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.



Part II: The Fight Against the Ellis Island Museum

Ellis Island Museum

Ellis Island Museum

Part I of this blog can be read here.

The plan to sell Ellis Island to the highest bidder didn’t exactly work out as well as government officials had hoped.  Private citizens and elected officials alike quickly spoke out against the sale.  President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s office was suddenly flooded with letters from immigrants who had entered the United States through Ellis Island, pleading with the President to preserve the Island as a memorial.  New York City Mayor Robert Wagner sent a telegram to Eisenhower expressing his disapproval, while one congressmen who had been involved in the push to make Ellis Island a national shrine facetiously suggested that the Statue of Liberty should be next on the auction block.  The sale quickly failed in the wake of these complaints, but for a more pressing reason; none of the sealed bids came anywhere close to the $6 million price tag the General Services Administration (GSA) had suggested for the Island and all of its buildings.

While the letter writers and politicians got their wish, not everyone was pleased when the GSA cancelled the sale.  The sale has been a welcome development for the founders and funders of the American Museum of Immigration (AMI) on Liberty Island, who were afraid that an Ellis Island museum would draw money and attention from their plans.  Conceived in the 1950s as the nation’s first historic site dedicated to immigration, the AMI was designed to highlight the success of the American melting pot.  The original plans included a series of dioramas tracing American immigration from the 18th century to the mid-20th, including a life-size model of a Lower East Side tenement recreated from Jacob Riis photos.  The founders imagined the Museum as a donor-driven project and with minimal government support, expecting American immigrant groups to embrace the Museum with donations of both personal artifacts and money.  Instead, when donations failed to materialize, and the AMI opened in 1972 with a scaled-down exhibit that relied heavily on smaller models and photography.

The AMI leadership was so threatened by the resurgence of the Ellis Island Museum idea that they took every opportunity to block its creation, from bad press to political sabotage.  AMI leadership painted Ellis Island as a place of sadness and horrors, while suggesting Liberty Island as a more suitable memorial location, “a happy place of continuing inspiration, not a depository of bad memories.”  While the press wars continued unabated for decades, political machinations were even more effective.  During one major meeting to determine the Island’s fate, the first mention of a museum project sent AMI leaders scattering to quickly deliver a package of anti-museum materials to the committee staff behind the scenes.  There was no further conversation on the topic.

Despite these attempts, efforts continued to officially recognize the Island’s historic value.  Arguing that the story of American immigration was not appropriately commemorated through the National Park System, NPS declared Ellis Island a part of the Statue of Liberty National Monument in 1965.  The next year, it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  By 1968, the NPS was even cautiously promoting the idea of an Ellis Island Museum, but was careful to note that the museum would tell only the stories of the immigrants who landed on the Island, not the “broad, general” story that could be found at AMI.

Even as the National Park Service and the AMI board grudgingly agreed to let the Ellis Island museum project proceed, the struggle to determine the symbolic meaning and use of the Island continued.  In March of 1970, enabled by the Island’s lack of security, a Native American group launched a plan to occupy Ellis Island.  Following on the heels of several Native American takeovers and demonstrations for the right to self-determination, including a year-long occupation of Alcatraz, 38 people, representing 14 tribes, set out to reach Ellis Island by boat from Jersey City.  The occupation attempt proved unsuccessful, however, when the boat’s motor failed.  None of the protesters ever made it to the Island, which quickly received a Coast Guard security detail.

Despite the Coast Guard presence, the next attempt to occupy the Island came only months later.  Thomas W. Matthew, the head of the National Economic Growth and Reconstruction Organization (NEGRO), petitioned President Nixon for permission to improve and use the Island as a home for a self-sustaining black community.  With no response from the White House, Matthew and 60 of his followers quietly moved onto the Island and began improving it.  They were ignored by the Coast Guard, and their work only came to light when they were discovered by the press several months later.  In 1971, the National Park Service granted them five years to execute their plan, but most members left in the cold winter months.  In 1974, Matthews was convicted of Medicaid fraud, and the NEGRO project came to a definitive end.

Realizing that they needed to take control of the Island, the National Park Service began giving small group tours of the ruined buildings in 1977.  The hour long ranger-led tours, which came complete with disclaimers about weak floorboards and falling plaster, were overwhelmingly popular, making it clear that there was demand for stabilized and restored buildings.  Unfortunately, according to a National Parks Service estimate, repairing and stabilizing the buildings would cost at least $25 million, with a full renovation costing up to $100 million.

