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 ezeira@tenement.org 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.

The Paper Chase

A toy doll's head found in the ceiling of 97 Orchard Street. Just one of the many objects the Tenement Museum has discovered over the years.

A toy doll’s head found in the ceiling of 97 Orchard Street. Just one of the many objects the Tenement Museum has discovered over the years.

One of the unique things about the Tenement Museum is the ordinariness of the stories we tell.  Visitors can imagine what everyday life might have been like for the people who happened to live at 97 Orchard Street, people who were never famous, or terribly rich, and had no expectations of becoming history lessons.  The apartments are set to appear as they might have while residents were living in them – tidy homes stocked with useful objects and small treasures, arranged to appear as if the residents had just stepped out and might return at any moment.

Because of this, there are few opportunities to display the hundreds of objects that were found in the process of restoring the building, discovered under floorboards, in the closets, tucked into mailboxes, or packed into mouse burrows.  Because they can’t be placed into apartments, many duplicate objects and those in poor condition are stored in the museum’s archive.  The archive holds hundreds of objects: bottles, food packaging, bone fragments, and a large collection of dismembered dolls.  Very few are valuable in and of themselves; if they weren’t found in a National Historic Landmark building, most of them would have ended up in the trash.

One of the most common found objects in 97 is paper.  The museum’s collection contains scraps of newspapers in multiple languages, pages from books, advertisements, packing paper, and undelivered mail.  These scraps and pages are fascinating specifically because no one intended to preserve them.  They’re missing words, have water damage, and are sometimes unreadable.  Some have lost corners to mice.  The papers don’t reveal anything earth-shattering – there are no famous names or important facts – but they can help us do what the Tenement Museum does best: get a glimpse into the everyday life of ordinary people.

What can one of these objects tell us?  One of the pieces of paper that resides in the permanent collection is completely intact, a small card – about 3.5 by 5.5 inches – with writing in Yiddish and an address in English.  It was discovered in the kitchen of apartment five, tossed on the floor next to the east wall, in a pile of paper and trash.  The postcard is addressed to Sol Golder of 97 Orchard Street, one of the people we know lived in the building, thanks to voting records. Sol was born in Romania in about 1872, and, while we don’t know when he immigrated, he was living at 97 Orchard Street by 1929.  He lived at 97 with his wife, Nettie, and his two daughters, Sophie and Rosie.


Postcard from 1933 found at 97 Orchard Street

Postcard from 1933 found at 97 Orchard Street

Sol’s postcard is yellowed and worn, folded down the middle.  The back shows two lines of Yiddish writing, stamped in purple, and a date: “All members are invited to a siyum mishnayos (a celebration marking the completion of study of a book of the Mishna, or oral law) and a festive meal, Saturday, May 13, 1933.”  The card also contains a handwritten note in messy Yiddish script, creeping around the printed words to confirm the details of the afternoon.  According to the return address, the postcard came from Congregation Bar David, at 100 East 4th Street, nearly three quarters of a mile away from 97 Orchard Street.  Sol would have had to walk by dozens of other small synagogues on his way to Bar David – some in big stone buildings with stained glass and permanent seats, and some in the back rooms of shops or small apartments that served other purposes when services were not in session.  In fact, his was one of over 17 synagogues of one sort or another located in a one-mile stretch of East 4th Street alone.  Why did he pass by so many other synagogues on the way to his?  Were the congregants mostly people from his home city?  Or did they share a profession?  Perhaps they had previously met on Orchard Street, closer to home, but had to relocate?  Or perhaps it was Sol that relocated from East 4th Street years before?

The siyum was scheduled for Saturday, May 13, 1933, an inauspicious time for the Jewish community.  Only days before, Nazis had begun public book burnings in the streets of Germany, and hints of Hitler’s extreme anti-Semitism were in the air, both in Europe and in the U.S.  While Sol and his neighbors would have no reason to suspect the scale of the devastation to come, they were almost definitely aware of Hitler’s rise to power and the difficulties it was presenting to German Jews.  They’d likely been approached to join the movement to boycott German goods, centered in New York City.  Would the events across the ocean be a subject of conversation and concern in the midst of the festive meal?  Or would attendees studiously avoid the topic, hoping not to spoil the atmosphere?

