Commentary Magazine


In the Community: Exhibiting the Lower East Side

The Jewish museum did such a thorough job conjuring up group memories in its ambitious exhibition devoted to the Lower East Side that I was moved to wonder just what purposes such memories ought to serve. The exhibition was described in the catalogue, somewhat ominously perhaps, as a “multi-media environmental study,” and audiences were in fact exposed to as much of the variously recorded experience of a particular time and place as could reasonably be crammed into half-a-dozen sizable museum rooms. Being the kind of person who likes to contemplate objects on display in quiet concentration, I am not sure I altogether liked this bombardment of exhibits—it is not easy, for instance, to make out a memorandum by Louis Marshall or a passage from Jacob Epstein’s Autobiography while Zero Mostel’s recorded reading of letters to the Forward rumbles at one ear and the unrelenting drone of a Hester Street huckster assaults the other. But this is probably a cranky prejudice of mine deriving from the benighted age before we realized that media were messages, messages environments, and so forth: the exhibition as a whole surely represented an admirable effort at the total presentation of a subject, its variety was instructive, and the materials were put together with a considerable degree of professional finesse.

Those materials included: photographs by Jacob Riis, Lewis Hines, and others, of the East Side streets and tenements during the great period of immigration; a brief film on immigrant life made in 1915; the recorded voices of Boris Thomashevsky, Molly Picon, Maurice Schwartz, and other luminaries of the old Yiddish stage; newspapers, communal documents, posters of the period; sewing machines and irons used in the sweatshops; paintings of the East Side milieu by George Bellows, Abraham Walkowitz, George Luks, and other artists who were members of, or related to, the so-called Ash Can School. Of all these exhibits, the paintings were the least rewarding: they attested to a certain level of diligent competence, but, in comparison with the offerings in the other media, most of them seemed lifeless, perfunctory. This obviously reflects the limitations of imagination and ability of the painters in the group, but it also has something to do, I think, with the nature of their subject. For most of them, in varying ways, try to see the immigrant milieu as material for aesthetic composition, and they somehow denature the scenes they represent by their own special viewpoints of artistic selectivity: if the East Side can be said to have had a meaning, it was anything but aesthetic.

Precisely for this reason, the one painting in the exhibition that was genuinely moving, Charles Ulrich’s “In the Land of Promise: Castle Gardens” (1884), achieves its power not through any originality of technique—it looks like a tired 19th-century reminiscence of Dutch realism—but through the sheer dramatic suggestiveness in the posture of its human figures. In the foreground, we see a pale young woman with a child at the breast, sitting on a bench at the immigrant reception center; the look of profoundly disheartened weariness in the young mother’s face is mirrored in the face of a little girl, possibly her daughter, standing just behind her.

Ulrich’s painting is in fact quite close in mood and conception to many of the photographs—especially the remarkable ones by Jacob Riis—which were clearly the most impressive aspect of the exhibtion. And what the photographs chiefly reveal, in a variety of striking ways, is that the Lower East Side, for all its turbulence and energy, was obviously not a pretty place and apparently not a very happy one to live in. In this respect, the huge proportions to which some of the photographs were blown up had the effect of making details leap out almost painfully, closing the gap between picture and viewer through a kind of visual coercion. Slums being what they are, one was prepared for the pervasive physical sordidness of these scenes—the grime and clutter, the terrible sense of crowding and enclosure of the tenements, the bleak factory look of the schoolrooms and business places with their walls of bare brick or corrugated iron, the ubiquitous rubble and refuse that give a kind of bombed-out appearance to some of the streets and empty lots. Less expected, certainly, with all one hears about the vibrant life of the old East Side, were the faces of the people in the photographs. The big enlargement of a scene from the immigration bureau (c. 1910), the first picture visible on entering the exhibition, was an apt introduction to the whole range of East Side faces. One sees the immigrants—to judge by their features and clothing, more Italians than Jews here—sitting row after row, boxed in by metal railings, with what looks like a docketing tag hanging round the neck or jutting from an outside pocket of each person, the faces, disturbingly alike, marked with suspicion, anxious bewilderment, and, above all, a slack-nerved, hollow-eyed fatigue. The photographer, of course, has caught these people at a particularly trying moment, after an exhausting ocean trip in steerage, just as they are being slowly worked through the screening apparatus of a strange bureaucracy which, for all they know, may turn them back at the gate. It seems likely, moreover, that many of the photographers whose work was exhibited tended to select subjects that would show the elements of pathos in the plight of the immigrant population. Nevertheless, those hurt, scared, immensely weary eyes were repeated too often in too many different circumstances to have been merely the accidental result of rare moments.

