Practicing Facilitation

Originally posted on Medium, February 17, 2017.

How we talk about things matters. We are living in a time of deep divisions, where silos and binaries seem to choke the nuance from our views and social media feeds. In the wake of this political climate, educators are facing new challenges. At museums — places where we seek to create open spaces for the exchange of ideas and conversation — the limits of civil discourse are being grappled with. Can we respectfully listen to people who hold differing opinions and thoughtfully share views with those who disagree?

At the Tenement Museum, we have been facilitating hard conversations since our founding in 1988. We are a storytelling museum and the only way to visit our 150-year-old tenement is to take a guided tour with an educator. This ensures that human stories are shared daily within the museum’s walls and that visitors regularly grapple with the nuances surrounding issues of immigration, discrimination, human rights, and what it means to be American. These stories are complex and have multiple perspectives.

Visitors on the Hard Times tour. Collection of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Visitors on the Hard Times tour. Collection of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Our building bore witness to childbirth and wakes, economic depressions, epidemics, the celebration of diverse holiday traditions, along with countless ordinary acts of living. Our stories reflect these layers of human experience. Like that of Adolpho Baldizzi, who came in 1923 from Sicily seeking economic opportunities, only to struggle to bring his new wife Rosaria to join him a year later due to changing immigration legislation. They would go on to become citizens and to raise two American born children, whose own children would serve in New York’s police force and fire departments. Their story is just one of the many stories that get facilitated within our walls and expanded upon by visitors who contribute their personal experience and insight.

In many ways, bringing strangers together for a conversation is radical within this day and age, and over the years we have experimented with a variety of facilitation techniques to support this work. While the museum’s setting and educational approach of site-specific family-centric storytelling is unique, many of the practices our educators employ will enrich conversations both inside and outside of a museum. We have found that when we get personal with our stories, we can go beyond the rhetoric and consider not just how we differ, but what we have in common.

Within this climate, society needs more facilitators, and both colleagues and friends have been asking for best practices and tips to employ. These five techniques don’t require a museum exhibit to generate a rich conversation. While they may seem deceptively simple, each presents its own challenges and requires practice, patience, and fortitude.

  1. SET EXPECTATIONS: Set realistic expectations for yourself as the facilitator and for the group. Relieve yourself of the impossible pressure of having the golden conversation or changing anybody’s mind. No one is required to agree with you, nor is it your job as the facilitator to make them. Challenge yourself to enter the conversation knowing you have something to learn and the participants have something interesting to say. Owning this lets you set the expectation for everyone to participate and share the mike with each other. And remember, there are multiple successful outcomes for a conversation and that this discussion will be part of a larger conversation, which will be generated once it ends.
  2. LISTEN GENEROUSLY: Listen to understand, and not to respond. Try not to judge, make assumptions, and bring your preconceptions to the conversation. Don’t anticipate responses, but rather challenge yourself to stay curious and open to be surprised. And, remember, our body language, especially our facial expressions and stance communicates receptivity or a lack thereof. Listening generously does not mean condoning inappropriate comments. Instead, it challenges you to understand before rushing to judgment. As the facilitator, this can also mean embracing awkward moments of silence and creating spaces for participants to process what they are hearing.
  3. VALIDATE CONTRIBUTIONS: Welcome and respectfully acknowledge participant’s presence and contributions. Don’t make people uncomfortable for what they think or believe (even though the topic is likely uncomfortable). This should not be confused with placating or agreeing with all comments, but rather seeking to understand them. Some helpful phrases for validating without agreeing include: “I’ve never thought of it that way,” “What a powerful statement” or “That is an interesting point.”
  4. FOLLOW-UP: Don’t attack people for sharing. As a facilitator, you can acknowledge why a comment stings or hurts without attacking the individual who made the comment. Respond with openness and curiosity and ask follow-up questions to clarify, such as “Why do you say that?” and “Let me make sure I heard you correctly.” or “Tell me more.”
  5. ENCOURAGE MULTIPLE PERSPECTIVES: Use your own knowledge and experience, as well as the groups to encourage multiple perspectives on the issue being discussed. Genuinely valuing the personal experiences of the participants and their perspectives will enrich the conversation. Remind the group to use “I” statements in order to mitigate conversations becoming “us” versus “them.” Some prompts for introducing other perspectives include, “In my community, I see this…” or “Does anyone have stories that are similar or different?” While you want to ensure that multiple perspectives are heard on the issue, remember that it is ok for everyone to agree or even to agree to disagree.

Facilitation is hard, but it can be learned, practiced, and honed. When we are able to listen generously and truly value the perspectives of others, we gain tools necessary to break down the silos and binaries that threaten our civil discourse.

Becoming “Nuyorican”

For the other parts of this series highlighting the new ethnic groups featured in “Under One Roof,” you can read Of Memory and Survival: The Jewish American Identity and Look For the Union Label: Chinese Immigration in America
The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a landmark cultural institution on the Lower East Side

The Nuyorican Poets Cafe, a landmark cultural institution on the Lower East Side

When I think about Puerto Ricans in New York City, I have to admit something. My mind immediately goes to West Side Story. I can only offer explanations, though not necessarily excuses: I’m not Puerto Rican, I’m not Latinx, I’m not even a New Yorker. I’m just a grown-up theater nerd who grew up in a bubble, and West Side Story, for a long time, was my only reference point. But the fact that I’m a grown-up, though, allows me to acknowledge the problematic aspects of the grand Hollywood movie musical — namely, the lack of any Puerto Ricans in the cast, apart from the fabulous Rita Moreno (a fan, I have to point out, of the Tenement Museum) in an Oscar winning performance.