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the postcard is the return address: the invitation was sent by a Reverend H. Greenblatt.  Why was a reverend sending out mail in Yiddish on behalf of a synagogue?  And why does his return address stamp have blank spaces to fill in the street number and street? Though rare today, there is a long history of Jewish reverends.  The title first became popular in England, where a two-tier Jewish education system ordained reverends as a sort of paraprofessional, with fewer requirements and years of study than rabbis.  When the title migrated across the ocean to America, however, it wasn’t tied to any particular degree.  Anyone could begin calling themselves “reverend;” the title was frequently adopted by religious functionaries who took the place of rabbis, often with little formal training.  In the 19th century, many of these Jewish reverends were itinerant preachers who ministered to small groups of Jews on the frontier.  By the 20th century, many congregations used the title to refer to those who carried out essential tasks in the synagogue – those who were responsible for the public reading of the Torah, or the shamash, the sexton who might have been responsible for the day to day operations of the synagogue, everything from replacing lightbulbs and locking doors to making sure that members received important notices and mailings.  Most likely, Reverend Greenblatt was Congregation Bar David’s shamash, and with a return address stamp that let him fill in a different synagogue address on each piece of mail, it’s possible that he was the shamash for more than one congregation, allowing him to cobble together a full salary out of the small amounts he would have been paid by each synagogue.

Did Sol go to the siyum?  Who was Reverend Greenblatt, anyway?  What was for dinner at the festive meal?  A single sentence invitation, stamped on a worn postcard, can offer plenty of hints about life on the Lower East Side, and reveal details of the day to day that we would never have time to go into on our tours of 97 Orchard Street.  But at the same time, this small sheet of paper, tossed aside and ultimately buried in the rubble of a condemned apartment, leaves us with more questions than answers.



On May 26th there was a small earthquake and seismic shift in the Asian American arts community.

The Broadway hit musical, Phantom of the Opera, announced its next leading lady and actress taking over the role of Christine Daae, the object of the Phantom’s obsession. This was the role written by Andrew Lloyd Webber for his then wife, Sarah Brightman, turning her into a star. Starting tonight, my friend Ali Ewoldt will step onto a Broadway stage as the first Asian American to play Christine in the longest-running show on Broadway, now in its 28th year at the Majestic Theatre. That may seem like routine theatre news to some. After all, actors and actresses get replaced all the time, especially in long-running shows, but this was mind-blowing to those who have been fighting for visibility in an industry and world where color-blindness and diversity are still battles being waged and overcome. Consider why this announcement is a milestone and earth-shaking. First and foremost, it’s the star part. Not a supporting or secondary role. As written, Christine Daae is Swedish. She’s not written specifically as an Asian woman. And she’s not a stereotype – she’s not a servant, seamstress, manicurist, waitress, prostitute, doesn’t run a laundry and she’s not a dragon lady. She’s not submissive or passive and she is not a China doll.

Putting aside the fact that Ali is eminently qualified to play Christine – she’s beautiful, has a gorgeous soprano voice and has multiple legitimate theatre credits to her name. This includes the 2006 Broadway revival of Les Miserables and most recently as one of the King’s wives in the current Broadway hit revival of The King and I. But the fact that the producers saw beyond the color of her skin and cast her purely on her qualifications and talent is not only to be commended and applauded but acknowledged for the historic event that it is. Never before has an Asian actress stepped into a lead role in a Broadway show that had been written as a non-Asian and heretofore cast with non-Asians. In this time when diversity and multiculturalism has been debated, argued and fought over in the entertainment industry (remember this year’s Oscar-so-white brouhaha), this is a big deal.

