Statistics vs. Stories

Visiting the Schneiders' graves in the 21st century.

SPOILER ALERT: On the Tenement Museum’s Shop Life tour, we describe how Caroline Schneider, co-owner with her husband of a German-American lager saloon at 97 Orchard, died of tuberculosis at the age of 50. Sometimes a visitor asks, “What was life expectancy back then?” I get it. They want to know if dying at 50 was such a bad thing. Maybe she was considered lucky to last so long.

As it turns out, answering this visitor’s question is harder than it may seem. According to the Mapping History Project at the University of Oregon , average life expectancy in the United States in 1885 – the year Caroline died – was about 42 years. So Caroline was lucky to live to 50!

But there’s more than one way to measure life expectancy. Men and women typically have different life expectancies, as the Mapping History Project website makes clear. Then as now, women typically lived longer.

The nuance doesn’t end there. “Average life expectancy” can be calculated from birth or from later in one’s life. If you calculate average life expectancy from birth, all those babies who died of communicable diseases such as diphtheria and measles weigh down the average. If we visit the Mapping History Project website again and choose to calculate average life expectancy from age 5 – that is, average life expectancy for those Americans who lived to their 5th birthday – the number is quite different. For girls who survived to age 5 in 1885, average life expectancy was 55 years – 13 years longer than if we calculate average life expectancy from birth!

Woman and children gather in this photograph of a 1914 rally to raise visibility for infant deaths. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Let’s not stop there. If we calculate average life expectancy for girls who attain their 5th birthday, we include the many women who died in childbirth. Caroline, at age 50, was past that hurdle. And indeed if we return to the Mapping History Project website and calculate average life expectancy from age 40 – that is, average life expectancy for those American women who made it to the 40th birthday – the number shoots up again, to 66 years – 24 years longer than if we calculate average life expectancy from birth.

As much as I love the Mapping History Project website, its Life Expectancy calculator omits key variables. What was average life expectancy for immigrants like Caroline compared to native-born Americans? What about average life expectancy for city residents like Caroline versus rural Americans? Even among immigrant women in New York City, how did a German woman’s life expectancy compare with an Irish woman’s? If we really wanted to drill down to Caroline Schneider’s expected lifespan, we would need to compare her to other German immigrant women living on the Lower East Side and working alongside their husbands in saloons.

By this point we’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and lost sight of what the Tenement Museum is all about. On Shop Life I keep the focus on John and Caroline Schneider, their customers, and their son, Harry. When Caroline died, Harry was just 8 years old. We don’t know how he felt the day his mother died, but we can imagine how he felt. And however he felt, he probably didn’t feel that his mother was lucky to live so long. No matter their age, the death of a loved one hurts. And for Harry and John, it was doubly devastating: The death of their beloved Caroline also marked the beginning of the end of the Schneiders’ saloon, because without the labor she did for free, the saloon could not survive for long.

Caroline's official death certificate

It’s not that statistics are a bad thing. It’s just that they’re imprecise and open to interpretation – just like stories. At the Tenement Museum we focus on the stories because statistics alone can never tell us what it truly feels like to be someone else. And by exploring how it would feel to be someone else, we give life to history and encourage empathy for the many different people who live among us today.

–Posted by Adam Steinberg, Senior Education Associate

Visitor(s) of the Month: November 2014

Meet Danielle Steinmann (center of photo) and a small horde of her wonderful colleagues from The Trustees of Reservations

On Thursdays, the Tenement Museum’s visitor center stays open until 8:30pm; visitors are serenaded with music playing over the loudspeakers, and the museum takes on a somewhat enchanted ambience. On Late Night Thursday, the visitor center staff have an opportunity to spend a little more time getting to know visitors and speak about what drew them to an after-hours tour of the Tenement Museum.