Film scholar Ernesto Acevedo-Muñoz, author of West Side Story as Cinema: The Making and Impact of an American Masterpiece, was interviewed at the time of the movie’s restoration release in 2011. A Puerto Rican himself, Acevedo-Muñoz spoke of the initial reaction by the Puerto Rican community to the movie, saying, “There was always some controversy, with some complaints from sociologists and people like that, but the overwhelming majority of reviews were positive,” also pointing out that, by the end of the movie, the Sharks in fact look alot better than the Jets in terms of morality, community and family, and education.

Of the movie’s notorious “brownface” commentary, Acevedo-Muñoz spoke of the novelty that he as a Puerto Rican felt, watching an actual representation of his culture in a major Hollywood production.  “Now, is Natalie Wood something of a brownface? Yes. But does it matter? No,” Acevedo-Muñoz said, “And the reason it doesn’t matter to me is because outside of West Side Story, which I saw first as a pre-teenager… I’d never in my life heard the words “Puerto Rico” spoken in a movie. And I’ve heard it very few times after that. Seriously. The fact that they said the words “Puerto Rico” in a movie and there were Puerto Ricans being portrayed on screen – even if only one was a legitimate Puerto Rican that was born-and-raised-on-the-island, Rita Moreno – we didn’t care.”

The interview also discusses the lyrics to “America,” which pleased me greatly, because when I knew I would be writing about the history of Puerto Rican migrants in New York City, I knew I’d want to include that song. What I didn’t know was that the movie version and the stage version differ drastically from each other. Whereas the original drew criticism as being demeaning to Puerto Ricans, the movie version emphasizes genuine issues of discrimination the Puerto Rican community faces in America, and the constantly warring, constantly changing concepts of the American Dream and the American Reality.

We at the Tenement Museum can really relate to the line, “Twelve in a room in America!

What I find interesting, watching from outside my bubble, is the characters repeatedly calling themselves “immigrants,” which they technically aren’t. The differences between immigrants and migrants are thin, but there. While neither group deserves to be subjected to discrimination, persecution, and violence, both often are. But immigrants will usually have to deal with more complicated legal matters to remain in their adopted country. Migrants, like those coming from Puerto Rico, are United States citizens. I can only imagine the strain and confusion on one’s identity, to be treated as an outsider by the nation to which you are a citizen.

Ramonita Saez, a highlight on our upcoming exhibit at 103 Orchard Street, on a rooftop in New York City

Ramonita Saez, a highlight on our upcoming exhibit at 103 Orchard Street, on a rooftop in New York City

Puerto Ricans have been emigrating to New York City since the middle of the 19th century, in the first so-called “wave.” At the time, the island was still a Spanish province, and the motivation to move was the same as it was for other immigrants — America offered the greatest opportunities for economic success. Puerto Rico then became a territory of the United States as a result of the treaty arrangement following the Spanish-American War.

In 1917, the Jones-Shafroth Act changed the status for Puerto Ricans forever. Now, they were officially American citizens, and could travel to and from the United States without the use of a passport. Eligible Puerto Rican males could also be drafted into the military, just in time for World War I. This change in citizenship status caused many Puerto Ricans to head to New York City, as the island had previously been terrorized by hurricanes, ruining many crops and causing great financial crisis. But the industrialized city presented other hardships to the newly arrived Puerto Ricans. Discrimination, language barriers, lack of technical skills were all hurdles newly arrived immigrants faced on their job hunt — and these issues are often discussed on current Tenement Museum tours about German, Irish, and Italian immigrants — and many Puerto Ricans encountered the same. However, as citizens, those who struggled to find work often resorted to joining the military.

The third and largest wave of Puerto Ricans occurred in the 1950s, known today as “the Great Migration.” The Great Depression, World War II, and the advent of air travel were all leading contributors to the increase in migration during this time. This era marked the first time a Hispanic group moved to New York City in great numbers.

Throughout these waves, new terminology began to spring up, and the name Nuyorican initially started as a kind of insult towards assimilated Puerto Ricans or second and third generation Puerto Ricans who have lost touch with their island roots. Traditionally, Nuyoricans planted their flags in what became known as “Spanish Harlem” in East Harlem, and “Loisaida” in the East Village, a Nuyorican pronunciation of “Lower East Side.”

Loisaida is one of the neighborhoods where the Nuyorican Movement began in the 1960s and 1970s, the name meant to reclaim the former insult, originally founded by writer Jesús Colón. One of the most iconic, important cultural and intellectual movements to come out of New York City, the Nuyorican Movement produced some of the best works of poetry, literature, art, and music of the 20th century. Miguel Algarín Jr., poet and founder of the historic cultural institution Nuyorican Poets Cafe on the Lower East Side, was one of the first to reclaim the title of Nuyorican. Some other notable artists from this movement include Esmeralda Santiago, Piri Thomas, Pedro Pietri, Miguel Piñero, Eddie Palmieri, and Tito Puente.

Ramonita Saez, focal point for our new tour at 103 Orchard Street, came to live at Loisaida during the Nuyorican Movement. She raised a family during a time when the city was close to tearing itself apart. We don’t know if she ever saw West Side Story when she first arrived on the Lower East Side in 1961, or what her opinion of it would be, but we can imagine, given her achievements, her pride in her work in the Garment Industry, and the success of her children, she might have agreed with Anita in the song “America.” Life can be alright in America.


Immigrants Then, Immigrants Now: A Shared American Dream

Originally posted at The Huffington Post on February 12, 2017

The Tenement Museum’s mission calls on us to “enhance appreciation for the waves of immigration that have shaped and continue to shape America’s evolving national identity.” In the wake of an election that offered a platform to anti-immigrant sentiment and exposed deep divisions in the US, we must acknowledge that not all Americans believe that immigrants should help to shape our national identity. More specifically, while many Americans may be comfortable celebrating how previous waves of European immigrants contributed to the forging of modern American identity, they may shy away from the idea that more recent Asian, South American, Middle Eastern or African immigrants continue to help forge that identity.