Ali Ewoldt is the first Asian American to be cast as Christine in Phanton of the Opera

Ali Ewoldt is the first Asian American to be cast as Christine in Phantom of the Opera

2015-2016 turned out to be one of the most diverse seasons on Broadway. Shows featured multiethnic characters, storylines and actors and in this upside down presidential election year where immigrants and immigration are dominant themes for debate, the season was also noteworthy not just for the diversity of its casts but also for the ambitious, and risky, efforts to mount big, ambitious shows out of uncomfortable chapters in US history and explore the role and importance of immigrants in how America was built. On Your Feet! tells the story of Emilio and Gloria Estefan but also seeks to universalize the hardships and hopes of Latin American immigrants. Allegiance was about the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII where we took away homes and possessions and put entire families in prison camps just because of their ethnicity. It didn’t matter that many of them were actually Americans. The fact that they were Japanese meant they were “foreigners” and therefore a threat to the safety of America. Sound familiar? And, of course, there is Hamilton which won 11 Tony Awards at last night’s ceremony and has racked up a more-than-impressive $90 million advance sale. That juggernaut, mega-hit and cultural zeitgeist and phenomenon uses black, Hispanic and Asian-American actors and a hip hop score, to prompt a contemporary rethinking of our founding fathers. The creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda also makes a strong and direct point that immigrants are the reasons this country is great. After all, Alexander Hamilton was an immigrant and as one of the oft-quoted lyrics state, ‘immigrants get the job done!’.

For the first time, our theatrical stages are starting to look and sound more like the world in which we live in. Theatre is most effective and impactful when it reflects the audiences themselves and the issues they deal with. As much as theatre can be an escape, it can also be a mirror held up so that audiences can not only ponder the story, the songs, the sets, and the choreography but also how these fit into their perception of themselves. Art is most effective when you can personally relate to it. These and other shows dealing with multiculturalism and diversity including Eclipsed, The Color Purple and Shuffle Along reflect the changing overall audience demographic but also showcase the faces that make up our world. I’m hoping the impact of this season will be long lasting and have an effect going forward when future producers, writers and directors will remember that you can indeed make money and art at the same time.

Hamilton is certainly proof that diversity and immigrants won’t scare audiences away. It can even lead to dramatic increases in theatergoing by audiences that may not normally go to the theatre. On Your Feet! and In the Heights (Miranda’s previous hit about a street corner in a heavily Hispanic neighborhood) led to significant increases in Hispanic theatregoers. Diverse audiences aren’t afraid of the theatre, they just want to see stories and characters they can connect with that reflect their experiences and their lives.

For the actors and creators, these shows are opportunities to tell stories that are very personal. Miranda’s own background and past informed both In the Heights (which was about the neighborhood he grew up in) and Hamilton (his immigrant parents path to America echoes Hamilton’s in their pursuit of education and a better life). I had Japanese American friends who were in the cast of Allegiance who mentioned that they never thought they would see or be in a show about their own grandparents’ experience. For audiences which are filled with immigrants, these shows show and realize the fulfillment of the American Dream they came to this country to achieve.

Without sounding too New York-centric, the success of these shows will create a national trickle-down effect that is inevitable. Shows that are hits and produced on Broadway are often later presented at regional and community theaters. They’re performed in high schools. They go on tour and play for audiences that aren’t normally exposed to these kind of shows. Many have noted that before Rent, they had never seen a drag queen or gay person on stage nor really talked about HIV and AIDS. The themes of inclusion and immigrant pride will be spread throughout the land by virtue of these shows being presented in the heartland hopefully enlightening audiences and broadening perspectives.

In Celebration of LGBT Pride Month: LGBT Immigration


Clive Boutilier was 21 years old when he emigrated from Canada to New York in 1955.  He lived in an apartment in Brooklyn in the same building as his mother and stepfather.  He spoke English, joined a bowling league, and was an active member of his church.  As his lawyers would later note, he was, in many ways, a model U.S. immigrant.  Nonetheless, Clive Boutilier was deported in 1967, after the Supreme Court found that he had been ineligible to enter the country as an immigrant in the first place due to his “psychopathic personality.”  Boitilier was a homosexual.

