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The Invention of the Lower East Side

by Beth S. Wenger

(An excerpt)

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Lower East Side became a nostalgic center for New York Jews, a living reminder of an idealized immigrant world as well as a mirror of the past that reflected the extent of Jewish progress. By the interwar years, the Lower East Side was already a popular site for Jewish tourism and a place that Jews invested with cultural meaning. Individual Jews planned shopping and entertainment excursions to the East Side. Several Jewish organizations as well as the government's Works Progress Administration (WPA) sponsored historical surveys and photographic studies documenting Jewish life on the Lower East Side. Religious schools took their young, American-born children on field trips to the neighborhood to catch a glimpse of a fading Jewish culture.

"Yoineh Shiminel is dead," folklorist Nathan Ausubel declared in his 1941 unpublished manuscript, "Hold Up the Sun!" Ausubel's work, a series of vignettes focusing primarily on the Lower East Side, was part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Federal Writers' Project study of the Jews of New York. The protagonist of one of Ausubel's short stories, Yoineh Shimmel, was "King of the Knishes." A Talmud scholar and East European immigrant, the legendary Yoineh had made a fortune in the knish business and had become renowned on the Lower East Side for his culinary skills and valuable contributions as the "Americanizer of the knish." Ausubel recounted Shimmel's life story in the most glowing and reverential terms and evaluated the contemporary meaning of his knish business:

Yoineh Shimmel's knishes have lost their original provincialism. Their appeal is now country wide. Many a Jewish visitor from California or Florida arrives in New York bearing with him the address of a recommended hotel and of Yoineh Shimmel's knish emporium. There are many people alive today who take pride in boasting that they were present at the opening of the Rabbi's knish temple on Houston Street thirty years ago. And so, since that memorable day, they and their children and their children's children make periodic visits to Yoineh Shimmel's restaurant, although the founder is dead. They come from the remote comers of the Bronx, from the lowlands of Brooklyn and from the `high tone' exclusiveness of West End Avenue. They come with the hungry piety of pilgrims and they gorge themselves with knishes to the gills, commemorating the event with a subsequent two weeks period of lingering indigestion.

Ausubel's tale of Yoineh Shimmel, like most of the stories in his book, was an interpretation of the changing nature of the East Side and of the transformation of Jewish culture. He mourned the passing of the once vital neighborhood, regarding his work as "a final obituary" to the immigrant Jewish world. But at the same time, he chronicled the birth of the district as a tourist attraction, a place that Jews came to eat traditional Jewish foods, listen to the Yiddish spoken on the streets, and enjoy the entertainment in local cafes. A trip to the Lower East Side was indeed a pilgrimage for Jews who ventured to lower Manhattan looking for a "genuine" Jewish cultural experience. When Jews journeyed from miles away to taste Yoineh Shimmel's knishes, they came to the Lower East Side literally to consume their ethnicity...

The ethnic image of the East Side was often manufactured and managed. Both neighborhood merchants and government officials had a stake in promoting the Lower East Side as "a safe place to visit." Beginning in the 1920s, lawmakers and politicians conducted a sustained campaign to "clean up" the East Side. By building better housing, eliminating pushcart peddlers, and fighting petty crime, city planners worked to reform the physical condition of the neighborhood and the behavior of its residents. The East Side Chamber of Commerce emphasized the need for local business owners to provide a clean and friendly atmosphere for visitors and to promote the new Lower East Side as a modem, hospitable district rather than a dirty, chaotic Jewish quarter. "The pushcart peddlers are all orderly and licensed now," observed one Forward reporter in 1927 with a sigh of regret. There was an obvious tension between the effort to mold the East Side into a modem tourist attraction and the desire to preserve its immigrant flavor…

The Lower East Side, in this respect, was "a place of forgetting" as much as a site of remembrance. As many scholars of collective memory have noted, remembering and forgetting are closely linked and both contribute to the formation of popular historical consciousness. As second-generation Jews moved farther from the immigrant experience, it became possible to reimagine the Lower East Side in terms that transformed poverty, crime, and poor living conditions into a narrative of Jewish struggle, perseverance, and self-congratulation. "Forgetting" did not mean erasing memories of destitution or denying the sharp political challenge posed by Jewish socialism and communism, but rather it allowed those experiences to acquire new meaning in the retelling of the Jewish past.

Memory as Identity: The Invention of the Lower East Side. By Beth S. Wenger. American Jewish History. Volume: 85. Issue: 1. 1997. COPYRIGHT 1997 American Jewish Historical Society; COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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