Do you remember reading All-of-A-Kind Family as a kid? I loved those books, maybe in part because they were about another family of five girls. (Although, in truth, I think I read them before my two youngest sisters were born, so that theory may not hold). Anyway, we've been reading them to S, who really enjoys them too. The stories and history are so much more meaningful to me now because the books are set in our neighborhood and capture some of the history of the area. They tell the story of a Jewish family living on the lower east side of Manhattan in the early 1900's. Many Jewish traditions are explained, and you get a real sense of what life was like in our city 100 years ago. I was fascinated to discover that the stories are based on the author's childhood.
Since it fit so nicely with the All-of-A-Kind books, we took a little tour of the Tenement Museum during our vacation. We had a little time between buying our tickets and the start of the tour, so we also squeezed in a quick visit to the Museum at Eldridge Street, which is located nearby. The museum was originally a synagogue that was built in 1887, so it fits into the same time period as the books and might resemble the synagogue in the story. The building fell into terrible disrepair but recently completely a 20-year restoration that left it looking extraordinary. Every surface is covered with pattern and decoration in a very elegant manner that was carefully researched from the original decor. I was particularly amazed by the grooves that had been worn into the floors from thousands of worshippers rocking back and forth over the years and which were left intact during the restoration. Since the original stained glass window at the front was destroyed, the replacement was designed by artist Kiki Smith. Can you see what a beautiful space it is? I'd like to return for a tour when we have a little more time.
Touring the Tenement Museum is an eye-opening experience. The apartments are so tiny! It's difficult to imagine a family of seven people living together in such a tiny space. And yet the tour guide told extraordinary tales of the real families who lived and raised their many children in these minute spaces. All without indoor plumbing or electricity, and often running a garment-making business in the same small space. (The neighborhood was at the heart of the garment center at the time.)
photo by Steve Cadman
photo from the Tenement Museum
We picked up a children's book, If You Lived 100 Years Ago, at the gift shop, and S has been intrigued by all the approachable facts and clever illustrations inside. I've learned a lot from it, too. For my own reading, I've reserved a book about the Triangle Shirtwaist fire from the library.
We stopped at the Essex Street Market to get a little more lower east side history (and a little dinner) on our way home.
P.S. If you're interested in learning more about All-of-A-Kind Family, here is an online reader's companion with a lot of additional information about the author, the books, and the history.