Undeniably, the majority of our museum visitors arrive ready to engage with the history of American immigration and consider how it connects to our present. In our tours, we provide space for open conversations, as we do not advocate for specific contemporary policies or politicians. However, as has been noted in some recent press articles, the heat of the election season occasioned a few challenging visitor exchanges, including one sharply worded complaint that a tour guide spoke “broken English,” and did so with a strong accent.

This type of complaint serves a useful purpose, for it helps us to reconnect to our mission statement and allows us to respond through stories—not soundbites, lectures, or sermons—to reveal real, ordinary people in all of their complexities. What would a visitor who lauds immigrants “back then” for learning English think if she walked through the tenement hearing German voices in the 1870s, Yiddish words in the 1900s, or the Italian language in the 1920s? In 1900, immigrant Jennie Levine had three children under the age of eight and shared her 325-square-foot apartment with her husband’s garment shop and its workers. The 1900 census tells us she did not speak English (indeed, only half the building’s residents did). Standing today in her recreated apartment, our visitors quickly grasp that Jennie would not have had the time for English classes, nor room to study. We can imagine her at her coal stove, boiling water for laundry while her eldest daughter, Pauline, helps her younger siblings with their homework. Did Jennie feel pride? Difficulty? Perhaps both?

Jennie Levine, ca. 1925; Jefferson’s mom, ca. 2015.

Inevitably, visitors draw comparisons to the present, and we recently have enhanced these discussions by adding stories written by contemporary immigrants and their children (collected through our Your Story Our Story website). In the Levine kitchen, for example, an educator might show an image uploaded by Jefferson, a high school student, which shows an Ingles Basico textbook, overshadowed by a stroller. Jefferson explains how his mother wants desperately to learn English, “everywhere she goes—schools, hospitals, work, subway, she feels voiceless.” She began to study the textbook, but after Jefferson’s sister was born, “she gives all the time from the busy evenings to her daughter…My Mom keeps pushing her heavy stroller….” This story helps us view Jefferson’s mother as a modern-day Jennie Levine, underlining how across time and space, immigrant parents often sacrifice their own opportunities in order to care for their children.

Jennie’s story might offer hope to Jefferson, for the 1910 census tells us she later learned English; in turn, we see how language acquisition is an evolving process for immigrants then and now. Students have posted dozens of photos of foreign language dictionaries and whether translating to English from Chinese, Korean, Russian, or Spanish, they all testify to the way immigrant parents studied English as they worked and raised children. Theresa Chen, writing about her father’s Chinese-English dictionary, reflected: “Now, this dictionary sits on our bookshelf not only as a symbol of pride for my dad, who can speak relatively fluent English, but also a reminder of the struggles that a language barrier can pose for all immigrants, even today.”

These stories help us confront misconceptions about immigrants past and present, and underline connections, both between past and present and those among us today. If you are an immigrant or the children of immigrants, your stories help us to trace common threads across cultures, and realize how we all adapt old rituals to new environments. If you are the grandchildren or great grandchildren of immigrants or migrants, we realize memories may have faded somewhat, but we urge you to contribute your stories and uncover their complexities. When my daughter submitted the story of my first American ancestor, my great grandmother, we focused on a pair of Sabbath candlesticks brought over from the Ukraine in 1906. But recently, as I tried to enhance the scope of my great grandmother’s story, I uploaded a drawing of a bathtub. This bathtub lets me share another aspect of her life: during Prohibition, she made bathtub gin to help support her seven children. She, like Jennie Levine and perhaps the woman with the stroller, always felt more comfortable in her native language. Nevertheless, she gave everything she had so that her children could achieve their own versions of the American dream.

We can’t resolve today’s political debates solely by sharing our family histories with each other, but we owe it to the past residents of 97 Orchard Street to examine their lives not with romanticism, but honesty. By the same standard, we owe it to today’s immigrants, their modern-day counterparts, to think of them as real people, not stereotypes. The selflessness and drive of these individuals to sacrifice all that is familiar in order to build better lives for their children will continue to contribute to the character of our shared national identity. Their stories, and your stories, are our American story.

  • Annie Polland, Senior Vice President for Programs & Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Take a Picture, It’ll Last Longer


The little girls are adorable, standing on the sidewalk, smiling big, the chrome trim of last year’s model passing by.

The mother is looking past the camera, leaning on the vintage television set, talking on the phone, hair done, dressed up for something, but we don’t know what.

A mother and her daughter are waiting patiently for their portraits to be taken wearing frills and floral, standing in front of a staid curtain.

All three of these images are captured and framed by a Polaroid’s white edges, hearkening back to a time before Kodak was tinged with the nostalgia of analog technology, highlighting the impermanence of memory, of moments, of instant photography, of marketing handouts.

These are the photographs collected by the Tenement Museum from the Epsteins, the Saez family, and the Wongs, the people who are at the heart of our new exhibit at 103 Orchard that will open this summer. These photographs are also part of the promotional campaign we are distributing to in the Visitor’s Center.

The reactions to the cards have been overwhelmingly positive. Visitors are charmed by the families photographed and are drawn in by the clever design with its built-in appeal to memory and the very feeling of pointlessly shaking the picture until the image appeared.

While many visitors resist being asked to carry yet another piece of paper with them, others express appreciation and excitement for what we are doing. They want to extend the story. They want a reason to come back. They want something new to learn, something new that will connect them to the stories of the past as much as to the issues of the present.

polaroids3Beyond this general reaction, the most frequent response we get is visitors exclaiming that the little Epstein girls look like themselves and their sisters or their mothers at an early age. The background of the photograph with that vintage car helps, and the familiarity of the corner of Orchard and Delancey Street does too. Ultimately, I think the response to this image is really about the relationship between history, memory, and youth, the idea that we can relate to the past through our own formative experiences.

