Gettin’ Schooled: A History Lesson

Grammar school class photo of Sam Jaffe, born on 97 Orchard Street in 1891. He went on to become nominated for an Academy Award in 1951. Back of the photo reads "about 1909". Photo from the LESTM.

Grammar school class photo of Sam Jaffe, born on 97 Orchard Street in 1891. He went on to become nominated for an Academy Award in 1951. Back of the photo reads “about 1909”. Photo from the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

You might remember a Staples commercial that came out a few years ago: a goofy dad dancing around the aisles in a store with his shopping cart, his two kids looking on sad and depressed. Overheard, the Christmas jingle played, “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.”

My parents loved this commercial. It didn’t air in December, though. Every August it went on the air, advertising the most wonderful time for many parents: back to school.

It’s difficult to fathom that the current school system in place in the United States is relatively new, not even a hundred years old. It’s also hard to believe that the push for free access to education for all children was met with controversy and dissent. But the right to an education (you can assure your children) was hard fought over many years throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.

The use of child labor during the Industrial Revolution is a black mark on one of the most important time periods in Western history, and the development of Child Labor Laws and Compulsory Education Laws were a synchronized movement to combat this problem over a period of several decades. Before then, children were either taught at private institutions for those who could afford it, by religious organizations, or instructed at home.

But many children — such as those living on 97 Orchard Street during this time period — would often be working long days, every day to help provide for their family’s food and home, some of them working in factories for 70 hours a week. Factory work was not like the farming work children have done with their families since hunter-gatherer times that continues to this day; instead kids were working in difficult, dangerous, and dirty conditions with very little compensation. They didn’t have much time for resting, let alone going to school or having fun the way kids should.

Glass factory, working at midnight. Lewis Hines. Photo courtesy of the NYPL.

Glass factory, working at midnight. Lewis Hines. Photo from the New York Public Library

Compulsory education laws were seen as a way to try and curb the abuse of child labor. These laws state that every child, with some exceptions like homeschooled children, must attend a public or private institution for a specific period of time. The first was enacted in Massachusetts in 1852 and the last in Mississippi in 1917, and they were seen as a way to prevent factory owners from exploiting children, since their school attendance was mandatory.

It took a long time for these state laws to be instituted on a national scale. Twenty-eight states had regulated child labor by 1899, but it wasn’t until 1938 that the Fair Standards Labor Act fixed the minimum age requirements for children at no younger than 14 for some jobs. This national policy was in part a way to cure the child labor ill but it also served to open up the job market to adults during the Great Depression.

Coinciding with the Industrial Revolution was a major wave of immigrants entering the country and inhabiting large urban areas during this time period. The number is estimated to be close to 20 million between 1880 and 1920. Many native-born Americans were concerned with the growing diversifying population, and access to American schools became a great way for immigrant children or the now native-born children of immigrants to become assimilated into American culture.


“Laying Down The Law.” 1880. Photo from the New York Public Library.

One of the things these foreign children were taught in this time period was how to read and speak English, and an appreciation for American history, government, and rhetoric — as well as other subject matters not unfamiliar to children today, such as basic arithmetic and literacy skills. Textbooks from the 19th century show just how similar school subjects were to today, although the classroom setting was very different from how we’re educated these days. A single classroom often had kids of various ages and education levels, with the older students helping teach the younger ones in what’s known as the Lancasterian model. Teachers were mostly young, unwed, pious women who administered much harsher disciplines for unruly students, and there were no aisles of school supplies for parents to dance around.

Of course, if one has any questions about what life was like for an immigrant child attending American schools at the height of the immigrant influx into the country, they could always Meet Victoria Confino and ask her all about it.


Parks and Preservation

plaque 3

August 2016 celebrates the centennial of the National Park Service, which has spent the last 100 years ensuring beauty and history are maintained in the United States. The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has been classified a National Historic Site and is officially a part of the National Park Service and the National Register for Historic Places.

On the surface, it may seem like there is a great difference between the Tenement Museum and a National Park — but both are dedicated to the conservation and preservation of this country’s rich cultural history. Both work to educate people on their history and their inheritance, both build a foundation of understanding for one’s heritage. (Both would also appreciate if visitors take nothing but memories and not start any fires.)

The first U.S. National Park was actually established in March of 1874 at Yellowstone in the territories of Montana and Wyoming. Afterwards, following in the footsteps of Yellowstone, many other parks, preserves, and monuments sprung up all over the country, but were split among different government agencies. Yellowstone and other similar National Parks belonged to the Department of the Interior, while other historic monuments and natural areas were a part of the War Department and the Forest Service of the Department of Agriculture.

It wasn’t until President Woodrow Wilson signed the Organic Act on August 25, 1916 that a National Park Service was established to keep all these culturally significant places under one management, whose “purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects” with the intention to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” This creation of a national system allowed for a broader classification of parks – areas that were not just scenically and scientifically important but historically, too.

It’s strange to think, what with our society being very nostalgia-driven, that there was a time in America when preserving our historical areas wasn’t quite as important as it is now. Following World War II, the development of the National Highway System and increasing urbanization caused the careless destruction of many historical properties throughout the country, and made negative changes to the structural identity of several cities.

plaque 2This resulted in the National Historic Preservation Act, signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 (which turns 50 on October 15th!) Early preservation movements in this country were typically fueled by patriotism, and focused mostly on specific buildings or areas relevant to the nation’s history. Over time, this mindset eventually evolved into caring and preserving landscapes and neighborhoods.

