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  • Memory as Identity: The Invention of the Lower East Side
  • Beth S. Wenger (bio)

In 1927, the Jewish Daily Forward, America’s leading Yiddish newspaper, celebrated its thirtieth anniversary with a retrospective of Jewish life on the Lower East Side. As the newspaper measured its own progress and marked the growth of the American Jewish community, its editors also reflected upon the East Side neighborhood that had once been the most thriving center of Jewish immigrant culture. When the newspaper issued its anniversary edition, less than fifteen percent of New York Jews still lived on the Lower East Side. By the 1920s, a generation of Jewish immigrants had abandoned the East Side’s cramped quarters in favor of more spacious and modern housing in Brooklyn and the Bronx. 1 At a time when the immigrant world of the Lower East Side was quickly disappearing, the Forward nostalgically recalled a neighborhood once “teeming with life and feverish activity, rich in movements and ‘isms,’ and marked by squalor, poverty, and sordidness, by energy, ambition, and idealism.” 2 The tone of the Forward’s anniversary edition testifies to the creation of a new Lower East Side. During the interwar years, the East Side ceased to be the center of Jewish population and activity and became instead a primary site of Jewish memory and a physical space for the invention of Jewish identity in America.

Today, the Lower East Side has long since claimed a central place in Jewish collective consciousness. In the 1990s, most American Jews have come to know the East Side through the widely reproduced photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, through popular books such as Irving Howe’s World of Our Fathers, or through the Hollywood images in Hester Street and Crossing Delancey. Since 1966, when the first major exhibition about the Lower East Side opened at New York’s Jewish Museum, there have been scores of popular exhibits chronicling the immigrant culture of the neighborhood. Today, Jewish tourists can visit the site of immigrant arrival at Ellis Island and follow the path of Jewish [End Page 3] settlement through a variety of East Side walking tours and neighborhood museums. 3 In the last fifty years, the Lower East Side has become the most popular locus of American Jewish memory. But although fascination with the East Side has gained widespread cultural currency since the mid-1960s, it actually began much earlier. Long before the emergence of the “new ethnicity,” American Jews began forging a new relationship with the Lower East Side, one that reflected the development of Jewish culture in the interwar years.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Lower East Side became a nostalgic center for New York Jews, a living reminder of an idealized immigrant world as well as a mirror of the past that reflected the extent of Jewish progress. By the interwar years, the Lower East Side was already a popular site for Jewish tourism and a place that Jews invested with cultural meaning. Individual Jews planned shopping and entertainment excursions to the East Side. Several Jewish organizations as well as the government’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) sponsored historical surveys and photographic studies documenting Jewish life on the Lower East Side. Religious schools took their young, American-born children on field trips to the neighborhood to catch a glimpse of a fading Jewish culture. 4 During the interwar years, Jews revisited, retold, and reinvented the immigrant Jewish past not because they longed for a return to the immigrant world but because they were moving beyond it. Nostalgia has sometimes been viewed as an unsophisticated and simplistic reimagining of the past, but more recent studies emphasize the engagement of nostalgia in the present. 5 “As one aspect of collective memory reconstructed from the vantage point of the present,” nostalgia for the immigrant neighborhood provided a geographic space where native-born Jews could trace their roots as Jewish Americans. 6 The development of nostalgia for immigrant life was no retreat from the modernization and acculturation of Jews but rather an integral part of the ongoing reconstruction of Jewish consciousness in an American context. [End Page 4]

For a generation of immigrant Jews and their children, the...

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