Indeed, one of the things that is most exciting about the new exhibit is its ability to use the oral histories of young people who grew up on the Lower East Side. These stories and the young characters that populate them provide a connection for some of our smaller visitors and, for some of our older guests, encourages a critical kind of nostalgia grounded not in an idealized past but in a real one. Like the exhibit will, these cards activate memories and use memories, but juxtapose them with the historical record.

Similarly, visitors see their own mothers in Ramonita Saez or see their own childhoods in the old Cathode Ray Tube console. At the visitor center, this is the image that, after staring at it for days and weeks, many staff have fallen in love with. We talk about Ramonita as archaeologists and storytellers wondering who took the picture and why. Is the object of the photographer Ramonita or the television? Why is Ramonita so dressed up? Where is she going? Who is she talking to on the phone? Even more so than the Epstein girls, this image captivates us because it does ask us to tell a story, and it asks us to be historians.

All three of these images also represent relationships, relationships between sisters and daughters and mothers, between photographers and the photographed, between the subjects whose pictures are taken and the viewer looking at them as family history or as an archive of the past. They predict the intimate connections visitors will have when they visit the recreated apartments at 103 Orchard. They remind us all of the work that the Tenement Museum does so powerfully.

Indeed, while of course these handouts are designed to get visitors excited about the new exhibit, to inspire them to come back next summer, they also preview what it is we’re trying to do. We can be captivated by the familiar, but the exhibit will also introduce all of us—educators, staff, and visitors alike—to stories that are different, stories that have often been left out of the history books.

After all, this is not the story of post-war suburbanization and white flight. It is the story of new waves of immigration. It is the story that union organizing didn’t end when the working classes moved on up and became middle managers in offices uptown. It persisted through Puerto Rican seamstresses and Chinese garment workers.


The new exhibit will show that women like Mrs. Wong who is posed here waiting for her portrait to be taken, holding hands with her daughter, also fought for a living wage the same way the Rogarshevskys did. The new exhibit will show that people like Ramonita and her children watched television the same way the Baldizzis listened to the radio. And it will show that kids like the Epsteins played on sidewalks and in backyards like so many generations before them, watching horses and trolleys and trains and eventually cars pass through the streets.

Everything we do as an organization from curating and educating to fundraising and marketing drives this message and tells America’s story through the present as much as through the past. The visitor center is where so much of this experience begins. We’re looking forward to the conversations these Polaroids start, and we’re looking forward to seeing what comes next.

  • Mabel Rosenheck, Visitor’s Services at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum 

Truman’s Executive Order: December 1945

“This could be the mezuzah we put up because we never lived without a mezuzah to protect us. They always put up a mezuzah wherever they lived. Which was brave of my parents, considering that they were persecuted because they were Jewish.” So remarked Bella Epstein Seligsohn, standing at the doorway of Apartment 7 of 103 Orchard, her childhood home, fingering the painted-over casing containing the traditional parchment that Jews affix to their doorways.  Though the family moved out over a half century ago, Bella returned to help the museum create an exhibit focusing on tenement families in the decades after World War II. (This exhibit, the first in the country to tell the story of Holocaust refugees in America, will open in the summer of 2017.) Her vivid memories have been invaluable in helping us imagine a Lower East Side of the 1950s, home to a significant survivor population.


President Harry S. Truman

Bella’s birth in 1948 made Kalman and Regina the parents of an American, but their American story really began in December 1945, when President Harry S. Truman issued a directive to prioritize the processing of displaced persons. “This is the opportunity,” Truman wrote, “for America to set an example for the rest of the world in cooperation toward alleviating human misery.” The country’s pre-existing immigration quotas limited the total number of refugees Truman could admit; so too did public opinion, which opposed altering the quotas. That month, a Gallup Poll showed that 95% of Americans surveyed did not want to change the immigration laws; moreover when asked which countries should be favored as sources for immigration, respondents chose Scandinavian countries. Fearing a return of the Depression economy after the booming wartime economy, Americans weren’t keen on the prospect of immigrants taking jobs away from returning soldiers.

This domestic context clearly made it difficult for Truman to do more than expedite the granting of visas, and he repeatedly made assurances the he would not exceed the quotas. Yet, he fought against the imposition of stricter quotas, and emphasized broader humanitarian ideas: “I am informed that there are various measures now pending before the Congress which would either prohibit or severely reduce further immigration. I hope that such legislation will not be passed. This period of unspeakable human distress is not the time for us to close or to narrow our gates.” Truman’s directive ushered in 23,000 refugees, among them Kalman and Regina Epstein. And in 1948, Congress followed suit, creating the Displaced Person and Refugee Act, paving the way for 400,000 displaced persons to arrive by 1952, and establishing “refugee” as a legal term in American immigration law and practice.

FPA 15.02

Kalman and Regina Epstein

In April 1947, the newly married Kalman and Regina arrived in New York, met Kalman’s uncle Jacob and his wife Goldie, registered for English classes, and found their first jobs in the garment industry. A report from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society [HIAS], the organization that helped tens of thousands of refugees settle, tells us that both were “in good health” and “have made a good adjustment.” Regina and Kalman had survived the horror of the concentration camps. Buoyed by American freedom and a Jewish institutional network they had a new beginning. Bella worshipped with her father in synagogue, attended a Jewish day school, and also befriended Barbara, an African American girl, who became her checkers partner, and Rosetta di Benedetto, an Italian girl in the building. She listened to Paul Anka’s “Diana” on her record player, and in doing so brought American pop into the Yiddish of apartment 7.

In short, Truman’s order succeeded with regard to the Epstein family and others. The pain and anguish did not vanish, but the opportunity to create new lives on American soil certainly had a part in “alleviating the human misery” they had faced. This environment nurtured Bella, who became a nurse and a mother to three children, who became doctors and nurses in turn, and collectively did their share to heal Americans of all backgrounds.