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The east side, with the desperate scramble of its inhabitants to eke out a living from the strident competition of the pushcarts and the pitiless rush of piece-work in the sweatshops and at home, must in fact have been an exhausting place to stay alive in. Some of the harshness of this existence is reflected in the faces of the children in the photographs, who often seem like shrunken, wizened adults, at times quite Dickensian in their poignancy. All these aspects of the stress and fatigue of life on the East Side are powerfully summed up in a photograph by Jacob Riis of a man preparing for the Sabbath in a Ludlow Street coal-cellar. The very idea of the picture is arresting enough: the braided Sabbath loaf, set in the middle of a grimy oilcloth, with a background of blackened, peeling boards, a kerosene can, a coal shovel, looks somehow humiliated. But the real focus of meaning in the picture is the face of the man wearily sitting at the table: he is the kind of Jew it has long been the fashion to romanticize—a thick black beard and a head of dark curls, hands swollen and calloused with work, he is a sturdy embodiment of the proster Yid—but his eyes have the awful glazed look of a fighter about to go down for the count. One hopes the Sabbath will restore him a little to himself.

There were, to be sure, less pathetic aspects to the old East Side, which were represented in the exhibition by the display on the Yiddish theater, by the photographic and documentary evidence of the labor-union movement, by some of the literary and autobiographical materials included in the catalogue. But I have emphasized the effects of grinding poverty both because they emerged from the exhibition most forcefully and because they, above all, have to be confronted in an attempt to make something of this memory. The organizers of the exhibition, it is clear, were most eager to make something of the experience without sentimentalizing or inflating it, but the evaluative statements in the catalogue tended to grow hazy at the crucial points of their argument, thus allowing certain notes of special pleading to insinuate themselves.

The three brief essays included in the catalogue, an introduction by Allon Schoener, assistant director of the museum, and reflections on what the East Side represented by Irving Howe and Milton Hindus, all showed such determination to take a balanced view of the subject that they all applied the same formula of rhetorical balance—one clause against the East Side, one for it; a brace of adjectives on stinking poverty, another set on vitality and idealistic aspiration. But this did not prevent any of the three essays from slipping at moments into vague over-evaluations, as illustrated by this sentence of Milton Hindus, which reflects the most embarrassing consequences of the resolution to interpret dispassionately yet portentously: “The East Side was a great proving ground for Americans, filled with ineffable ecstasies as well as hazards and handicaps, which served, as such things always do, to separate the wheat from the chaff, the men from the boys.” The symmetrical balance of good and evil is a little too comfortably neat, and, certainly in the light of the exhibition, “ineffable ecstasies” seems like a rather strenuous exaggeration, serving here more to round out an alliteration than to square off a meaning. The flood of proverbial wisdom, moreover, at the end of the sentence, is symptomatic of a temporary cessation of thought, invoking as it does the famous tautology of popular Darwinism—“we survived, therefore we must have been the fittest for survival.” The hint of self-congratulation that creeps into this view of the East Side is one of the real dangers in our potential response as Jews to the whole evocation of our early experience of privation in this country; I would like to return to this danger in commenting, later, on the audience at the Jewish Museum.

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In contrast to the Hindus piece, Irving Howe’s essay, “The Lower East Side: Symbol and Fact,” was filled with bright observations, conceived with a broad and subtle awareness of historical complexities. He is marvelously apt in describing the “subculture of Yiddishkeit” which he sees as the essence of the East Side world: “It signified a sense of communal discipline and affection. It meant cultural intensity, indeed, cultural ferocity; it placed commitment before manners, vitality before gentility.” Howe seems to have intellectuals particularly in mind, and his observation does a good deal to explain the intellectual style of many Jews, himself among them, active in American cultural life today. Now, I don’t want to carp at so eloquent an essay, yet it seems to me that, for all its perceptiveness, it is subtly but significantly misleading in one respect. Howe’s own mental habitat has been to a large extent ideological, and, in joining the effort of the framers of the exhibition to see the East Side as an “idea,” he tends to convert into quasi-ideological intention even what was no more than blind circumstance. Thus, he conceives the Lower East Side as “an experiment in collective rootlessness, a brief transcendence over nationhood, . . . a provincial world with universalist values.” This description may work for the impassioned Yiddish socialists of the period, or for the Yiddish stage-interpreters of Shakespeare and Ibsen, but “experiment,” after all, implies conscious purpose, and I’m not sure whether that can really be stretched to cover any large part of the immigrant masses. My own grandfather, for instance, like so many ordinary Jews at the time, came to America in 1905 to avoid conscription into the Tsar’s army (he had already served once) and to escape the threat of future pogroms. What he wanted to do here was to provide for his family and remain a self-respecting, God-fearing Jew, not to build what Howe calls—in an excess of sophistication, I think—“a utopian colony of Yiddishkeit.” We all have our own grandfathers, of course, but among a million-and-a-half Jewish immigrants in half a century, a great many must have been simple Jews with simple aspirations, and it seems unwise to state the meaning of the total experience in terms of the activity of a few segments of the group, however vocal.

