This piece was originally published on the Eldridge Street Museum’s blog.
Millions of families, including my own, are heading into an tenth week of staying at home. And there’s no official end date in sight. I find myself grasping at ways to keep my toddler-aged child engaged and entertained while preserving some shred of sanity for myself and my husband. My house at this point is just a messy play gym and we’ve been eating a lot of grilled cheese sandwiches. By trade and background, I’m a museum educator and all around history geek, which means I’m constantly trying to look at this situation from an historical perspective. This week I found myself asking “What would Sydney Taylor do?” Never heard of her? Well, let me give you an introduction.
Sydney Taylor, real name Sarah Brenner, was the bestselling author of the children’s series All-of-a-Kind Family, which follows the lives and adventures of five sisters – Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie – growing up on New York’s Lower East Side at the turn of the last century. Published between 1951 and 1978, the series introduced mainstream America to the culture and traditions of a Jewish immigrant family. The characters are semi-autobiographical, based on the author and her four sisters. In the books and in real life, their parents were part of the great wave of Eastern European Jewry who immigrated to New York in the late 1800s. They built a life and a community in the Lower East Side neighborhood that my colleagues and I, who work at the Museum at Eldridge Street, now endeavor to celebrate and preserve.
Like so many generations of fans, I was first introduced to the books as a child and as an adult I continue to revisit them. In light of what is happening in New York, across the nation and around the world, I see in these books a family that has also weathered hard times together. The books take place alongside the sweeping and tumultuous backdrop of American history – throughout the series the family encounters epidemics (including a quarantine in a four-room apartment during the Passover holiday), World War I, and the timeless obstacles that immigrants face as they strive to carve better lives for themselves and their children. Through it all, All-of-a-Kind Family offers its readers advice that is practical, humorous, and tenderhearted.
As we all weather this moment in history together, it is my hope that you will read or reread this timeless series and maybe apply some of this advice to your own lives. Here’s what I’ve learned by spending time with the All-of-a-Kind Family.
Reading is Fundamental
It is poignant that the series opens with a case of a missing library book. (THANKS A LOT, Tillie)! At the time books were an “unheard of luxury” and local libraries like Seward Park and Chatham Square provided a vital service of lending out books free of charge. For the sisters “It was heavenly enough to borrow books from the public library,” and every Friday the girls would hurry from school to the neighborhood library where they would select their reading material for the weekend. For them and thousands of other children it was recreation, knowledge, and escape. (Check out April 23rd’s Look Closely entry to see a real photo of kids crashing the library!) In a chapter titled “Rainy Day Surprise” Papa, the owner of a junk shop, receives a shipment of used books. The result is fun times on a rainy afternoon. While trips to the library and bookstores might be off limits right now, today there are many ways to access reading material and it is an activity that can be done alone or together. We even have a few video storytimes online for families!
Trick Your Children Into Doing Housework
Mama in All-of-a -Kind Family is the epitome of #momgoals. She is kind, patient, resourceful, can pluck a chicken in minutes and is a mastermind at managing a household of five kids and counting! Raising kids in the early 1900s was no joke. It was a time before dishwashers, washing machines, refrigerators, and Rosé. Before sticker charts and reward sheets were the norm, Mama proves herself to be the ultimate household manager with her ingenious dusting game. Each week a different kid is put in charge of dusting the family parlor (that’s the fanciest room in the house!). To ensure that everyone does a good job, an undisclosed amount of buttons are hidden throughout the room. The only way to find them all is by doing an extensive dusting job and therefore finding them all. Do not hesitate to try this with your own children! If you attempt Mama’s dusting game with your kids, make it hard! Hide those buttons in the tchotchkes and on the table legs! Word of caution: In 1912 the reward for finding all of the buttons is a penny. Expect to adjust for inflation.
Host a Secret Candy Party in Bed
What is more enticing than eating candy? Eating candy…in bed! In the middle of the night!!! In secret!!!! Allow youngest sisters Charlotte and Gertie to walk you through the extensive planning and preparation that went into a secret candy party. First, one must curate the candy selection with the right blend of sweet and salty. Then there is the issue of cost. They spent 25 cents, but, I’m sorry, but you cannot buy a quarter of a cent worth of candy these days. If you’re looking to support a local business, Lower East Side staple Economy Candy will curate the perfect candy care package available for delivery or curbside pickup. Once the candy has been procured you must convince your family that you are really tired and not up to some secret shenanigans. To truly savor the candy in bed experience, don’t just gobble it all up, but turn it into a ritualistic game so that it lasts longer. You can refer to the chapter “Who Cares if It’s Bedtime?” for tips. Lastly, destroy the evidence! How would you feel if you found wrappers and crumbs in your child’s/parent’s bed? Probably like there was an exclusive party happening in your own house and you weren’t invited.
Use What You’ve Got
All-of-a-Kind Family teaches resourcefulness and creativity. In the books, toys and clothes are luxury items but that never stops the family from making their own fun. After being invited to a Purim party, the sisters must “make it work!” With some help from Mama’s rag bag and a lot of pins (so many pins!), tape, old dresses, petticoats, and a cousin’s hand me down suit, the family creates persuasive costumes that would win a round of Project Runway–if the category was “Shtetl Shabby Chic.” Later the girls hold a recital for the relatives, with their instruments consisting of pots, spatulas, and a washboard (thankfully no recorders!). Who needs Fisher Price and Baby Einstein when you’ve got a spatula and a box of rice?
Love Your Community
One of the things I love most about these books is the role that community plays in the life of the family. Their world extends beyond the home and into the streets of the Lower East Side. They are part of a community filled with friends, neighbors, relatives, street vendors, shop keepers, settlement house workers, and many others. With its overcrowding, disease and poverty, the Lower East Side is a challenging place to live. Yet they care for each other. Whether they are tending to a sick neighbor, delivering holiday treats, celebrating at the synagogue, or bringing people together, All-of-a-Kind Family demonstrates just how far little acts of love and kindness can go.
While we cannot be physically together right now, there are many ways in which we can and are showing love and support to our neighbors, friends, family, and frontline workers. Even the smallest acts can have a large impact!
Rachel Serkin is the Manager of School Programs at the Museum at Eldridge Street.