Here is where the mission of the National Park Service and the goals of the Tenement Museum align: both work daily to uphold the integrity and innate beauty of our shared history and our shared space. New York City is a city defined by its infrastructure. Its architectural identity is deeply entwined with its history and its residents.

But to anyone who has ever been to New York City — and especially to those of us who live here — it is an area constantly changing. “It’ll be a great place,” goes the famous quip by author O. Henry, “if they ever finish it.”

Buildings are constantly renovating, repurposing, disappearing, or popping up to change the skyline. The Museum often talks about how the cultural makeup of the Lower East Side changed rapidly during the years that 97 Orchard housed some 7,000 immigrants, and the same can be said for the city’s physical attributes. Heck, you can say that so much has changed in this city since the Lower East Side Tenement Museum opened in 1988. One could say this shifting disposition could easily be considered a main characteristic of New York’s identity.

But it is also why preservation is so important. For the Tenement Museum specifically, the safeguarding of immigrant history, tenement living at the turn of the century, tenement architecture, and the vital housing reform movement all serve to foster conversation about our shared past and where our future is headed. In the Lower East Side Tenement National Historic Site Amendments Act, Congress recognized the importance of ensuring “continued interpretation of the nationally significant immigrant phenomenon associated with New York City’s Lower East Side and the Lower East Side’s role in the history of immigration to the United States.”

As the National Park Service prepares to celebrate its momentous birthday, it is still striving to achieve even greater works in their duty to the people in this country. In particular, their dedication to improving their urban spaces — the upkeep and expansion of public parks in places like New York City — is truly noteworthy. This city hugely benefits from the works of the National Park Service, whether it is the recognition of its widespread history or the preservation of its natural beauty.

The One and Only Jewish Miss America

bess2On August 15, 1945, seventy-one years ago yesterday, Bess Myerson became the most beautiful woman in America. Myerson became the first postwar Miss America, winning the same year the beauty pageant started offering its scholarship program. And she was the first ever Jewish Miss America.

She was also the last ever Jewish Miss America.

Born in 1924 to Russian Jewish immigrants, Myerson was raised in New York City to appreciate Yiddish culture and art. At her mother’s insistence, she became highly skilled at the piano. By the time she was 12 years old, she stood at  5’10″ tall. Myerson never felt comfortable in her own skin, and though she initially had no intention of participating in the Miss New York City contest, she was entered by her sister and her friend without her knowledge.


Myerson described herself as “the wrong person in the wrong place” when she competed wearing a borrowed bathing suit. She was more interested in the scholarship money than in the competition itself. She still won advancing to the Miss America pageant.

One of the defining moments in Myerson’s career as a public figure occurred before she was ever even crowned Miss America. The director of the pageant had pulled her aside and told her she had a real chance of winning, but suggested she change her last name to something more “attractive.” What he meant was “less Jewish.”

In the 1987 book by Susan Dworkin titled Miss America, 1945: Bess Myerson’s Own Story, Myerson described the decision to ignore that advice as one of the most important she ever made.

“Already I was losing my sense of who I was; already I was in a masquerade, marching across stages in bathing suits,” she said. “Whatever was left of myself in this game, I had to keep, I sensed that. I knew I had to keep my name.”

Myerson’s coronation as Miss America took place just days after Japan’s surrender and the end of World War II. Back then, the role of beauty queen still held huge cultural significance. During the war, the Miss America pageant had gone through a kind of rebranding. The country needed to be united in the fight against the enemy, and Miss America became a valued national icon. She was a beautiful patriotic symbol to sell war bonds and bolster the American spirit, both at home and overseas. In a time of overwhelming hardships, who wore the crown bore great significance.

What made Myerson’s reign particularly significant was it came at one of most important times in all of Jewish history. Towards the end of 1945, once the war was won, everyone was discovering just how deep the atrocities against the Jewish people ran. All Jews — from the European refugees directly affected to the American Jews being blamed by Anti-Semites for causing the war — were just starting to come to terms with the sheer magnitude of loss. Jews at the time were also dealing with logistical questions of what to do next, where to go, and how do I keep my faith when something like this happens.

The image of the Jewish body in this time began to take on a horrifying shape. It’s a picture that persists to this day when people think of a Jew during World War II — the image of a starved body: gaunt, hollowed, abused. Dead or dying, with little to indicate the difference. For many Jewish Americans post-World War II, Myerson’s win as Miss America gave the world a different view of the Jewish body — beautiful, gifted, and full of hope.

Her year as Miss America, however, started off pretty rocky. Touring the country on the vaudeville circuit was unsatisfying — the crowds were more interested in her bathing suit than her musical talents. She faced anti-Semitism from all corners: businesses refused to offer her sponsorships as was customary for pageant winners, she was denied entrance to many places, and encountered open hostility for being a Jew.

Bess_Myerson_1957She was approached by the Anti-Defamation League to speak on bigotry and tolerance around the country. She spent her year as Miss America speaking at high schools and housing projects with a speech titled “You Can’t Be Beautiful and Hate”, saying, “…hate is a corroding disease and affects the way you look. … You can’t hide it – ever. It shows in your eyes. It warps your expression.”