During the first Late Night Thursday of November, we caught up with members of The Trustees of Reservations, an organization that has built a sterling reputation through over 100 years of hard work caring for more than 100 special places, including historic houses and scenic sites that span nearly 25,000 acres all across the state of Massachusetts. The group had just returned from the day’s last Shop Life tour. We were able to speak for a while with Danielle Steinmann, the group’s Director of Visitor Interpretation, while her colleagues dined at nearby Russ & Daughters Cafe.

Danielle explained that the group, which consisted entirely of members who either served in executive roles for the organization or worked in a historic house, were on a field-trip to study how other museums handled historical interpretation. As they had heard that the Lower East Side Tenement Museum was the gold standard in historical interpretation in a museum setting, they booked tickets for a Shop Life tour to “see how it’s done!”

Despite growing up in New York, Danielle had never been to the Tenement Museum. There were a number of things about Shop Life that surprised her. One delightful surprise was the encouraged group participation and improvisation that occurs early on the Shop Life tour; Danielle played the role of a cigar maker! Her colleagues had fun role playing different historical people who may have visited Schneider’s Saloon, and Danielle noted that this was a “technique to steal!”

The group was also surprised by the sight of food and remarked that it made the saloon feel authentically lived in. Danielle was particularly surprised to learn that women were absolutely welcome in German saloons, but prohibited from American bars.

The Trustees of Reservations’ curators were specifically impressed with their educator’s knowledge and helpfulness in answering questions about the Tenement Museum’s process for putting its tours together. To gain further insight, the group was scheduled to speak to David Favaloro, the Tenement Museum’s Director of Curatorial Affairs, the next day. They had also a planned meeting with New York City’s own Historic House Trust, a vital organization that partners with the New York City Department of Parks & Recreation to preserve and promote 22 historic house museums located in the city.

When asked if she thought anything could have been done better, Danielle joked that the food “didn’t look quite right… a little too shiny.” Speaking on behalf of her colleagues, Danielle and The Trustees of Reservations joined the growing chorus of Late Night Thursday visitors who have demanded that they be served real beer* at Schneider’s Saloon!

Danielle struggled to come up with any one sentence that summarized her experience, but said that she would think about it during her next tour. As it turns out, Danielle and company were scheduled for a Tastings at the Tenement tour later that night. The prospect of wolfing down the delicacies of the Lower East Side during this tour, right after a sit-down meal at Russ & Daughters Cafe, produced a puzzling mix of envy and empathy… that is a recipe for a very, very full belly!

Later on, as the well-satiated members of The Trustees of Reservations staggered away from their Tastings at the Tenement tour and out into a crisp November night, Danielle looked over her shoulder to cast a parting sentiment: “Here’s your one-liner – that was the best tour I’ve ever taken!”

We don’t know if it was the pickled pineapple, chocolate covered pretzels, or her many years of experience talking, but either way… we’ll take it, Danielle!

(*Important note to beer-thirsty visitors: While the prospects of our providing real lager on the Shop Life tour remain doubtful, we have partnered with beer purveyors Top Hops to provide visitors with a hefty 15% discount on their potent potables on Thursday nights!)

- Post by Ben Wigler

New York: Delivered

The Tenement Museum is the center of our universe, but not everybody is lucky enough to visit the Tenement Museum every day.  We are proud to have visitors from all over the world. Perhaps you are one such visitor. So you’ve visited us on the Lower East Side, you met Victoria, and you learned the history of the neighborhood with a walking tour. Then you’ve waited in a really, really long line at Magnolia Bakery, you’ve waited in an even longer line to see the Matisse Cut-Outs exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, and then you waited in a line that put them both to shame in security at LaGuardia Airport. You are finally on the plane, saddened to have left the Big Apple, but relieved to have made it to your seat when you realize….

OH NO YOU FORGOT TO GET THAT  _______________ FROM THE TENEMENT MUSEUM  SHOP!

No matter what you wanted from the Museum Shop – no matter if you live in Palo Alto or in Harlem – the new, improved online store is here to help.