As LGBT pride parades and festivals take place in cities across the U.S. this month, it can be difficult for many Americans to remember that there was a time when merely admitting to a same sex attraction was enough to keep an immigrant out of the U.S.  While immigrants have faced a variety of legal barriers based on race and ethnicity over the years, blanket bans based on sexuality were some of the earliest and longest lasting laws.  American efforts to bar LGBT immigration have a long and complex history, which can tell us a lot about the way that American ideas about sexuality have influenced ideas about who might make a good citizen.

In 1875, the Supreme Court ruled that the federal government, and not states, must regulate immigration, paving the way for federal laws to distinguish desirable from unacceptable immigrants.  The anti-immigrant prejudice swirling at the time was rich with fears about immigrants’ dangerous sexualities: popular books supposedly written by “escaped” Irish nuns told of midnight convent orgies, while American newspapers reported kidnappings of young girls taken to brothels in distant countries and forced into “white slavery” by swarthy Eastern European men posing as harmless American immigrants.  And so it was no surprise that the Page Law, the first major federal measure restricting entry, immediately banned prostitutes and convicts, especially those who had been convicted of crimes involving “moral turpitude,” or sodomy.

The Immigration Act of 1917 reinforced this restriction, barring those potential immigrants with “constitutional psychopathic inferiority,” a category which included “persons with abnormal sexual instincts.”  Homosexuals, lawmakers argued, were psychologically and physically inferior, unable to function in American society.  In the unlikely event they managed to hold down a job to avoid being a burden on the state, they were still a threat to innocent young Americans, who they would inevitably prey on and corrupt.

Of course, these restrictions were notoriously difficult to apply in practice; the only way that immigration officials could discover a prospective immigrant’s sexual orientation was through their own admission.  Since immigrants were unlikely to share this during a brief admissions interview, almost all of the immigrants deported under this provision admitted their sexual histories after being legally admitted to the United States, usually after getting in unrelated trouble with the law.  Between 1917 and 1941, only about thirty people per year were deported as homosexuals.

The 1950s saw a renewed sexual hysteria, as millions of Americans listened to Senator Joseph McCarthy rail against not only Communists, but also homosexuals.  In the midst of the “red scare,” Americans were suddenly gripped by a renewed fear of closeted gay men in positions of power, susceptible to blackmail because they had so much to hide.  McCarthy claimed to have ferreted out homosexuals in the military, the FBI, and the CIA, all potential targets for the KGB.  Homosexuals possessed the worst traits of Communists: they kept their true identities and loyalties secret, while taking part in shadow societies and recruiting innocent young Americans.  The panic prompted a campaign to drive homosexuals out of the military and the government, and resulted in renewed bans on “aliens afflicted with psychopathic personality, epilepsy or mental defect” in the 1952 Immigration and Nationality Act.  In 1965, the law was amended to explicitly include “sexual deviation” as medical grounds for denying entry into the U.S.

Cultural shift led to the slow reversal of the policy.  In 1974, the American Psychiatric Association voted to remove homosexuality from their list of recognized mental illnesses, and the Public Health Service ended their practice of “certifying” immigrants referred by immigration officials as homosexuals.  Six years later, the Immigration and Naturalization Service instructed its inspectors to stop asking about sexual orientation entirely in immigration interviews.  However, immigrants who admitted to homosexual acts were still excluded.  A 1983 Supreme Court decision made it all but impossible for the INS to deport immigrants based solely on sexual orientation, but it was not until 1990 that the Immigration and Naturalization Act was revised to remove the phrase “sexual deviation” entirely.  The U.S. became the last industrialized country to remove sexuality as a barrier to immigration.