It was on this lecture tour where she was discovered by a television producer who launched her career as a TV personality and later as the commissioner of New York City’s Department of Consumer Affairs. Throughout her long career she always presented herself as a Jewish public figure, and later in life donated much of her money to charities, including over a million dollars to the Museum of Jewish Heritage: A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. She died on December 14, 2015.

Myerson was a vital part of the Jewish American story, simultaneously changing and being affected by the discourse surrounding the Jewish community in the tumultuous post-War era. The current Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham H. Foxman spoke of how integral she was to the narrative, calling Myerson a “treasure trove” to the ADL’s goal.

“Miss America was a much bigger thing back then than it is today, and she represented the promise of that contest and the reality that the country was still racist, anti-Semitic and bigoted,” Foxman said. “She had the guts and the courage to be a proud Jew and to stand up for it.”

Interning for History


Summer internships are a bit like summer movie blockbusters. They’re either going to be a smash hit, memorable throughout your lifetime, kick-starting future career and financial success for all those involved — or they’re going to be regrettable, forgettable mistakes. Since the goal of an internship, since monetary gains are either completely out of the question or barely noticeable, is to acquire as much of an education as possible. There is truly nothing like on-hand work experience to prepare you for the challenges and expectations of a real work environment.

So whether you luck out with the most amazing internship or — not so much, you’ll be certain to walk away with more knowledge of the real world than you had before. For example, I am much more familiar than I was before with just how unfriendly amateur lucha libre wrestlers can be when stranded in the middle of the Colorado plains during a hot, dusty September day.

The three summer interns at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum definitely had a more enriching and relevant internship experience. The Museum’s internship program strives not only to make sure our interns feel included in their work space, but are not just given busy work to stay preoccupied. Each were assigned specific projects relating to their fields of study and career goals.

Ledesma_Image_2Andrea Ledesma, a Masters student at Brown University, was our Research and Development Intern. She became interested in interning at the Museum when she first started studying public history.

Of the Museum, she said, “It’s such a unique model, blending a museum, historic home, and living history to make something that is altogether its own.”

Ledesma, hoping to pursue a career in exhibitions after graduation, spent her summer working on writing and editing the sourcebook for the new exhibit opening at 103 Orchard Street next summer. “This document compiles information for tours and educators,” Ledesma said. “I had a lot of fun with this project, listening to all the oral histories the museum has conducted, going through materials with the New York Public Library and the New York Historical Society.”

When asked what she found most fascinating about working for the Tenement Museum, she said, “I was struck by the level of detail with which the museum conducts its research for its exhibitions.  I mean, this is understandable given that the museum rests on honoring and continuing the legacy of a building, its residents, a neighborhood, and the community… [I]t showed not only all the narratives that come together that tie a family to a place, but also turn a place into a home.”

dennett headshotKathryn Dennett worked in the Archives Department for her internship, after graduating from her Masters program at the University of Texas in Austin in May. The Archives at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum works to keep track and take care of any and all documents pertaining to the history of the Museum.

“Basically, the archive preserves the history of the [Lower East Side Tenement Museum] as an institution by collecting the correspondence files, press clippings, old proposals, construction plans, and historic materials collected by curatorial teams over the years,” said Dennett. “Over the summer I’ve been working on processing over 50 boxes of materials that had been sitting on our shelves for a while.”

Working in the Archives was a rewarding opportunity for Dennett, who applied for the internship to get hands-on museum archival experience. “The variety of the records I’ve gotten to work with has been really fun,” she said.  “Opening each box is like solving a little mystery.”

The summer wasn’t without it’s challenges, both figurative and literal. Dennett walked in one morning to discover a leaking HVAC unit causing some minor damage, but even that taught her important, real-life preservation skills, and nothing was permanently damaged, thanks to Dennett.

“But the biggest overall challenge was just the scale of the project,” she added. “Ten weeks seems like a lot of time at the beginning, but the nature of archives is there’s always more stuff being created that need to be archived.”

Corwin PhotoHillary Corwin, a Masters student in Museum Studies at the Cooperstown Graduate Program, wanted to work for the Tenement Museum due to a personal love of immigrant history at the turn of the century.

“But what really made me want to work here is the uniqueness of the museum,” Corwin said, “and how the museum is able to make a connection between immigrant stories of the past with the present wave of immigration.”

Corwin’s internship got her up close and personal with many different areas of museum management, including analyzing online ticket trends and developing the script for a new page on the Museum’s website.

“What I found most fascinating was how focused everyone was to the Museum’s mission,” said Corwin. “…everyone I encountered believed in the longevity of the museum because she or he believed strongly in the mission.”

Over the course of the summer, Corwin was able to recognize the work she was given was not just busy work used to fulfill credits, but was given vital responsibilities integral to the running of the Developmental Department. Working at the Museum also helped her realize the importance of strong communication skills to ensure her department was constantly on the same page.

But one of her most valuable lessons learned this summer was something unique to the Tenement Museum. “What I will take away is the universality of the immigrant experience.  Even if you yourself aren’t an immigrant, someone in your family’s past may have been…[and] those experiences translate to the same experiences of immigrants today.”

If you are interested in interning with the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, make sure to check back with us on our Jobs and Internship page!