Funding came in fits and starts from federal and state governments as well as private donations; the 6-year renovation project ultimately cost $160 million. The main building was reopened to the public on September 10, 1990, as the Ellis Island Immigration Museum with an exhibit closely tied to the history of the Island.  As the AMI leadership had feared, their museum officially closed in 1991.  Without the specter of the AMI to curtail its story, Ellis Island’s newest exhibit opened in 2015, covering the breadth of American immigration history for the first time.  The Island now welcomes over 2 million visitors a year.

Info on the history of Ellis Island and the AMI was drawn primarily from contemporary press, as well as Joan Fragaszy Troyano’s upcoming book, Seeing a Nation of Immigrants: Photographs and the Making of American Identity, and Barbara Blumberg’s 1985 Administrative History of the Statue of Liberty National Monument.

Part I: The Story of Ellis Island… As a Museum


Today, Ellis Island is one of the most popular destinations in the National Park system, with over 3 million visitors each year who come to see the rooms and halls where twelve million immigrants took their first steps on American soil. But in 1924, when the last great waves of immigrants filed onto the ferries that would take them to New York City and points beyond, Ellis Island wasn’t considered a particularly valuable, or even interesting, place. The Island and its buildings went through a variety of incarnations before being ultimately abandoned, and were only refurbished and reopened to the general public as a museum in 1990.  How did an island full of run-down buildings become a shrine to our nation’s immigrant past, and a place to remember those who made the difficult journey to start anew on American shores?

Before years of landfilling increased its size tenfold, Dutch and English settlers called the small tidal flat in the middle of New York Bay’s oyster banks Oyster Island. Purchased and named by Welsh merchant Samuel Ellis around the time of the American Revolution, the United States government soon took the Island over for use as an arsenal. Shortly after the War of 1812, the War Department turned the Island into Fort Gibson, which remained a military post until 1890.

In the years before the Federal government began regulating immigration in 1890, individual states were responsible for processing and admitting newcomers. In 1855, New York State opened Castle Garden (today called Castle Clinton), an immigration station at the tip of Lower Manhattan.  Castle Garden welcomed eight million immigrants, mostly from Northern and Western Europe, before it was shut down in favor of Ellis Island in 1890. Although Ellis Island later eclipsed Castle Garden in the popular memory, at the time, Castle Garden was so synonymous with the experience of entering the U.S. that Yiddish-speakers adopted the adjective “Kesselgarden” to describe “noisy chaos.”

The Ellis Island federal immigration station opened on January 1, 1892. The campus housed the main arrivals hall, baggage rooms, hearings rooms, a library, dormitories, a hospital, laundry, gardens, and a massive dining room that seated 1,000. Annie Moore, a teenager who arrived from Ireland with her two brothers, became the first immigrant to pass through the station, receiving a gold coin and a handshake from the Commissioner of the Island in recognition.  In the course of the next 60 years, twelve million immigrants would enter America through Ellis Island.

But the heyday of Ellis Island as an immigrant processing center would end quickly; the restrictive Johnson-Reed Immigration Act of 1924 stemmed the unrelenting tide of immigrants and rendered the massive inspection station obsolete. After 1924, the few prospective American immigrants accepted for entry would be processed at American embassies in their home countries, and Ellis Island’s roll was limited to a detention center for illegal immigrants awaiting deportation. During World War II, the Island’s hospital was used to house disabled American servicemen, while the main buildings were used to intern Italian and German prisoners of war, as well as “enemy aliens,” Axis nationals in the U.S. accused of attempts at sabotage and spying. At the end of the war, Ellis Island continued to hold foreigners and immigrants who were under investigation for communist and fascist views; at one point as many as 1,500 individuals were detained on the Island.

The detention center closed in November 1954, as changes to immigration policies led to a sharp decline in the number of detainees. The Island was officially abandoned by the Coast Guard and the buildings, declared surplus property by the Federal government, fell into disrepair. Unsure of what to do with the site, the government asked state governments and non-profits to submit proposals for its use. Suggestions ranged from a homeless shelter and retirement home to a clinic for alcoholics, a school for the disabled to a public university. One of the strongest voices, however, came from members of the New Jersey state Senate, who proposed connecting the Island to New Jersey and creating a park and museum commemorating the immigrants who had passed through the Island.