In Europe, Nazis persecuted the Epsteins for their Judaism. In America, because of Truman, and more broadly because of the openness and protection of this country, they could safely put up a mezuzah. In boldly accepting the refugees of World War II, Truman made America more American.

  • Annie Polland, Senior Vice President for Programs & Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

A Special Message from the Tenement Museum President, Dr. Morris J. Vogel

It’s been a difficult weekend for all of us. We’ve watched in horror as an executive decree that might have been ripped from the pages of a dystopian novel tore families apart, challenged our notions of human decency, undermined the rule of law, and threatened America’s most cherished values. As a museum that tells the story of immigration, we know that this country has not always lived up to its extraordinary ideals. We know, as a museum community committed to sharing the American story, the tragedies to which racial and religious tests have led in the past. But we also know that immigration has always allowed us to become more than we already are as a people—and that this nation’s best values have shaped a society that is the envy of the world. We are justly proud that immigrants continue to want bring their dreams to this country—and that refugees have been able to escape homelands ravaged by the carnage of war, consumed by race hatred, and mired in self-destructive ignorance to rebuild their lives here. At least they were until this past weekend.

Last year’s electoral campaign made clear that the victories generations of Americans have won in the struggle to advance human rights would not continue to come without additional effort. We’ve inherited much from those who fought to win independence and create a republic; from those who knew that slavery and economic injustice and health insecurity would not yield without determination. Beyond rights, and beyond progress toward justice, earlier generations have vouchsafed us the responsibility to act in our time to preserve their achievements and build on them. We should take comfort that so many of our fellow Americans have demonstrated in the past few days their willingness to protect America’s enduring values. Our work at the Museum figures importantly—more importantly than ever before—in the work of our time. As we welcome visitors and share stories of the American past, we are doing our part to help our nation endure. Let’s find strength in our shared mission.

  • Morris J. Vogel, President of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Made of Star Stuff, And Some Other Stuff, Too

My mother on an English seashore, early 1960s.

My mother on an English seashore, early 1960s. She is not a cop.

Last year, in the middle of a wet November day, I received a phone call from my mother while on a lunch break.

“I have some news,” she said. “I just got the lab results back and — Oh, I have to go, I’ll call you back.” She hung up.

Several hours of hand-wringing later, I gave in and rang her back first. She sells perfume for a living, so the only lab who would be contacting her would presumably be a medical lab, relaying some kind of serious issue. I’d come up with several horrifying possibilities just in the time it took her to answer the phone.

“Oh. No,” she said. “The DNA test came back today.”

She lives in Florida, while I live in New York. We keep in contact with each other pretty regularly, but I feel like I would have known if she’d appeared on Maury or Jerry Springer. I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about.

My mother was born in London, and for the last twenty-something years she was living undocumented in the United States. It was an incredibly stressful handful of decades for her, particularly in the last few years, where life for undocumented citizens became extremely difficult for anyone without a social security number. But she finally received her U.S. residency last autumn, which has had some unexpected side effects. With her own social security number, she was able to open up a proper bank account, which gave her a debit card. Which opened up her world to the wonders of online shopping.

Among the odd clothing and accessories from websites I’ve never heard of, and numerous restaurant deals from Groupon, she had purchased a DNA test from

“It said I came from Belarus, Oman, and Chile,” said my mother, laughing. “I have no idea.”

If anything in a shop has a Union Jack flag on it, my mother will buy it. She’ll tell anyone and everyone about the time she met Princess Diana, she’ll grouse about how the villains in any action movie is always vaguely English, and she’ll spends many evenings watching what she calls “gentle comedies” on PBS. In short, she is extremely proud to be British, the same way many people are proud to be where they come from. But my mother is not uninterested in her history. She covets every family photograph, and she’s fascinated by the concept of lineage and ancestry. It’s a quality she passed down to me, too.

As far as she was aware, her family line had been in England forever. She knew of no relatives from Belarus, Oman, or Chile.


My mother (far left) and her family, looking about as British as one can look.

At the Tenement Museum, we love to end tours showing the relations of the families we discuss on our tours. Standing in the parlor of Natalie Gumpertz from our Hard Times tour, decorated how she might have back in the 1880s, and looking at a photograph of her great-great grandchildren — is truly a highlight of what we do here. It adds another contextual layer to the stories we tell. The immigrants who arrived here were not just striving to achieve a sustainable life for themselves and their immediate families. Each of the 7,000 people who passed through the walls at 97 Orchard Street were a part of a legacy that continues to this day; themselves just another link in the chain of their own ancestry, but one that changed the direction of that line forever.

We don’t work with DNA tests, though. We rely on oral histories, faded records, slips of paper lost in the cracks of the floorboards. Different lenses to view the human migration experience.

Despite appearances to the contrary, this photo was not taken in the 19th century. It it actually a picture of me, my mother, and my grandmother at a convention center over twenty years ago in Boca Raton, Florida.

Despite appearances to the contrary, this photo was not taken in the 19th century. It it actually a picture of me, my mother, and my grandmother at a convention center over twenty years ago in Boca Raton, Florida.

A few weeks later, it was Christmas morning, and I was home for the holidays. Breakfast had been eaten, gifts had been open, and we were beginning the time honored festive tradition of lazing about, when my mum called me over to the kitchen table, along with my older brother and younger sister.

“I have one gift left,” she said. “But I only have one, and I don’t want to look like I’m playing favorites by choosing to give it to one of you.”

“What,” we said, “are you talking about.”

She put a Hershey’s kiss under one of three cups, and moved them all around, but the presence of a heavy tablecloth, as well as the fact that my mother never worked for a carnival, didn’t make the game very challenging, and my brother picked the right cup on the first guess.

“Okay,” said my mum, pointing. “You get it.”