My Immigrant Story

Here are two stories about getting a government-issued I.D.:

1. Six years ago, I sat in the back office of the DMV in Deerfield Beach, Florida, for over an hour with the manager, trying to explain my situation. I needed official state identification in order to complete my immigration process. The only I.D. I had was from my college, which had my face and name, but no other information.

“That’s fine,” the manager of the DMV said, “just bring in your passport.”

British_passport_2002But I’ve never had a passport. I moved here from England when I was two years old on my mum’s original passport, which she had to surrender when it expired in order to get a new one. But look — here’s a dark, blurry, almost illegible photocopy of it where my name is half-visible, see?  Perfectly placed right on the fold. That smudge is me.

“Huh?” said the manager. We stared at each other some more. By this point in my citizenship status I had lost plenty of time inside identical bureaucratic offices. I was prepared to wait forever.

2. Three weeks ago, I sat in a similar chair at the mid-Manhattan branch of the New York Public Library. I had moved to New York recently, only two and a half months after my Naturalization ceremony, and still had my Florida driver’s license. But I wanted to get a New York I.D. for two reason: to register to vote and to get a library card.

The polite young man at the table in the library asked to see my license, and one proof of address, like a paystub or something. That was it. No, it’s free, don’t worry.

You mean you don’t need three different proofs of address? I wanted to cry. You don’t need a few grand in cashier’s checks? You don’t need to see several marriage licenses and passports that didn’t exist? You don’t need a cover letter and resume, work references, or my permanent record? You don’t want to know my blood type, my internet browser history? The promise of my first-born son? An offering to sacrifice to the Gods of Paperwork in return for a bountiful harvest and a piece of plastic with my picture on it?

“…just fill out this form and wait. Over there,” said the guy at the desk, handing me a single piece of paper.

The story of my generation — the so-called Millennials — is two-fold. We’re dichotomous that way. A tough job market and economy means we’re pretty used to sending out applications and forms into the wind then waiting months for any kind of response, if one comes at all. But the rapid pace in which technologies developed in our lifetime have also made us very comfortable with speed – we know how fast things have the potential to come and go, and we good with that.

So for immigrant Millennials, especially ones raised in the United States, and especially those going through the Naturalization process, we know very well things may take a very long time to happen, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it.

Fun fact: British children don't shed their outer bear skins until they reach adolescence.

Fun fact: British children don’t shed their outer bear skins until they reach adolescence.

I’m not unaware of the privilege I experienced growing up compared to other undocumented immigrants, as a white girl from an English-speaking country. It was by and large an odd immigration experience. No one ever made any assumptions based on my language and accent (if anything, I endured the opposite. The sentiment of “You’re British? But why don’t you have a cool accent??” has plagued me my entire life). We were always pretty poor, and moved constantly to new apartment complexes in the same county. There was never a thriving British community in south Florida (or maybe anywhere in the U.S. for that matter), so knowledge of my cultural heritage was left entirely in the hands of my family and relatives, many of whom had lived here for years and were already very Americanized. As a kid, the only influences from my background were my father and grandfather yelling about Manchester United, watching Monty Python at far too young of an age, and being told repeatedly how superior English candy is to American candy. Which, by the way, is perhaps the cruelest thing one could say to a child, and was always met with the despairing whine from me and my siblings, “So why did we leave?

Growing up, I didn’t feel like an immigrant. Being British was just a character quirk, an interesting fact to share about myself every first day of school. At the Tenement Museum, often the story gets told that immigrant children at the turn of the century were raised American by the school systems but kept to their heritage at home, and the same could be said for me. To this day, my parents never consider themselves American, and never encourage me or my siblings to do so. When I was a kid, contemplating my identity didn’t extend further than which Spice Girl I was most like and which Hogwarts house I belonged in (it was Ginger Spice and Gryffindor, by the way).

My national identity was divided, but the line between two Western cultures was easily blurred. The two obsessions from childhood I just mentioned, after all, are also English transplants.

Without much success, I know now my parents spent all those years quietly trying to gain legal status for us while I was happily reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Frequent bad advice, worse lawyers, low funds, and lost paperwork made the possibility of having one uniform national identity, at least in the eyes of the law — far from my family’s reach.

Identification has been a delicate subject for me since reaching adulthood. Once I’d graduated high school, the only purpose a school I.D. really served me was getting discounts at the movie theater. I couldn’t drive until many years after I had turned 16. The most minor, though somehow the most overwhelmingly unfair of indignities, was the inability to buy myself a drink on my 21st birthday. The celebration came and went with a whimper, with nothing but schoolwork, tacos, and Star Trek reruns (not for nothing, but in retrospect, this now sounds like a great birthday.)

Not even close to being the most expensive piece of paper I've ever held. Thanks, college.

Not even close to being the most expensive piece of paper I’ve ever held. Thanks, college.

It was another year and half before I was able to buy that drink (while simultaneously juggling schoolwork and immigration bureaucracy), proudly using a green card as identification. It was another two years before I got an actual state I.D. It was another two years that included arguing with waiters and grocery store clerks that yes, it is a valid form of identification, it’s government issued, and my birthday is right there, and I would really like that piña colada please.