Here are four of our shop essentials for all New Yorkers:

The “Dear New York, I love you.” onesie

 

The onesie that says it all- from the Tenement Museum Shop.

The true New Yorker is a New Yorker from birth, even if she is born in Cleveland. This cotton onesie in chic neutrals is a perfect gift for any future New Yorker, whether welcomed to the world within the boroughs or without. Your infant may not be a struggling writer yet… but there is still time for him to squander your hard earned dollars on an MFA and move to Brooklyn. At just $24.99, it’s the perfect way to start supporting your artist to be. Available for bohemians ages 0-3 months or 3-6 months.

http://shop.tenement.org/dear-new-york-i-love-you-onesie-0-3m-3-6-003680.html

 

 The Ivan Ramen Cookbook

The only thing cooler than waiting two hours to be seated at Ivan Ramen is making the recipes at home.

New Yorkers do everything best – just ask ‘em. Sometimes this means being able to order the best take-out and sometimes this means whipping up restaurant quality food at home. Get Japan’s most delectable comfort food in the comfort of your home. Some of the longest lines in the city are outside of restaurants serving ramen, a flavor-rich Japanese noodle soup. Bring home Ivan Orkin’s eponymous cook book while it’s ‘on trend,’ and thank yourself long after the tourists have moved on to tacos.

http://shop.tenement.org/books-media/cookbooks/ivan-ramen-004733.html

 

The New York Focus Cloth

Because the sun never sets when you are riding the subway.

The essential ingredients for eating Breakfast at Tiffany’s: coffee, danish, sunglasses. New Yorkers care about their eyewear. From filmmaker Woody Allen’s thick frames to Vogue Editor Anna Wintour’s discrete disguise, many iconic New Yorkers are spectacled. But you can’t go around with schmutzig lenses – that’s just not chic. Nor can a real New Yorker be seen consulting a map. Slip our New York Subway focus cloth into your pocket and thank us later.

http://shop.tenement.org/new-york-focus-cloth-003643.html

 

 

 

Postcards From the New Yorker: One Hundred Covers from Ten Decades

For the foreign correspondent, the domestic correspondent, the cultural correspondent - New Yorker postcards.

What better way to keep in touch with all your fellow New Yorkers-at-heart than through postcards of classic covers from the New Yorker magazine? The New Yorker, founded in 1925, has been a hallmark of the New York intelligencia ever since. This collection of postcards features 100 urbane covers for your urban friends and family.

http://shop.tenement.org/postcards-from-the-new-yorker-003115.html

– Posted by your personal shoppers at the Tenement Museum

Remembering the Bonofiglio’s of 97 Orchard

The Tenement Museum is continually collecting research about the immigrants featured on our tours, but have you ever wondered about the thousands of other people who have lived at 97 Orchard Street? Well, we keep track of them too.

One of those families is the Bonofiglios. This past week, The New York Times profiled Rita Bonofiglio – one of the last living residents of 97 Orchard – who recently visited the museum for the first time in a decade. Like the Baldizzis, who are featured on the Hard Times tour, the Bonofiglios were Italian immigrants who lived at 97 Orchard Street during the early 1930s. In fact, they lived just upstairs from the Baldizzi family.

Indeed, there were two Bonofiglio households at 97 Orchard Street during this period. New York-born Rita Bonofiglio lived at 97 Orchard Street with her mother, Calabrian immigrant Maria and sister Rose. Rita’s older brother John Bonofiglio also lived at 97 Orchard Street with his wife, who was also named Rose. They had a son, Vincent, in 1935 just before the building was condemned and all of the residents evicted.

Here is a family portrait featuring John, age 41, Vincent, age 4, and Rose, age 30, taken sometime in 1938 or ’39, after they had left 97 Orchard Street:

The Bonofiglio's

 

Adolfo Baldizzi, his wife Rosaria, and their two children Josephine and Johnny became fast friends with their neighbors. Josephine remembered playing beauty parlor and movie theater with Rita Bonofiglio in the bedroom of the Baldizzi apartment. John and Rose Bonofiglio were Godparents to Josephine, and Rosaria Baldizzi was Godmother to Rita Bonofiglio.