She’d ordered another DNA test for one of us to take. However, it hadn’t actually come in the mail before Christmas Day, but it did just happen to come in the days between my brother returning home and me flying back to New York, so the honor ended up falling to me. It was like CSI: Coral Springs, Florida — my mother the no-nonsense detective, cornering me in my own home and watching me swab the inside of my cheek to send off to the labs, trying to pin some heinous crime on me.

I was back in New York before I got my results, which were emailed to me at one in the morning. I’m not totally sure what I was expecting. Belarus, Oman, or Chile, on some level.

My top two results was Croatia and Iran. My “surprise connection” was Ethiopia. Okay.

More detailed information is hidden behind a paywall. The website gives some interesting facts about your regions of origin, facts like, “the city of Zadar is home to the world’s first Sea Organ that creates its music only by the action of the wind and waves” or “the Persian cat is one of the world’s oldest breeds. They originated in the high plateaus of Iran where their long silky fur protected them from the cold. “ Neat stuff, but I didn’t say how any of this related to me. I don’t know of any relative from Croatia or Iran or Ethiopia. I was tempted to write the whole thing off as my mother being conned by the internet, praying that I hadn’t just delivered a DNA sample to a mad scientist who might use it for cloning or framing me for a murder. Or making me a main attraction in some ill-conceived theme park.

But then I delved deeper into the information I was actually given, and I began to understand a little more what my mother had paid for. The website clearly states they’re not an ancestry product. They deal with that complicated tangle of genetic material that I barely understand on a good day. It’s a lot about alleles and loci, things half remembered from high school that I might have absorbed at one point through osmosis (that’s my one science joke, I do in fact know that’s not how osmosis works). But I understand that my DNA and yours aren’t as different as one might expect. “We know that over 99% of human DNA is identical,” the FAQ on explains. “It’s less than 1% of our DNA that makes us unique; that tells us what our physical characteristics are like. We know that in some way we are all connected as human beings.”

A popular theory of human evolution states that human migration occurred over centuries, the human race beginning in Africa and spreading throughout the rest of the world. uses a database to find those genetic traces from tiny fragments in our DNA, as theorized by that equation, the Hardy-Weinberg principle. Looking at these fragments, they compare them with similarities in our population groups around the world. The test has nothing to do with my own heritage, but how I relate to the population on a genetic level.

In a sense, a test like this shows something incredibly specific as well as broadly expansive. My DNA is as personal to me as my fingerprint or my phone number. Yet at the same time, it is a global phenomenon, linking human beings to one another on a microscopic scale, in ways we often cannot detect and in ways we certainly can’t change. Human migration has been occurring for millennia, people moving to new parts of a shifting Earth while evolving and reproducing. It’s as fascinating to me to see those traces of genetic ancestry, as though we were talking about my own great-great grandparent’s immigration story. It highlights the fundamental parts of ourselves that have remained unchanged, despite a constantly changing world. That deep within us, regardless or where we started or where we end up, humans have always just been humans.

The Yoga Connection

The vast majority of people in the United States have heard of, if not practiced, some form of yoga or meditation.  They have spread like wildfire in our contemporary age, but Indian practitioners who migrated here in the early 1900’s introduced yoga and meditation to this country.  With the 1924 Johnson-Reed Immigration act that fully restricted immigration from Asia, people started traveling to Asia to learn more about these practices.  By the 1960’s, the same decade the Johnson-Reed act is repealed, yoga and meditation were preparing to become mainstream.

In the summer of 2013, I decided that I too wanted to bring yoga and meditation to more people.  Even though yoga studios in New York City are now ubiquitous, I traveled to Mysore, India to do a teacher certification course with the goal of starting yoga programs in the public schools.

On one of my days off from the training, I took a 3 and a half hour bus ride to the nearest Tibetan settlement, Bylakuppe.  India hosts most of the world’s Tibetan exile settlers, and my friend, Cassie, from the U.S. had made it her life’s work to start a Tibet Women’s soccer team.  By a stroke of luck, Cassie was at Bylakuppe for a few weeks working with students at the children’s village in the settlement.  Some of the teenage Tibetan players generously took us around, insisted on paying for our orange sodas in glass bottles and fried noodles as well as getting us into the Dalai Lama’s living space (which was vacant at the time).  We spent a half hour or so meditating in a temple and then we all took photos for Facebook of each other meditating.

It was the most memorable day of my time in India and I was vividly reminded of it four years later when I started teaching yoga in a high school in Queens.  Two of my most dedicated students, Pemba and Tsomo, had recently moved to the U.S. from India.  Upon realizing they were Tibetan, I asked them where they were from, to which they responded, “the South.”  I thought I would throw it out there and asked if they were from Bylakuppe, and they were, and they knew Cassie!  I’m not sure who was more surprised.  Thousands of years of history, thousands of miles traveled and thousands of choices made for us and by us, were converging with our meeting in a basement cafeteria in Queens.

At the end of that first club meeting we all fell into a meditation that seemed to capture our amazement in silence.  As we continued the club, it became apparent to me that even as yoga and meditation provided them with an opportunity to connect with their experiences in India, their main motivation for joining was to increase their strength and flexibility to improve their hip hop dancing skills.  They also like to ask me questions about the U.S. that they might be hesitant to ask in other situations (after talking about Thanksgiving, it wasn’t until everyone else left that they asked me what a turkey is).  Cultural exchange is clearly a regular part of our club, but the traditions and ideas we share are not rooted in countries, but a reminder of how sometimes we actually live in a quite a small world after all.

  • Julia Mushalko, Lower East Side Tenement Museum educator



History in Technicolor: the Continuing Story of American Immigration

photo by Wijnanda Deroo

103 Orchard Street, Wijnanda Deroo.

The Tenement Museum is not an old dog. In the grand scheme of New York City cultural institutions, we’re a fairly young museum, despite our old buildings. And yet, we’re still learning some new tricks. With our new exhibition opening at 103 Orchard Street later this year, the Tenement Museum is keeping up with the times.