One main characteristic of my generation has been about establishing an identity. We are what we Tweet, what we Instagram, what we share on Facebook. I’ve probably deleted more selfies last month than ever existed of my parents at my age. While this development of a brand, so to speak, is often a very open and online endeavor, I don’t believe it exists solely in the public sphere (though of course that is a part of it). But the question of identity is one that plagues many teenagers and young adults. We are constantly wrestling with who we are socially, sexually, politically, economically, psychologically — and every output is in some way a reflection of that internal struggle.

The immigrant Millennial — or the Millennial immigrant — has another layer of identity to come to terms with: nationality. Can we wear two brands simultaneously, can the two blend, or must we eventually commit to only one of them? What do I identify with more – the shining plastic in my wallet or the smudged, crumpled photocopy?

Ordinary Objects, Extraordinary Stories: Your Story, Our Story

Educators at the museum give on average ten tours a week, to groups of up to fifteen people on each tour. That’s thousands of stories to thousands of people over the years. And although the stories we’ve told have always been based on the same dozen or so families, they unfold uniquely every single time.

The Tenement is a metaphor for America and all her ingenuity and vulnerability, her strength and her weakness; the Tenement Museum’s stories are a complicated and poignant reflection of America herself.

dreyer cross

“Brigid was believed to protect homes, and placing her symbol near the front door would protect against a house fire.” St. Brigid’s crosses are still placed in the homes of Irish descendants.

The tenement at 97 Orchard Street represents so much of what Lucas Glockner, it’s German-speaking developer and original landlord, hoped for as a hard-working, innovative immigrant in America.  One of Glockner’s earliest tenants, Bridget Moore (née Meehan), an Irish potato famine survivor, likely traveled to America alone as an unmarried teenager. Bridget had little in the way of material belongings aside from perhaps a lightweight St. Brigid’s cross, which provided both spiritual protection of her American apartment and evoked memories of the Irish home she left behind.

A few decades later, Dora Goldfein, whose husband Barnet acquired the building as a part owner in 1905, may have arrived to collect rent checks for the first time wearing the Edwardian-style hat that represented high fashion and status at the time. This hat was an ultimate symbol of being a true American, something Dora may have been proud of as someone who “made it out” of the neighborhood.

At the exact same time, one of Dora’s tenants, Harris Levin, is preparing to move his family over the Williamsburg Bridge, to Brooklyn, where he hopes his family will live a more comfortable and prosperous life.  Along with the belongings they’d collected in their 15 years on the Lower East Side, they probably packed the few items they traveled from Poland with—like Shabbos candlesticks—that embody the culture they hope to preserve as they delve further into the process of becoming American.

"In our family we go around the table saying what we're thankful for. We also sing songs, say prayers and eat challah." Many objects on YSOS are central to familial traditions, generations later.

“In our family we go around the table saying what we’re thankful for. We also sing songs, say prayers and eat challah.” Many objects on YSOS are central to familial traditions, generations later.

If any of these narratives sound familiar, it’s because despite the differences in names and places of origin, these are stories that could easily be told at dinner tables and family reunions across America.  The foundations for these stories are innocuous objects: a tenement, a cross, a hat and a pair of candlesticks.  But it’s the stories themselves, of Mr. Glockner, Mrs. Moore, Mrs. Goldfein and Mr. Levin that make them at once unique and universal.

Ultimately, that is from where the power of the Tenement Museum emerges: we all have a story to tell.  Despite being “ordinary” people—like the residents of 97 Orchard Street—we all hold the key to an extraordinary legacy.  And often that legacy includes the objects that we collect along the way.

For almost 30 years, the Tenement Museum has informally collected these stories.  On every tour, visitors are invited to share connections they make; the narratives often compel visitors to share anecdotes of their own families.  Some recognize artifacts that evoke particular memories.  Others are inspired to go do research on their own ancestors.

The Your Story, Our Story digital exhibit was born of this informal practice of collecting stories from Americans of all backgrounds and ages that demonstrate the dynamism of our objects.  Objects that on their own may seem ordinary, but with a legacy attached, become extraordinary.

Objects like Nafesa’s mother’s jolpie acer—a flavor enhancer found in abundance in Bangladesh—which became a sudden delicacy in America.  Like Joseph’s toy dog, that symbolized survival and hope for his parents arriving in the U.S. after the Cambodian genocide.  Like Alex’s school ID card, which bears the Aztec name he initially struggled to connect with as a Mexican-American.  Like Blaake-Kirstyn’s family recipes, which were created by her great-grandmother, a house slave on a Georgia plantation, and preserved by the three generations that followed her.

These are the stories of an America that has evolved considerably since 97 Orchard Street was last a residence.  And yet, they are stories that can in so many ways draw parallels to the lives of the former residents that we interpret daily at the Museum.  These connections we make across place and time are deeply meaningful—as a country of immigrants and migrants, we are rooted in what we share with each other.  We all have something to share, a story to tell, a legacy to maintain.  What’s yours?


  • Posted by Victoria Marin, Project Coordinator at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum


Accessibility at the Tenement Museum

An ASL Walking Tour offered at the Tenement Museum

An ASL Walking Tour offered at the Tenement Museum

July is a historic month for disability rights in America. In July of 1990, the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) was passed and signed into law by President George H.W. Bush. This landmark law requires access to goods, services, and benefits offered to the public and prohibits discriminatory exclusion because of a disability.