Adolfo Baldizzi, his wife Rosaria, and their two children Josephine and Johnny became fast friends with their neighbors. Josephine remembered playing beauty parlor and movie theater with Rita Bonofiglio in the bedroom of the Baldizzi apartment. John and Rose Bonofiglio were Godparents to Josephine, and Rosaria Baldizzi was Godmother to Rita Bonofiglio.

In 1939, Adolpho Baldizzi got a job in Brooklyn Navy Yard and his family left the Lower East Side, but they never forgot their friends. When Josephine spoke with the Tenement Museum in 1989, she told us that the Bonofiglios are “related with me now.”

- Post by Dave Favaloro 

Your New Holiday Tradition at The Tenement Museum

A table worth gathering around at a Tenement Museum Tours & Hors d'Oeuvres event.

Nothing brings out the Traditionalist in us all like the holiday season. Whether you attend special religious services, visit with family, or gorge on candy while watching A Muppet Christmas Carol  on the couch (like me), each holiday tradition is special in its own way. Today’s holiday traditions are deeply rooted in a shared history, but what about to those traditions that have fallen by the wayside of history? Lest we forget them in this time of love and joy!

The holiday that dominates much of American culture is Christmas, the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. Many modern Christmas traditions stem from pre-Christian Europe where people celebrated the Winter Solstice, or the longest night of the year, on December 21st. Ancient Scandinavian people, the Norse, celebrated this date by bringing home huge logs and setting them on fire which could burn for up to 12 days. They called this holiday Yule. Today we simply turn on the repetitive fireplace channel instead of actually lighting up a Yule log, and this tradition burned out.

Believe it or not, in the Middle Ages, Christmas celebrations consisted of religious services and then a Mardi Gras-like party full of drunken revelry! The revelers would often crown a ‘lord of misrule’ and surround the houses of wealthy landowners, demanding the finest food and drink. If the landowners did not comply, the partiers would play pranks and vandalize their homes. And you thought Aunt Linda having too much wine at dinner was bad! Thankfully, this tradition passed out by the 17th century.

This festive Manhattan Menorah could be another new holiday tradition. Bring this home from the Tenement Museum Shop.

Chanukah, or the Festival of Lights, is an 8-day Jewish holiday that commemorates the rededication of the Second Temple of Jerusalem. Famous traditions of Chanukah include playing dreidel, lighting the menorah at night, and eating lots of fried goodies (the best tradition in my opinion).  But some Chanukah traditions aren’t actually traditional!

For example, Chanukah was never traditionally a gift-giving holiday, but American Jews incorporated a bit of Christmas into Chanukah and now many Jewish families exchange gifts on one or all 8 nights of the holiday. Some families even have a ‘Chanukah bush’ in their homes; a sort of Jewish Christmas tree! (If you participate in Chanukah gift-giving, don’t forget to check out the Tenement Museum’s new online shop for books, toys, and accessories that all make great gifts.)

An American holiday scene from 1908 courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Even before Roman Emperor Julius Ceasar declared in 46 BCE that January 1st would be the first day of his new Julian calendar, people all over the world celebrated New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, often times during the spring equinox. It wasn’t until 1582 when Pope Gregory officially restated January 1stas the first day of the year, and the party really got started.

Cultures all across the world have special foods that symbolize good fortune in the New Year – grapes in Spain, round cakes in Greece, and black-eyed peas and collard greens in the American South – but some of the stranger customs for ringing in the New Year have fallen out of favor. Thankfully, a Scottish tradition of lighting balls of rags on fire and carrying them around on poles isn’t as popular as it was 400 years ago.  In Medieval Europe, (when the New Year was technically celebrated on March 25th) January 1st was called “The Feast of Fools,” a holiday celebrated with heavy drinking, gambling and cross-dressing! Perhaps that tradition hasn’t changed that much…

No matter how you celebrate winter’s holidays, the traditions that we hold dear all serve the same purpose – to spend time with friends and loved ones – and that’s the best part about the holidays!

