wave are combining hip-hop and Klezmer to thrilling effect. Mock chopped liver made out of tofu can be found at many local delis. The ideas of the Lower East Side — cultural fusion, pursuing success in America, pride in Jewish identity — still are relevant, and one could argue that they are increasingly important as Jews become more and more acclimated into mainstream culture. But a superficial revisiting of familiar territory is not sufficient. That’s just eating the schmaltz and not the meat.

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