Hindus is patently defensive in his view of the immigrants—complaining, for example, about the “caricatures” of Jewish life in Henry Roth and throwing in Philip Roth for good measure—and Howe, though more critically intelligent, resembles him in trying to recreate the East Side as a model of the passionately committed life. Howe’s retrospective vision of immigrant utopianism could usefully be compared with the comments on those same Jews of a contemporary observer, Jacob Riis, in How the Other Half Lives (1890):

Money is their God. Life itself is of little value compared with even the leanest bank account. In no other spot does life wear so intensely bald and materialistic an aspect as in Ludlow Street. Over and over again I have met with instances of these Polish or Russian Jews deliberately starving themselves to the point of physical exhaustion, while working night and day at a tremendous pressure to save a little money.

As a document of social realities, Riis’s book is, admittedly, peculiar and not entirely reliable. The same acute social conscience that made his camera an instrument of compassionate portrayal is present in the book, but mingled with an appalling condescension which is compounded of the standard prejudices of the period: every Irishman is a roughneck and a drunkard, every Chinaman has an opium den in the back of his laundry with a white slave-girl, every Jew is a moneygrubber. But if Riis’s vision needs to be corrected for the parallax of ethnic bias, it can hardly be discounted; he really went into the back of those laundries, again and again, with camera and pen and paper, just as he really went into the sweatshops and the tenements. The overwhelming fact about the East Side experience for us today is that we got out of it, and the way out was not always, perhaps not even usually, the shining road of self-enlightenment through public schools, lending libraries, and free lectures, which is pointed to with justified pride in the exhibition. The need to escape from the exploitative clutches of an economic system as ruthless as was this country’s half a century ago often elicited a matching ruthlessness, not only toward others but toward oneself as well; the “ferocity” that Howe mentions was not always limited to cultural activities. If one is to speak of the heritage of the East Side in terms of the Jewish labor movement, the Yiddish press and theater, the artists, writers, political leaders who grew up in the ghetto, one must also take into account the crasser heritage of the “pants-pressers,” as they are sometimes still contemptuously called, who, like their more idealistic brothers, were shaped and tempered by those years on the East Side. It does not require a very long leap of inference to see a connection between the frantic pursuit of the desperately needed dollar by the grandfathers on Ludlow Street and the hideous ostentation with which its buying-power is displayed by their children and grandchildren in Westchester County and Miami Beach.

This brings me to the crucial matter of the people who came to the exhibition and their response to the displays. There was nothing especially crass about the two audiences I had an opportunity to observe—quite the contrary. The one safe generalization that can be made about them is that they were, with rare exceptions, visibly and comfortably affluent Americans. Their dress was generally in good taste, with a tendency to conservative fashionableness enlivened by an occasional op-art coat or mini-skirt; their manner, recognizably Jewish, I suppose, but with little of that quality of “loudness” attributed to Jews by prejudice, and about which some of the children of the immigrants were once uneasy themselves. My second visit to the museum was on a Sunday afternoon, at which time people were queued up all the way around the corner. By the evidence of this large group, a trip to the exhibition was typically a family activity. For the most part, the crowd was made up of middle-aged parents accompanied by children in their early teens or slightly younger; occasionally, one saw three generations, the parents and children together with a whitehaired grandmother (for some reason, grandfathers were much scarcer) in an expensive knit suit that was worlds away from the drab skirts and blouses of a Delancey Street girlhood.

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What could the exhibition have meant to these people? The answer to this has to be a complicated one, for it seems likely that the displays must have roused in many, as they did in me, mixed feelings, not very easy to articulate. I do not think that the primary sense of the East Side which came across to the audience was of a “creative crucible” or a “utopian colony,” as the contributors to the catalogue imagine it. For most of the parents, and for all of the grandparents, the exhibition would have been first of all an evocation of poignant personal memories, and the comments I overheard as I walked around tended strongly to corroborate this supposition.

