A provocative account of how the Lower East Side of New York became a mythical citation in the American Jewish narrative.
Diner (American Jewish History/New York Univ.) contends that the Lower East Side has played a far greater role in the collective memory of American Jews than it actually played in their lives. Beginning in the 1940s, he maintains, American Jews had a need to create a “sacred” space, apart from their non-Jewish neighbors, to help shape the identity they were beginning to lose. The author documents how they created this with texts, movies, museum exhibits, and walking tours that celebrated the Lower East Side, repackaging it as the ethnic alternative to the sterile suburbs to which most Jews had since moved. The earliest text to romanticize the Lower East Side was Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family, which affected thousands of post-WWII Jewish sensibilities. Unlike the earlier novels of Anzia Yezierska, Henry Roth, or Abraham Cahan (which realistically reflected the neighborhood’s poverty, distress, and strife), the All-of-a-Kind Family series presented a cheerful family whose spirited children rushed home from the library to prepare for the joys of the Sabbath. The glowing misrepresentation of the Lower East Side, contends Diner, got its brightest in the 1960s, when the counterculture hungered for authenticity and bemoaned their parents’ assimilation into the vacuous mainstream culture. Ethnic identity was in, and the Lower East Side became the perfect metaphor. While this metaphor is powerful, Diner insists that it is flawed. For one thing, he points out that focusing on the Lower East Side ignores the vibrant culture of the uptown German Jews who immigrated before the Eastern Europeans. Furthermore, he asserts that neighborhoods such as Brownsville, Brooklyn (95 percent Jewish in the early 1920s), were far more “kosher” than the Lower East Side. Whether it deserves to be or not, however, Diner concedes that the Lower East Side remains synonymous with the American Jewish past.
Admirably researched, this offers a perceptive revisionist analysis of American Jewry’s most distinctive former address.