The telling of recent history, however, is a tricky thing. The answer to how much time needs to pass before being able to accurately document our era varies from person to person. The study of history is often about not just what happened in the past, but how these events affect the present and change the future. When deciding to expand the Museum’s rhetoric to include “today’s history,” we had to ask ourselves not only how we should do it — but why.

Actually, the why is a pretty easy answer. We are an immigration museum, and immigration did not stop in 1935. We believe it’s our responsibility to continue telling the immigration story however best we can. But with the apartments of 97 Orchard Street closing their doors that year, the Tenement Museum becomes a “sepia museum,” stuck forever between 1863 and 1935. Over the last few years we’ve attempted to update where we could, using evening events, Tenement Talks, and tours like “Shop Life” or our walking tours to discuss what the Lower East Side, immigration, and America would have been like outside of the grayscale. But we knew we needed to present  American immigration in glorious technicolor.

photo by Wijnanda Deroo.

103 Orchard Street, Wijnanda Deroo.

We’re continuing the narrative of immigration in the United States for the simple reason that it’s as relevant and important as it’s ever been. We are not a political institution, but we tell the personal stories of something that has always been heavily politicized. Not only are we looking to provide the historical, factual information behind immigration in this country, we also attempt to humanize something that, for many people, is seen as a “hot button issue” and nothing more. Often visitors come through our tours, hear about the real Eastern European Jews, Irish, and Italian families that made their way here at the turn of the century, and think, “They are just like my ancestors!” And many visitors, we know, do not. Thematically, of course, many immigration stories are similar. They’re tales about hope, survival, family, culture — and these are experienced across the board. But not every visitor to the Tenement Museum shares the same origin story as those living on Orchard Street in the late 19th to early 20th centuries.

We also think it’s important to tell modern history because the past often finds a way of repeating itself when we forget it. Those who insist it’s not immigration they’re against but “illegal” immigration often don’t realize the naturalization process has changed dramatically since the time their ancestors might have made it to America. Or that perhaps their own great-great-grandparent might have entered illegally too, as was the case for one of our Italian immigrant families at 97 Orchard Street. They might not have realized that those who did enter “legally” were not always treated any better than those who didn’t, that their own families might have faced the same kind of hateful xenophobia that’s displayed towards our current immigrants. When people talk about the desire of some to ban whole ethnic groups from entering the country, as though this notion was an impossibility, something we’d never allow to happen — it’s likely they’ve forgotten about or have never even heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was only repealed in 1943. And the quota for the number of Chinese immigrants allowed in the country was only lifted in 1965.

We call our tour guides “educators” because that is what they do. And this is why we wanted to tell the stories of refugees and migrants, the diverse cultural changes in America in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s: because there’s always so much to learn.

So the why is pretty obvious. We’re expanding at the Tenement Museum because immigration is just as American as apple pie (originally brought over from Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, of course). We’re telling new stories because they need to be told, to preserve them and to gain wisdom from them, to explore as far as we can the rich diverse landscape of the American population.

photo by Wijnanda Deroo.

103 Orchard Street, Wijnanda Deroo.

The question then becomes how we tell these stories. The Tenement Museum doesn’t tell every immigrant story because of the limitations we place on ourselves — specifically location and time period. We focus on the Lower East Side because it was a major port for many new immigrant families in New York City’s history, and remains to this day the most diverse neighborhood in the city. It serves as an excellent representative for the immigrant experience in the United States as a whole, but there are noticeable absences from our narrative. Immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, the Middle East, etc., are not featured on any of our tours (although those stories would easily be told if the Museum was placed ten blocks north).

The two buildings on Orchard Street are the roots of our Museum. You can only learn so much about Van Gogh’s Starry Night from a textbook or a documentary, but eventually you need to stand in front of it and see the texture, the color, and the beauty for yourself. And there’s no better way to understand the lives of those we called “new Americans” in the past, than to stand where they once stood, to hover in the doorways of their kitchens, their parlors, their shops, and imagine. We place these limitations on ourselves for this reason.

But the Tenement Museum doesn’t tell “The” immigrant story, but simply “some” immigrant stories. We try not to paint the pictures in broad strokes, we just provide faces to the narratives. This time, it’s personal. Whether you yourself are the immigrant or you’re fifth or sixth generation, every story we share should provide context for your own realities, either because they’re so similar or because they’re so different. Sometimes the stories we tell result in us being able to say, “This happened to ______ which happened to many others at the time.” Or we say, “This happened to ______, which was unusual for the time.” And sometimes the narratives are incomplete, but that’s just life sometimes.

photo by Wijnanda Deroo.

103 Orchard Street, Wijnanda Deroo.

While we’ve accepted the boundaries of our real estate, by no means do we brush off that responsibility to share a completed immigration story. Here again is one of our new tricks: reaching out online to communities, classrooms, and, well, anyone with a story to tell, to share their personal immigration history on our digital archive Your Story, Our Story. Where the media has their citizen journalists, we have our citizen historians. By curating these stories, featuring tales of migrants as well as immigrants to fully encapsulate the American story, we are able to expand our narrative reach to include as many cultures as we can get. Your Story, Our Story presents a new way to educate, to connect, to celebrate our differences as well as our similarities.

At 103 Orchard Street, we will be telling the stories of a Holocaust refugee family, a Puerto Rican family, and a Chinese immigrant family. And whether you know it or not, at 103 Orchard Street, we’ll be telling your story, too.

photo by Wijnanda Deroo.

Orchard Street, Wijnanda Deroo.

The Tenement Museum Plays Its Hits 2016 Edition

It’s been a busy year at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, and 2017 is shaping up to be even busier! As you get ready to start traveling for the holidays – or as you prepare for incoming guests, check out this list of must-read stories about the Tenement Museum from the last year to get you pumped for all the exciting things to come!