Since its founding, the Tenement Museum has strived to be on the forefront of accessibility and continues to welcome people of all backgrounds and abilities. There are many things we do and offer to make our institution accessible to as many visitors as possible.

To visit the Tenement Museum, you must take a guided tour. This puts the Museum in a unique position: visitors’ needs can be met more often because there is always an Educator present to work with the individuals on the tour to create a great experience for the whole group. Our Educators are trained to give tours that are accessible to a wide audience. However, we also have some tools which improve accessibility on tours. FM assistive listening devices are available upon request for all Museum programming, seating is available on all building tours, and large print and braille materials as well as handling objects are available for many programs.

One of the biggest challenges the Museum faces is physical accessibility. Our museum building – located at 97 Orchard Street – was built in 1863 and is a five-floor walk-up. Due to the historic character of our building, many features that make other museums physically accessible are not often possible at the Tenement Museum. But in 2012, the construction of a new exhibit, Shop Life, included a wheelchair lift from the sidewalk level to the basement level, making it the first wheelchair accessible tour that enters 97 Orchard Street.

While the above offerings can be helpful, sometimes more is necessary. The Museum offers several special programs designed to suit the needs of visitors with particular disabilities. American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation is available for any tour. Additionally, parties of 5 or more can schedule a Touch Tour or an ASL tour. A Touch Tour combines any of our building tours with handling objects and verbal imaging, and includes an introduction to the building using an architectural model of 97 Orchard Street. For an ASL tour, the Museum’s deaf educator, Alexandria Wailes, leads visitors on a building tour in ASL only. Private tours for visitors on the autism spectrum and their families are also available for building tours and the Meet Victoria program. For any of these private tours you must contact the Museum two weeks in advance.

Additionally, we offer ASL tours and Touch Tours for the public throughout the school year. These programs are free of charge, but reservations are required. They are a bit longer than a typical tour, can be more direct in meeting the needs of the visitors in the group, and include a reception which features local Lower East Side foods.

The offerings mentioned above do not cover all of the tools we use or programs we have that make the Tenement Museum accessible. To learn more about what we can offer or to see it in a different format, please visit the Accessibility page of our website, particularly, this handy chart.

If you have any questions about our accessible tours, or would like to talk about how we can make your upcoming visit to the Tenement Museum meet your access needs, please contact Ellysheva Zeira, Education Associate for Access, through email or by phone 646-518-3038.

As the Tenement Museum expands with a brand new exhibit, our accessibility efforts will expand and continue as well. We will take what we’ve learned about accessibility in our current building, along with new technologies and methods, and create new programs that adhere to the highest accessibility standards.

  • Post by Ellysheva Zeira, Education Associate for Access at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

East End Story

Across the Atlantic, in the center of London, there’s another continuously diverse Eastside neighborhood. Spitalfields, Like the Lower East Side, began as fields outside the city and gradually bloomed into an urban home for French Protestants, and Eastern European Jewish, Caribbean and Bangladeshi immigrants. Today, street signs are in English and Bengali, shop windows display samosas and bagels (spelled beigels there), and low-rise buildings hint at an evolving neighborhood.

Synagogue 19 Princelet Street

The entrance of 19 Princelet Street saw residents, workers, and worshippers through its hallway. Credit: Matthew Andrews/19 Princelet Street

At number 19 Princelet Street, right off the well-known Brick Lane, the front door opens to a quiet, darkened hallway, cool with the scent of stone floors. As my eyes adjusted to the light, I learned the beginnings of the building that now houses the Museum of Immigration and Diversity. Philip Black, volunteer and member of the museum’s advisory board, recounted how the building started as a home in 1719 for the Ogier family, Huguenots seeking religious refuge in England. It soon was divided up into living and work spaces; while silk weavers earned their wages in the attic workshop, Irish and Eastern European Jewish immigrants made homes in the apartments. In 1869, a Jewish congregation built a synagogue where the house’s back garden had been, and created a basement to include a meeting room for the congregation.

These details all sounded so familiar, so much like the stories we tell at the Tenement Museum of the Levine family with their garment workshop and the Schneiders with their basement meeting room.

The similarities extend to how the building became a museum: 19 Princelet Street sat uninhabited for the better part of the 20th century until 1981, when the Spitalfields Center Charity began to transform the building into a public space focused on immigration. They’ve worked on careful conservation over the decades, and while the building is a Grade II* structure—the second highest preservation designation in England – it remains too fragile to be open to the public regularly. Volunteers staff the museum on its open days, when groups from all over the world book visits to experience the building and hear its stories.

After crossing the physical threshold from 18th century home to 19th century synagogue, I descended a flight of foot-smoothed steps to the basement excavated below. In this former social area and meeting space, where community members met in the 1930s to organize political action against Fascism, I explored their permanent exhibit, Suitcases and Sanctuary.

Suitcase at 19 Princelet

In the building’s former synagogue, the exhibit Suitcases and Sanctuaries invites visitors to share what they would bring if they were immigrating. Credit: Ed Marshall/19 Princelet Street

Rather than a traditional museum exhibit of objects and documents, the museum chose to display artwork about migration, created by local school children. The classes had been asked to imagine themselves as earlier immigrants; the exhibit displayed their work performing Yiddish folk songs, writing letters from the perspective of Irish immigrants, and making collages about the dreams of the newly arrived. The students’ work also involved telling their own stories – I listened to a recording of a child from Somalia explaining why he/she left his/her country, and read students’ opinions on what they liked about the neighborhood of Spitalfields today.

