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STREETS: A Memoir of the Lower East Side by Bella Spewack

STREETS: A Memoir of the Lower East Side


Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1995
ISBN: 1558611533
Publisher: Feminist

A vitriolic look back at a childhood of poverty by an Eastern European immigrant at the start of the 20th century. Before going on to co-write such Broadway hits as Kiss Me, Kate with her husband and collaborator, Sam Spewack, Bella Cohen (1899-1990) was a Jewish immigrant child living on New York's Lower East Side. Written when she was only 23 and never before published, Streets is a memoir of the abject poverty that gave her an overwhelming drive to escape and succeed in non-Jewish American society. Although the book reads like a dry internal monologue, what is clearly communicated is the young girl's absolute and overwhelming anger at her own poverty and surroundings. This bitterness overshadows any nuances the author tries to give to the sights, sounds, and smells that crowded the tenements in which she lived. In fact, her ability to emotionally distance herself from the details of her life is so pronounced that, upon returning home after a summer of working in a boys' camp, not only does she not recognize her own mother, whom she passes in the hallway, but she feels disgust at the woman's ragged, unkempt manner. The only emotional bond Spewack forms in her youth is with her baby half-brother, who dies in the last pages of the memoir; her solace is the local library. Although we learn in the afterword, written by an old friend, that Spewack subtitled the book ""Why I Wrote Comedy,"" it's unfortunate that the publisher chose not to retain that subtitle, because as the memoir stands, Spewack seems doomed to a life of rage and resentment, despite what the reader knows of her later accomplishments in life. A study in personal determination, but lacking the literary touches that allow us to see and experience a life.