While the grand buildings, giant murals, and historic location might have naturally lent themselves to a memorial or historic site, the suggestion to create a museum on the Island was surprisingly controversial; debates over the possibility of an Ellis Island museum would shape the Island’s fate through the latter half of the 20th century. The biggest stumbling block to its creation was the plan for the American Museum of Immigration (AMI), set to be built in the base of the Statue of Liberty and supported by some of America’s leading philanthropists, including the DuPont family, and descendants of both Alexander Hamilton and Ulysses S. Grant. Concerned that a museum on Ellis Island would jeopardize their ongoing fundraising, the leadership of the AMI set out to foil any plans for Ellis Island’s historic redevelopment.

In 1956, after folding to pressure from the leadership of the AMI, the government announced that Ellis Island would be put up for sale for commercial development. Ads were placed in the Wall Street Journal listing the sale of “one of the most famous land marks in the world.” Ellis Island was advertised as an excellent location for an “oil storage depot, import and export processing, warehousing, [or] manufacturing.” The sale would include 27.5 acres of land, 35 buildings, and, as a bonus, the ferry boat “Ellis Island,” suitable for shuttling workers to and from the Island site. By September, the government was collecting bids.

Will the gardens that once welcomed weary immigrants soon be stacked with shipping containers?  How far will the AMI board stoop to block an Ellis Island Museum?  Will New York and New Jersey fight to the death over rights to the Island? Tune in next week to find out . . .

Tenement Museum Program Highlights for May

Melissa Clark of The New York Times

Melissa Clark of The New York Times

Every month, the Tenement Museum offers terrific programming to the general public. But rarely has there been a month so jam packed with so many terrific events that we decided to devote a whole blog to highlighting them. This May has a little bit of something for everyone, and we don’t want you to miss any of these terrific programs.

Right off the bat, the month gets started with a special treat. On Sunday, May 1 at 6:30pm, there will be a screening of the rarely-seen documentary Red Shirley (2010). On the eve of her 100th birthday, activist and immigrant Shirley Novick sat down with her cousin – her very famous cousin – the late, great music icon Lou Reed, for an interview. After we screen the film, there will be a special conversation with the artist Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed’s partner for 21 years, Ralph Gibson, the film’s co-director and cinematographer, Tony Michels, historian and editor of Jewish Radicals, and Merrill Weiner, Lou Reed’s sister, to reveal more stories about politics and families. This program is part of the Digital Storytelling Workshop, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

On Wednesday, May 11 at 6:30pm, the award-winning writer Rebecca Traister will return to The Tenement Museum to discuss her new book, All The Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. The work has been heralded by the New Republic as “a monumental study of the political, economic, social and sexual consequences of the rise of unmarried women.” Alice Kessler-Harris, pre-eminent United States women’s historian, will join Traister to discuss the history of single women, with a special emphasis on the “unconventional” women active in the Progressive Era.

For food lovers, mark these next two programs down on your calendar. First, on Wednesday, May 18 at 6:30pm we will be hosting Tenement Kitchens: Adaptation in America. Make a mess in our kitchen with a hands-on cooking class! First, tour the Tenement at 97 Orchard Street and explore the kitchens of two neighbors in the year 1916. You will meet the Confino family, who immigrated to the Lower East Side from present-day Greece; and the Rogarshevsky family who immigrated to the United States from Lithuania. After seeing the spaces, you will then join culinary historian Sarah Lohman and learn how to prepare traditional baklava and an Americanized recipe from one of our 97 Orchard families. We’ll explore the diversity of Jewish cuisine on the Lower East Side and make present-day connections with your own family traditions. Purchase tickets for this event through our website or by phone at 877-975-3786.

Just when you finished getting over the delicious baklava you just made, the following week, on May 25 at 6:30pm, we will host another fascinating food related program, The Culinary Mystery of Hinde Amchanitzky. New York Times food critic and cookbook author, Melissa Clark, will help us untangle a century-old gastronomic mystery. In 1901, an enterprising Lower East Side restaurant keeper named Hinde Amchanitzky published America’s first Yiddish-language cookbook. Mysteriously, eight years after Hinde’s death, a “new and augmented edition” of her cookbook, a departure from the original in both tone and content, appeared in neighborhood bookstores. From schmaltz-laden noodle puddings and stuffed breast of veal to “hygienic” bread and celery cutlets, the two cookbooks could hardly be written by the same woman. Or were they? Jane Ziegelman, author of 97 Orchard and Annie Polland, the Tenement Museum’s Senior Vice President of Education and Programming, present the culinary clues. These clues will include translations of the recipes, newspaper ads, and food samples from the cookbooks as they try to solve the mystery, and at the very least, learn more about the immigrant women and cooking.

If you have questions about any of these programs, feel free to contact Laura Lee in our Programming department at or at 646-518-3032.