The 1990 Immigration Act was not a complete victory, however.  The Act quietly allowed for the end of a 1987 ban on immigrants with HIV, which had been disproportionately used to block homosexual and transgender immigrants.  However, when President Clinton acted to end enforcement of the ban, both Congress and ordinary Americans reacted with furor.  Citing arguments linking immigrants from strange lands and disease that would have been familiar to 19th century Americans, Congress wrote the ban back into law in 1993.  The ban on HIV+ immigrants was only lifted by President Obama in 2009.

From Russia with Love

St. Peterburgs, Russia

St. Petersburg, Russia

Miriam Bader is the Director of Education at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum. She is also the unofficial travel blogger of the museum as well. 

Where does the Old World start and the New World begin?

I traveled to Russia to research the past, to explore the history surrounding the great wave of Eastern European Jewish immigrant at the late 19th century, which resulted in making the Lower East Side the largest Jewish community in the world. Between 1880 and 1924, one third of Europe’s Jews would leave and 75% would initially make New York their home. The story of their becoming American is told on museum tours in the recreated homes of the Rogarshevsky and Levine families featured on Sweatshop Workers, and in the kosher butcher shop run by the Lustgardens featured in Shop Life. The story I sought to uncover was the Old World that all had come from – the shtetl.

Like many Jewish Americans I grew up on the stories of the shtetl, singing about its traditions and the fiddlers that played on the roofs, which are memorialized in the literature of Sholem Aleichem. The shtetels of centuries merged in my mind to one imaginary place – Anatevka. And, it was the complexities and nuances of that place that I sought to uncover.

Everywhere I went in St Petersburg, in all of my meetings, I asked scholars, curators, and residents, how would you define a shtetl. No answer I heard was the same. It is small town. It is Polish. It is Russian. It is Jewish. It is a myth. It is a place with a market. It had good times and hard times. Multiple perspectives on its demise were also shared. Trade laws, economic pressure, industrialization, and anti-Semitism were all cited. As with most complicated stories, all of these are true at different moments in time, and nothing is simple.

As I explored the exhibits of the Museum of Ethnography, I learned more about the lives and rituals of the Jews that lived in Russia. The museum houses the collection of the first Jewish Museum of Russia, which was established in 1914, and now has thousands of objects in its collection documenting Jewish life. Touring the exhibit and vault reminded me of the vastness of the empire. Its Jews didn’t only come from the impoverished shtetls of my imagination, but also included mountain Jews that lived in the Caucasus, and upper class Jews of St Petersburg, amongst others. The exhibits showed vibrancy, ritual objects demonstrated splendor, and photos from expeditions revealed the variety of people that called the shtetl their home. Even if they would have never used that term.

Perhaps St. Petersburg is the best city to contemplate the meeting of the Old World with the New. That is after all was Peter the Great dreamed of when he founded the city in 1703. The truth is I didn’t expect to fall in love with St. Petersburg. Like, my study of the shtetl, it surprised me and pushed me to keep exploring.

Miriam went to St. Petersburg on a cultural fellowship from the Likhachev Foundation & The Presidential Center of Boris N. Yeltsin.

Behind The Music

FJ Music

FJ Music

“For me, pipa is not just an instrument,” said Jiaju Shen of FJ Music, a cutting-edge duo dedicated to integrating Chinese musical language with other genres.  “It’s my friend, my life, and my soul mate.  I cannot live without it.”

The Tenement Museum’s 2016 gala, Celebrating Our Immigrant Past and Our American Future, will take place on June 7 at Spring Studios in Tribeca.  The Museum’s gala is our largest and most exciting annual benefit event, attracting over 500 guests from New York’s business, civic, educational, and philanthropic communities, and is currently on track to raise over a million dollars towards the Museum’s work.

What makes the event so special is the fantastic opportunity to showcase the Tenement Museum’s success to our most dedicated supporters—and the chance to work with talented people who have unique immigrant stories of their own, such as this year’s entertainers FJ Music and João Kouyoumdjian.