If you are looking for the perfect place to host your family or office Holiday party, the Tenement Museum is here to help! Contact Elizabeth Tietjen at etietjen@tenement.org or 646-795-4744 for more information!

-          Posted by Lib Tietjen

A Walk Among the Tombstones… in the Historic Lower East Side

With Halloween rapidly approaching in 24 hours it only seems appropriate for us to write about the New York City Marble Cemetery located in the historic Lower East Side (aka the East Village). Now when you think of New York City you tend to associate it with skyscrapers, tenements, taxi cabs, hot dog vendors, and the films of Spike Lee or Woody Allen (no disrespect to you fans of Midnight In Paris and Vicky Cristina Barcelona). One thing you don’t associate with Manhattan is a cemetery.

Yet among the apartments and buildings on Second Avenue, you will very quietly come across the historic New York City Marble Cemetery, which is one of the few still active cemeteries in the city. Recently, we at the Tenement Museum were fortunate enough to get a rare tour of the cemetery – so rare in fact that rumor has it years ago they turned down The Rolling Stones who wanted to shoot a video there – to find out more about its fascinating history. The folks at the cemetery also allowed us to take some photographs which we will be posting in this blog.

Now let’s get one very confusing thing out of the way. There is The New York Marble Cemetery which is located one block away at 41 ½ Second Avenue that is not visible to the general public. We aren’t going to be discussing that cemetery. The cemetery we are going to discuss is called New York City Marble Cemetery and is located at 52-74 East 2nd Street between First and Second Avenues. It’s confusing because besides being similar in name and location, they also were founded one year apart with The New York Marble Cemetery opening in 1830 and New York City Marble Cemetery opening in 1831. Similarities aside, they are completely independent of one another.

A headstone among the NYC apartments... don't say that often.

When the New York City Marble Cemetery opened its gates – or should I say its tombs – in 1831, it was the second non-sectarian burial ground in New York City opened to the public after The New York Marble Cemetery.  Similar to The New York Marble Cemetery, the cemetery buried its dead in specially constructed underground marble vaults, made specifically from Tuckahoe marble (yes, from Tuckahoe, NY). This was a result of the yellow fever outbreak in 1830 that caused many residents to fear burying their dead in the traditional way: casket a few feet below ground. To this day, the cemetery continues to bury its dead this way.

When the cemetery first opened, it was a highly sought after location to spend your eternal days. Monuments and markers were permitted to signify the location of specific family vaults. There are many well-known New Yorkers who are buried in New York City Marble Cemetery that include Stephen Allen, the one-time mayor of the City and governor of New York; James Lenox, who was one of the founders of The New York Public Library; and a well-known New York merchant in mercantile and shipping named Preserved Fish. Yes, his actual name was Preserved Fish… awesome, isn’t it? 

But with all due respect to these men of great reputation and success, the biggest and most important name ever buried in the cemetery was that of former President of the United States, James Monroe. After the death of his wife, Monroe moved to New York to live with his son-in-law who happened to own a vault in the cemetery. When Monroe died in 1831, he became one of the first people buried in New York City Marble Cemetery, and because of the attention his death received, it raised the profile of the cemetery. However, even in death nothing is eternal, and in 1858 Monroe’s home state of Virginia passed a resolution to have the President’s remains returned to the state and reburied at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. The cemetery’s most famous internment had left the building…or should I say graveyard.