Such recollection for the sake of recollection seems to me a legitimate, even an important, kind of experience. We Jews are proverbially a remembering people, which is in some ways a mixed blessing, but a blessing nevertheless. The particular forms of human life are so fragile and ephemeral that our only way not to concede their utter insignificance in the vast rush of time is to cling through image and word and artifact to the look and feel of the lives we led before. If this urgency of memory lays claim on those who have actually undergone the experience, it has a different imperative, possibly a greater one, for those who come after. When I was born, my mother’s family had been living away from the East Side for more than fifteen years, and both my grandparents were already dead. Much of the exhibition moved me because I could glimpse in it a world I had been hearing about since childhood which I was never able to know, but the strongest appeal to my own imagination was of a general, not a personal, nature, in the simple revelation of things irrevocably past, in seeing under those kerchiefs and derbies and visored caps young faces that are now old and wrinkled, or gone from the world. It is a mistake, I think—almost, a mistake with propagandistic overtones—to reduce this experience of memory to a “meaning,” to translate a large complex of lived history into an idea.

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Most of the parents I overheard at the exhibition were engaged in trying to share their sense of personal recollection with their children. The remarks elicited from them by the various photographs were what one would expect: “My father used to work in a place like that,” “See, your great-grandmother looked just like that,” and so forth. For a twelve-year-old, the exhibition must have been something like a guided tour of the early Middle Ages. “See, darling,” I heard one mother tell her young daughter, pointing to a picture of dozens and dozens of laden clotheslines strung out of tenement windows, “that was in the days before there were electric dryers.” All this might conceivably bewilder a child, but it could be the kind of bewilderment which is the beginning of learning. What should be noted is that if the experience of the East Side represents complete otherness for the children, it is almost equally that for the parents, too.

To any group of prosperous, second-generation American Jews at this point in time, the East Side, above all, is that which they emphatically no longer are. One feels the force of this at the very beginning of the introduction to the catalogue. “Life was a panorama,” Allon Schoener writes, dutifully balancing seven negative nouns with four positive ones, “of hardship, misery, poverty, crowding, filth, uncertainty, alienation, aspiration, joy, love, and devotion.” Life in those days, that is to say, had all the qualities, good and bad, manifestly absent from our own lives, which in their urban and suburban uniformity don’t even seem very panoramic any more.

The contemplation of the otherness of one’s own past clearly has its fascinations, but it has its moral perils as well. It can lead to a futile longing for that which is no longer attainable and which, were it attainable, might prove to be less desirable than it seems. The past may legitimately be used as an instructive model of cultural alternatives, and this is pretty much what Irving Howe tries to make of it. But it is easy to be mesmerized by a mirage of the past, in this case, moreover, a past that, by its nature, can give us only limited help in learning how to cope with the difficulties of our own historical situation. Perhaps a more serious danger, however, in recalling our immigrant experience now is that self-congratulatory attitude which I mentioned earlier; implicit for some in the contemplation of past hardships is a sense of complacent satisfaction in having climbed so far above all that. The one disturbing thing I heard at the Jewish Museum was an exchange between two middle-aged men. Standing before a rear-view photograph of a row of tenements, they were moved to comment in tones of the deepest self-righteousness about the differences between the ghettos of past and present. That most of those people “pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps” was the not-unexpected conclusion. (“It is a cruel jest,” Martin Luther King recently observed to a mixed audience in Atlanta, “to say to a bootless man, ‘lift yourself up by your own bootstraps.’ ”)

This argument, which many of us have encountered at one time or another in a debate over school integration or rent subsidies, hardly needs refuting: the obstacles confronting the Negro in 1966 are conspicuously different from those faced by the Jew in 1916, for whom a decent life was still feasible without basic changes in the general distribution of wealth and power. There is harsh irony in the fact that the experience of poverty should provide Jews the excuse for a deficiency in human sympathy and social imagination, especially when we recall how in the Bible the memory of former suffering is repeatedly invoked in order to awaken social conscience—“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

The Bible is particularly relevant here because its own special stress on historical experience raises fundamental questions about what we ought to do with our past. The biblical writers, as far as I can see, are almost always didactic in their use of the past, and for that reason they are sometimes tendentious as well. Since our own point of departure in confronting history can only be intellectual honesty, unsupported by any certainty of faith in a divine plan, we obviously cannot allow ourselves to reconstruct our history tendentiously, but we ought to note that the Bible typically chooses its emphases from the past in order to make more rigorous demands on the present, not, as we may be tempted to do, in order to bolster collective egos. The biblical record also suggests that if we no longer can afford to simplify history, we can afford even less merely to forget it: the Jews, like other peoples, though more intently than most, have through the ages founded their sense of identity on a firm awareness of the group’s previous experience, and that can hardly be abandoned if we are to remain Jews. The exhibition at the Jewish Museum dramatically illustrated how a variety of media, artfully employed, can help to foster such historical awareness; but it also pointed up the dangers in attempting to carve shapely meanings out of the past, against the tough and crooked grain of the past itself.

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Coming In February….

Daniel P. Moynihan’s own account of the story behind, and the controversy over, “The Moynihan Report.”

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