When thinking about an iconic archway on Brick Lane, one girl mused, “It made me feel like people from Bangladesh were welcome in London.” This statement would have resonated on any day, but I happened to be visiting the Museum on June 23rd, the day of the British referendum vote to decide whether or not to leave the European Union. Reading about this student’s sense of belonging in London, in a basement where people used to meet to discuss whether they belonged, gave me a rising sense of hope, and an almost visceral reinforcement from the strength of an open and inclusive community.

19 Princelet Street Facade

The attic was added as a workshop for French Huguenot silk weavers in the 18th Century. Credit: Philip Black/19 Princelet Street.

Susie Symes, the Chair of Trustees for the Museum of Immigration and Diversity, shared with me the Museum’s commitment to welcoming all stories. Whether their volunteers host visitors from close by or far away, they invite every person to contribute part of their story to the exhibit. At 19 Princelet Street, the building itself is the prime exhibit and, like the Tenement Museum, it holds stories from residents and visitors alike.

Currently, Britain has no national museum dedicated to migration. Susie and I spoke about the need for more public spaces to engage with stories of how the country has been shaped by those who have moved there. One organization working towards this goal is The Migration Museum Project, which is based in London. they’ve been collecting and preserving immigration narratives in London and have been operating as a travelling museum, setting up exhibits throughout the city as they look for a permanent space to call home.

At the Tenement Museum, we seek to expand and explore what it means to be American, but this question of what it means to be British, and larger questions of identity and belonging, have never been more critical. My conversations in London gave me a renewed sense of connectedness to the Lower East Side, the neighborhood that helps me understand American identity.

  • Post by Kathryn Lloyd, Education Manager for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum



Immigration and Independence

For many first generation immigrants, there is a difficult and delicate balance between keeping the connections to their homeland as strong and vibrant as though they’d never left, and finding new understandings and identity in their adopted country. The divide in loyalties is strong on an average day, but especially so on Independence Day – the most patriotic day in an already patriotic country.

While Independence Day has always had its own connotation for Americans, it has had a different significance for immigrants. Throughout the decades, it has historically been used as an opportunity to further Americanize immigrants, both within their own communities as well as with outside pressure from “native-born” citizens.

In the past, it was a day when many immigrants felt the need to affirm their American identities. In 1889, German Jews on East Broadway formed an association known as the Educational Alliance, which provided, among other things, English language training to European Jews. The organization naturally saw the Fourth of July as a great time to educate new citizens on American customs and traditions. The Fourth of July Encyclopedia describes one such holiday celebration in 1906 where hundreds of immigrant children and 800 parents gathered to celebrate their new homeland, although the reception to these poor kids sounded mixed at best:

“The Declaration of Independence was read in Yiddish and English…. Everybody, immigrants and natives, shouted as the youngsters, with hands outstretched towards the colors said with solemnity ‘we salute thee.’ After that the children sang ‘Our Own United States’ and three young lads, having limited English training, attempted to read Daniel Webster’s speech at Bunker Hill. The affair ended with a rough rendition of ‘America’. According to one reporter, ‘Although the words had been printed for them on their programmes, they were in English, and they floundered badly in the tune.’”

And if you’re curious how a patriotic American song sounds in Yiddish, here’s a 1916 example from the King’s Orchestra in New York, “America, ich lieb’ dich” – or “America, I love you.”

Naturalization ceremonies on the Fourth of July became widely popular as mass citizenship oaths began early in the twentieth century. They were the result of the increasing influx of immigrants to the United States and the unfavorable political conditions that led them to emigrate in the first place. According to The Fourth of July Encyclopedia, it also came about as awareness increased of “the important contributions immigrants make to the fabric of the nation.” In 1921, the League of Foreign-born Citizens” established a program of consecration on Independence Day for new citizens” with the hopes Americans would feel a sense of “warmth and friendliness” towards immigrants.

In 1915, the Fourth of July briefly went from Independence Day to Americanization Day, as an attempt to bridge the divide between American-born citizens and naturalized immigrants. The Immigrants in America Review sent out a call to all citizens, born in and outside of the U.S., “to get together as one nation and one people for America, in peace or war.” The Review believed that a diverse population was beneficial for the country, but “if American ideals and purposes and opportunities are to be fully realized, the barriers that separate the newly naturalized citizen from the native born must be swept aside.”

women for america

Newspaper clipping courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The New York Tribune, dated June 7, 1915 encouraged the “Nation’s Women” in particular to reach out to immigrants and “Keep America from Being to Them a Land of Broken Promise.” Mrs. Gifford Pinchot – born Cornelia Bryce, a noted Suffragette and Labor Reformer in the day – begged societal women to celebrate Americanization Day in particular for the sake of immigrant women, whose husbands are out in American society working and whose children are being assimilated in American schools. “Immigrant women have been utterly neglected by this government,” Mrs. Pinchot said back in 1915. “…Most of them do not know that they are in America, with all the connotation which that name carries to the native of this country. Or they weakly realize that they are disappointed in what they have found here.”