“My paternal grandfather used to play violin as a hobby,” said Kouyoumdjian, a Julliard-trained classical guitarist with mixed Brazilian and Armenian ethnic heritage.  “He was an immigrant from Armenia and orphan from a genocide that victimized millions of Armenians.  I will never know whether his cultural background was connected to an arts tradition.”

Joao Kouyoumdjian

Joao Kouyoumdjian

Born and raised in Brazil, Kouyoumdjian has played guitar for over twenty years, drawing inspiration from his mentor, Brazilian guitarist Paulo Martelli.  Kouyoumdjian first moved to America to study at Julliard in 2007, and balances a performing career with teaching music at Newark School of the Arts.  His rich heritage has provided a complex dimension to his career, giving him the opportunity in 2012 to perform with the Armenian Philharmonic Orchestra in Yerevan, Armenia for the 20th anniversary celebration of diplomatic relations between Brazil and Armenia.

However, from very early on, his greatest passion has a more familiar name: the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.

“(Bach’s) music really transcends you to a higher state mind and spirit,” Kouyoumdjian said.  “When I was starting classical guitar lessons, my teacher recorded a few tapes that he thought should serve as reference for my studies. I had to travel for 3 hours by bus to take lessons and during those travels I listened to those tapes…without great enthusiasm, to be honest. However, in one of those trips one of the recordings caught my attention. I didn’t have the tape cover with me on the bus so I didn’t know what it was. I kept listening to the same track over and over and over, rewinding the cassette tape continuously. I couldn’t get enough of its beauty. When I got home I found the tape’s cover and track list: it was Göran Sollscher performing music by J. S. Bach. It was a completely transformative experience, and I was never the same.”

Rather than re-interpret beloved classics, FJ Music—Chinese virtuosos Feifei Yang on erhu and Jiaju Shen on pipa—has a different goal: to forge new ground.

“I have tried jazz, pop, rock, funk, and bossa nova with my erhu, so I would say that I like playing fusion music the most,” said Yang.  Shen agreed: “Traditional pieces let the audience know what Chinese music sounds like.  Since fusion is a combination of eastern and western elements, it’s a key for American audiences to open the door to Chinese instruments, music, and culture.”

Both the erhu and the pipa have incredible significance for Yang and Shen.  The pipa, similar to a lute, originated two thousand years ago and became popular during the Tang dynasty.  For Shen, it represents her Chinese culture.  While Yang first chose a liuqin to learn at age 9, her mother switched her to an erhu—which is two-stringed and bowed, sometimes called a Chinese violin—because there were more opportunities to play solos.  Later, she learned that her great-grandfather used to play the erhu when her mother was young.

Though they met in America, Yang and Shen moved here from China for similar reasons—curiosity and a thirst for broader experience—with both leaving behind job opportunities in China.  Shen came to New York City to get her master’s degree in arts and culture management at Pratt Institute, and Yang chose the city because of its prominence in American TV shows.  They have eagerly explored new opportunities and thrived in their cultural environment.

“Musicians here really play music with heart, instead of just studying,” Shen said.  “They use music to express themselves…People here like to share the music, life, and happiness with the community.  That’s what music should seem like, not just a business or commercial interest.  Live performance is my opportunity for a dialogue with the audience.”

Shen recently collaborated with designer Xi Zheng to develop the “E-pa,” a modern electronic version of the pipa, but Yang prefers the original sound of her instrument, unchanged by any electronic equipment.  Both have performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, New York Fashion Week, and the United Nations, among many other venues.  While Yang still dreams of playing at Madison Square Garden someday, her performances are “all special to me,” she said, “because it shows that my efforts are all valuable—letting more people know this instrument in the United States, changing people’s impression of the erhu as a ‘subway instrument,’ and exploring the infinite possibilities of the future trend of this instrument.”

“My parents picked this great and difficult instrument for me,” Shen added, “and it gave me strength to overcome all the things.  And now I enjoy life with music.”

To learn more or to purchase CDs, visit the websites of João Kouyoumdjian and FJ Music.

Reserve tickets or make a contribution to the Tenement Museum’s 2016 gala here.