  • Post by Jonathan Pace, Communications Manager at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Remembering the Streit’s Matzo Factory

The Streit's Matzo Factory on Rivington Street. Photo: Edmund Gillon

The Streit’s Matzo Factory on Rivington Street. Photo: Edmund Gillon

The spring of 2015 marked the end of an era on the Lower East Side. With much fanfare, the Streit’s Matzo Factory – a staple of the neighborhood since 1916 – permanently closed its doors. The company decided to move its manufacturing from the Lower East Side to a new plant in Rockland County. For many, the Streit’s Matzo Factory was a lasting vestige of a different time in Lower East Side history, representing a Jewish immigrant culture that has come and gone. In fact, the factory was called by several scholars, “the Jewish Plymouth Rock.”

The terrific new documentary, Streit’s: Matzo and the American Dream, which concludes its week-long run at the Film Forum tonight, tells the story of Streit’s and its significance to the Lower East Side. Directed by Michael Levine, it is a must-see for anyone interested in immigration, food, or New York history. If you aren’t able to see the film, you can check out the film’s website to get information on other screenings.

Before we go into specifics, let’s first explain – for those who are not familiar – what exactly matzo is. Matzo is an unleavened flatbread made from flour and water. The flour can be from whole or processed grains, but it must be either wheat, spelt, barley, rye, or oat. Matzo plays a significant role during the Passover festival when chametz (which is leaven and five grains that, according to Jewish Law, can be leavened) is forbidden. The tradition refers to the story of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt, when the departing families had to leave their homes before their bread had time to rise.

Aron Streit, the founder of Streit’s, was in the matzo business most of his life. Aron and his wife, Nettie, arrived in the United States from Austria in the 1890’s. Like many Jewish immigrants, Aron and Nettie maintained the Old World traditions in their new homeland, hosting Friday night Shabbos dinners. Another tradition Aron brought with him was his knowledge and ability to make matzo.

Aron founded his first matzo company with a business associate, Rabbi Weinberger, in 1916. The location of Aron’s first matzo company was actually on Pitt Street in the Lower East Side. In the Pitt Street location, Aron and Rabbi Weinberger made each piece of matzo by hand. By 1925, there was a massive Jewish population in the Lower East Side (they made up about 60% of the neighborhood) and the demand for matzo was increasing. So much so, that Aron opened a new matzo factory with one of his sons a few blocks away on Rivington Street. His second son would soon after join the family business, and the company prospered. They would remain in the Rivington Street space until 2015.

The factory was 47,000 square feet. It usually produced about 16,000 pounds of matzo each day. By the time the factory closed, it had two 75-foot ovens which baked 900 pounds of matzo per hour. The factory did adhere to strict kosher laws, allowing only Shomer Shabbat Jews to touch the matzo dough before being baked. The whole matzo baking process was under the supervision of a Rabbi, who would time the baking process to ensure that it did not exceed eighteen minutes. If it did go beyond the eighteen minutes, the matzo was discarded.

Aron Streit died in 1937, but his family continues to operate the business. Streit’s is the only family-owned and operated matzo company in the United States. The company also sold more than just matzo; they also had noodles, soup mixes, potato products, and cake mixes, among others. Today, Aron’s granddaughters and great-grandsons now run the company.

With the rich history of Streit’s Matzo Factory and all that it represented, it is easy to understand why there was a lot of publicity when the family decided to close the Rivington Street location last year. Today, not much remains in the Lower East Side of the time when it was a predominately Jewish neighborhood (though restaurants like Katz’s Deli and Russ & Daughters have managed to stay alive and well). The Streit’s Matzo Factory reminded many people – and may have given them a brief glimpse – of what life was once like here in the Lower East Side.


Refugee Blues: Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt a refugee of Facism who helped to shape Post-War thought about the violence of the twentieth century. Image courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.

Hannah Arendt: a refugee of Fascism who helped to shape Post-War thought about the violence of the twentieth century. Image courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.

Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin,
Saw a door opened and a cat let in:
But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.

–From “Refugee Blues” by W.H. Auden

Immigration to the Lower East Side has been a complex tug of war. Each wave of immigrants has negotiated their share of push and pull factors depending on their country of origin and the time of their departure. In the late 1930s, violence in Europe and Asia caused shockwaves of tension in many corners of the globe. Many immigrants attempted to flee Fascism just as military measures made boarders impenetrable.