She pointed out that while it was difficult in bigger cities like New York or Chicago for immigrant women tending house day to day to avoid American influences, immigrant women in rural neighborhoods could go their entire lives without hearing a word spoken in another language, and were basically living back in their home towns. Mrs. Pinchot’s hope that Americanization Day would “inspire in them an American patriotism and make America in reality the melting pot which it is so fondly called.”

Independence days, at their center, are celebrations of liberty. Over the centuries, the move for many immigrants into the United States has often been an exercise in freedom – actively hunting down what they felt eluded them in their own homelands, be it religious, political, or economic. And then there are those who came into this country through no decision of their own – displaced or stolen peoples to which freedom must seem an abstract and far away concept. Whether you yourself are an immigrant or the child of immigrants, whether you are rejoicing over a 1776 revolution or rejoicing over a day off work, embrace the cultural identity to which you ascribe. Be all-American. Be half-American, half-elsewhere. Be all-elsewhere. You are free.


Make ‘Em Laugh

Fanny Brice at the Billy Rose Theatre, 1938. Photo from the New York Public Library Digital Collection

Fanny Brice at the Billy Rose Theatre, 1938. Photo from the New York Public Library Digital Collection

Before Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, before Madeline Kahn and Gilda Radner, before Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett – there was Fanny Brice, the first Queen of Comedy. The original funny girl. While the Tenement Museum focuses on the ordinary lives of ordinary immigrants, this wouldn’t be New York City without every so often a larger-than-life figure coming along to change everything. It’s safe to say Fanny Brice set a precedent for the versatility and gumption for every female comedian since, whose life became the source of the hit Broadway musical and 1968 movie, Funny Girl.

Fanny Brice in the stage production Ziegfeld Follies of 1924. Photo from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Fanny Brice in the stage production Ziegfeld Follies of 1924. Photo from the New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Born on Forsyth Street on the Lower East Side in 1891, Brice – born Fania Borach – was the third child of Hungarian Jewish immigrants. Her mother worked in a fur factory and her father in a Bowery saloon, so one could imagine her yearning for stardom started early. Her first real taste of the spotlight occurred at the age of 13, when she won an amateur night competition at the Keeney Theater in Brooklyn. She left that night $5 richer and a foot forward on the road to the Ziegfeld Follies, a popular theater production company on Broadway. Her work at the Follies would lead to her becoming a household name, as she performed there on and off for the better part of a decade.

It’s important to note that ethnic comedy was widely prevalent in theater circuits during this time. Capitalizing on and exploiting ethnic stereotypes were very much the norm, and although Brice did not set out to become a “Jew comic” of the day (one of the main reasons behind her name change, in fact), she gained most of her fame and notoriety through Jewish comedy. While Brice was certainly not an unattractive woman, she did not possess the typical beauty standards of the day, so she decided early on if she couldn’t be the prettiest girl on stage, she would be the funniest. Much of her act involved clowning around, accents and impersonations (including a Yiddish accent), and physical comedy that put her a step beyond other performers during that period.

But Brice’s life wasn’t all slapstick and humor. She was a talented singer, and longed for a dramatic career. She also had a tumultuous personal life. She met her husband, Jules Wilford “Nick” Arnstein in 1912 –  and loved him deeply despite his career as a con man and criminal. He wasn’t faithful (he was in fact still married to another woman when he married Brice in 1918), and having spent time in Sing Sing in 1915 and Leavenworth in 1924, he disappeared from her life and their two children’s lives entirely. Yet during all the criminal activity, court hearings, and jail time, Brice stood by him. Her devotion to Arnstein was encompassed by one of her signature numbers, “My Man”, where she dropped her comedic act and performed with total seriousness, and it was a performance that often brought audiences to their feet.

After some unsuccessful attempts at more dramatic roles – and a film career that never took off – she returned to the stage in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 and 1936. In that time, she created many unique and hilarious characters that showcased her range of talent. But it was one in particular that would lead her to national acclaim – Baby Snooks.

In 1938, she began recording a weekly radio program where she played Baby Snooks, a curious but incredibly whiny toddler. It’s very weird listening to Baby Snooks and imagining it coming out of a middle aged woman. But in a time when anti-Semitism was spreading widely throughout the United States, even Brice, who admitted to being pretty uninformed about current events, realized that her cast of Yiddish-accented characters would not give her as large an appeal as Baby Snooks. The program was incredibly popular and ran on and off for over a decade, and was still on the air in 1951 when Brice died of a stroke in Los Angeles.

Excerpt from the New York Tribune, October 31, 1922. Photo from the Library of Congress.

Excerpt from the New York Tribune, October 31, 1922. Photo from the Library of Congress.

You know what they say about hindsight. It’s easy, and even fair, to look back on Brice’s career of exaggerating her own ethnicity and the stereotypes she — willingly or unwillingly — helped perpetrate, and feel uncomfortable with it. It’s also okay to see Fanny Brice still as an inspiration, a Jewish daughter of immigrants who rose to stardom on the merits of her intelligence, talent, and humor, in a time when women and Jews weren’t treated with the utmost respect, to say the least. It’s no fault to look back on previous generations and wish they could have been better, even though we know that cannot change. We can only take what we can from Fanny Brice’s story – how best to take a joke, and how best to tell a joke.