  • The New York Times breaks the story about our new exhibition

In August, we were finally ready to share the most anticipated story about the Tenement Museum: we are expanding! This new exhibition, set to open in the summer of 2017, will tell the story of post-war life on the Lower East Side, as seen through the lives of three immigrant families who resided at one point or another at 103 Orchard Street. The New York Times shared the stories of the Epstein, the Saez, and the Wong families, and how each were representative of the cultural changes occurring on the Lower East Side and in America following World War II.



  • The Lo-Down talks with Tenement Museum President Morris Vogel about the new expansion

On September 15, the Tenement Museum held our official groundbreaking for our new exhibit at 103 Orchard Street. The Lo-Down interviewed President Morris Vogel about the exciting changes in the development of this new exhibition, as well as the inherent risks of a small museum attempting to expand. “This is a chance,” he said, “to overwhelm our visitors with the fact that (the museum tells) today’s story… It’s happening on your streets. This is why your city or community looks the way it does. This is why the country faces the issues it does and this is a strength to draw on in negotiating those issues.”

  • The changing opinion of U.S. Immigrants throughout the century

In October, The Canadian Press covered how the same negative stereotypes immigrants endure today were often directed towards Irish and Italian immigrants at the turn of the century, a topic often discussed on Tenement Museum tours. The Museum’s goal has always been to shed new light on the present by sharing the stories of the past, but in recent times modern-day attitudes towards foreigners has made this mission of ours more important than ever.

  • Frank discussions of current immigration issues on daily tours after the election

Reuters first covered how, following the president election, there has been a need for Tenement Museum educators to train themselves on how to turn potential heated debates on current immigration issues into productive conversations. Shortly afterwards, Forward followed up, including an Op-Ed by Tenement Museum Trustee Zach Aarons, about how educators are constantly upgrading and enhancing their teaching methods to deliver the Museum’s message of inclusiveness and America’s endless possibilities.

  • Naturalization ceremony blends ethnic identity and American identity

Last month, the NY Daily News attended our naturalization ceremony where fifteen immigrants from 13 countries were sworn in as new U.S. citizens. It was an emotional evening, the ceremony taking place just days after the presidential election, and each speaker brought messages of hope and inspiration. U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers, originally from Ireland, was also there to be honored as an Outstanding American by Choice.



  • Becoming a costumed interpreter of history

The NY Daily News also covered the process by which an actress steps into the lives of one of our real-life immigrant stories. The process of being Victoria Confino, a Sephardic Jewish teenage girl residing at 97 Orchard in 1916, is not only a challenging training process but an educational one, as the actress must learn everything about the life of Victoria in order to interact smoothly with visitors of all ages.

  • Jim Gaffigan also knows how to play dress-up

The comedian put on period clothes with his kids and hung around the apartment of Victoria Confino this summer, as reported by Bedford and Bowery, and he filmed a scene for the Jim Gaffigan Show. This was the first time a scripted show ever filmed inside the Tenement Museum, but we can safely assume Jim wasn’t prepared to perform as 14-year old Victoria.jim-gaffigan


  • Fantastic sets and where to find them

If any of our museum visitors saw the latest Harry Potter film, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, they would have recognized some of the sets inspired by the Tenement Museum. That’s because last year director David Yates, production designer Stuart Craig, and others flew to New York looking to recreate their own New York City of the 1920s, as shown in this Pottermore article. And the production design team did us proud, importing details of the era accurately. Except for all the wizards.

  • On the hunt for ugly couches

And to get those perfect details the Harry Potter crew found so inspirational, the Tenement Museum turns to Pamela Keech, our curator of furnishings. The New Yorker recently profiled Pam, who tracked down all the everyday knick-knacks, tchotchkes, and decorations that bring the stories of 97 Orchard to life, and did it all in the pre-internet era. Now Pam is hard at work for the new exhibition at 103 Orchard Street, and while she does take advantage of sites like Ebay and Craigslist, a lot of the work is still done on foot.

  • How the other half lived

Many reform movements in the United States were sparked by pieces of art that shook audiences to their core, such as photojournalist Jacob Riis’s groundbreaking “How The Other Half Lives.” This collection of photographs portrayed the cramped and derelict conditions of many immigrant lives on the Lower East Side for the first time to upper class New Yorkers, and kickstarted much needed housing reform. Photographer Fred R. Conrad recently recreated Riis’s stunning photos for The New York Times inside the walls of the Tenement Museum, because the museum, he said, satisfied a curiosity he often felt in old New York buildings: What lives had been lived there?


Fred R. Conrad for The New York Times


  • Devouring American History

While some people are recreating historical photographs for major publications or recreating whole period rooms for major motion pictures, others are recreating history for dinner parties. Our own Sarah Loman, part-time educator and historic gastronomist, enjoys making recipes from bygone eras, for better or worse, and discussing the culinary changes and the impact immigrants had on our diets over time. The New York Times recently profiled Sarah on her new book, Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine.



  • Tasting at the Tenement

Sarah also leads guests through special food programs at the Tenement Museum, such as Tenement Kitchen, which explores the kinds of foods certain residents would have cooked and how they made do with their cramp kitchens. This article from The Wall Street Journal (subscription needed) details our other food programs, such as our food walking tours, which take visitors on a culinary jaunt through immigrant-made foods of the Lower East Side.

  • All you need is love

And while we love all our special event tours, our inaugural Valentine’s Day tour Love at the Tenement was definitely the most beloved. The NY Daily News covered this romantic exploration into the love lives of some of the 7,000 people who lived inside 97 Orchard Street. The seed for this tour began with a scrap of love letter found beneath the floorboard, signed by “Your only onliest.” But the best thing about this tour is that it features all kinds of love, across cultures and religions, between neighbors, friends, and family.