One of the luckier refugees of the violence was a brilliant German-Jewish philosopher named Hannah Arendt. In order to become “lucky”, Arnedt had to have the resources to recognize the seriousness of fascism in Germany and to find a way to arrive first in Prague and then Geneva and then Paris. Finally in 1941 she found a way to enter the United States: New York City. Arendt brought with her some of the most lasting analysis of Fascism and Stalinism to arise in the post-war period. As a result, theorists, historians, professors and film-makers continue to honor Arendt to this day.

Arendt was born in Hanover, Germany in 1906 to a family of ‘secular’ German Jews. Her education reads like a who’s who of preeminent German philosophers at the time.  In 1926, after completing high school she attended Marburg University where she studied under Martin Heidegger, one of the most highly-regarded minds of German philosophy. Heidegger recognized in Arendt another bright mind and their relationship quickly became a “brief but intense love affair.” Arendt was just getting started. Soon she moved to Freiburg and spent a semester attending the lectures of Edmund Husserl another widely respected philosopher. After Freiburg, Arendt moved to Heidelberg to study with Karl Jaspers in the spring of 1926 and began an important intellectual relationship which lasted for years.

After completing her doctoral dissertation on St. Augustine’s ideas of love in 1929, she worked for a German Zionist organization in a climate of increasing toxicity for Jewish Germans. That same year Arendt married Günther Anders who wrote under the name Stern, a fellow philosopher and thinker whom she met at Heidegger’s lectures. At the time, Arendt only had eyes for Heidegger, but when they met again at a ball in Berlin, Stern whispered a sweet treatise on love to marvelous effect [1]. Arendt was arrested and forced to flee Germany in 1933. When Arendt finally arrived in Paris she worked for six years for several Jewish refugee organizations. She had divorced Stern in 1937 and began a relationship with Henriech Blücher whom she met while working for Youth Aliyah an organization which helped Jewish youth escape internment in Europe.

Arendt deep in thought. Image courtesy of the Film Forum.

Arendt deep in thought. Image courtesy of the Film Forum.

She was imprisoned at Gurs detention center for her political ideas but escaped, walking and hitchhiking to as yet unoccupied territories of France where she encountered Blücher by chance.  Hard work and brilliance had helped win her a certain renown and she had made the list of Varian Fry’s Jews to be saved. (Fry was an american journalist who, through forgery and Black Market maneuvers managed to get around 2,000 people out of Nazis occupied territories where they were wanted by the Reich.) In 1941 Arendt and Blücher managed to board a ship leaving from Lisbon and became two of the last Jews to leave France.

Once settled in the United States, Arendt lived on Riverside Drive in New York and worked as a writer, scholar and editor writing frequently on refugees and anti-Semitism through the 1940s. In the 1950s Arendt published two of her most important works, The Origins of Totalitarianism and The Human Condition which discussed the impact of modernity on the human condition and the impossibility of understanding tradition after the savage acts of Nazism and Stalinism.

In 1961, she covered the trial of Adolf Eichmann, a high-ranking Nazi commander for The New Yorker. When she concluded that Eichmann had committed millions to death not out of raging malice but out of a bureaucratic devotion to the regime, both Arendt and The New Yorker were at the height of their powers.

With her ever present cigarette. Image courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.

With her ever present cigarette. Image courtesy of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.

Arendt was honored in the United States as a visiting professor at Berkeley, Princeton, Columbia and Wesleyan. After the death of her husband, the acclaimed poet Wystan Hugh (W.H.) Auden – who was openly gay – proposed marriage to Arendt as a display of their firm friendship. She did, however, refuse.

It is a testament to Arendt’s incredible intellectual powers that an extensive study in recent years have both undermined her theories about Eichmann, and reified her thoughts on modernity. Years after Eichmann’s trial, archives she could not have accessed have showed that Eichmann was much more intentional than Arendt at first believed, bringing her controversial claims to life again. Even popular audiences have welcomed portraits of Arendt. A feature film, Hannah Arendt, and a documentary have charted her dramatic and rich intellectual life. Vita Activa is the newest documentary about Arendt currently showing at the Film Forum through tomorrow, April 20.

–Posted by Julia Berick, Marketing and Communications Coordinator

Research for this blog was aided by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College , Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Humanities the Magazine for the National Endowment of the Humanities. Much more in-depth discussion of Arendt’s philosophies can be found at these sites and others.

[1] “I won Hannah [Arendt] at the Ball with a comment made while dancing, that loving is that act by which something aposteriori–the by-chance-encountered other is transformed into an apriori of one’s own life. –This pretty formula naturally has not been confirmed.” – Anders in his book The Cherry Battle, this quote was harvested from the blog of the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College.