Today, besides being an active cemetery, the New York City Marble Cemetery does in fact give occasional tours and host special events. Yes, they even will host the occasional wedding. If you are DYING to visit the cemetery you can find out more at their website www.nycmc.org

-          Post by Jon Pace

They Walk Among Us: Vampire and Immigration in Victorian London

Dark and rainy by nature, London was just waiting for its moment in the Gothic low-light. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

They’re here. Vampires are with us in our daily lives. The time when they seemed  to appear only around Halloween is past- if it ever existed. With the popularity of Anne Rice’s book series, then Stephenie Meyer’s (perhaps you have heard of Twilight), young women of all ages have fallen in love with this particular avatar of the undead.  A million spin-offs later it may be hard to trace when all these beings began to haunt us.

Bats: considered a threat to the blood stream and women's hair since at least 1897. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

 

Vampires have existed in the human imagination in some form for hundreds of years, but the first famous vampire came in with immigrants to Victorian London. Some argue that Dracula, the monster Bram Stoker created his in 1896 novel, is a response to the waves of eastern European immigration which were flooding England in the final decades of the 19th century.

Those who have studied Stoker’s original text detect clues to suggest that in many cases this villain stands in for the threatening masses of eastern European immigrants, many of them Jews, who migrated to London.

 

By now, most of us are familiar with this vampire story: an undead figure from Transylvania is enticed to London where he stalks two women. Spoiler alert! One who succumbs to him and one who resists. Eventually, with the help of clear heads and cool consciousness (as in most British narratives) the evil is vanquished.

The real threat: a portrait of a woman in traditional dress from Bashkir Russia in 1814. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

 

 

The novel presents continuous contrasts between the folklore of Eastern Europe and the moral decency and scientific uprightness of modern London. That fact that Dracula is able to move unimpeded through London spoke to the terror of a hybrid city. The idea of contaminated blood can be seen partly as a fear of miscegenation, or a ‘contamination’ of the British population.

 

Women were especially idealized during the Victorian era, the period which was just ending as Dracula was written. The Victorian woman was supposed to be selflessly devoted to the home and the family. It is the more independent of the two female characters who falls prey to Dracula.  There is a sexual element to the way Dracula preys on women, and therefore also a moral warning against the more liberated woman who was emerging at the end of the Victorian era.  The warning inherent in the sexual element of Dracula’s predation is less a direct accusation against immigrants than just a general call for “things as they were.” (Curiously, the most famous vampire of the 21st century, Edward Cullen from the Twilight series is characterized as sexually abstinent- different approach, same moral message.)

Feeding the beast in Kensington Gardens, London. These proper British citizens are all behaving respectably...for now. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Dracula is said to be in some ways inspired also by the Jack the Ripper cases in 1888. In these cases a serial killer is believed to have killed and mutilated at least five prostitutes in the neighborhoods around Whitechapel in London. These neighborhoods, which were poor and predominately Jewish, became the focus of intense speculation and xenophobia. The insularity of the Jewish ‘ghettos’ was blamed for the difficulty the police had in solving the murders. The murders were deemed the work of a Jewish killer, around whom the community ‘closed ranks.’ The Chicksand neighborhood in Whitechapel is the setting of much of the action in Dracula as is Bermondsey, a town similarly settled by immigrants.

As further evidence of this theory: Stoker’s characters also refer to the Hungarian social critic Max Norda, whose work “Degeneration,” which focuses on the moral degeneration of Eastern Europe, had just been published in English.

Ghost stories and superstitions are often conjured by a community to answer to some threat and serve as a warning or fable terrifying children and titillating adults.  As vampires continue to haunt popular culture remember they could be representing more earthly concerns than just the Prince of Darkness.

Merchandise from the outstandingly popular book and movie series, Twilight, featuring a chivalrous, abstinent vampire: now in lunchrooms everywhere. Photo courtesy of Amazon.

 

–Posted by Julia Berick

With a great debt and special thanks to Greg Buzwell of the British Library whose article “Dracula: vampires, perversity and Victorian anxieties” was a fascinating resource.

Don’t You Forget About Me: Remembering Old Enough (1984)

Films of the LES is a monthly blog series where we examine feature films that either take place or were filmed in the Lower East Side.

The 1980’s saw a smorgasbord of films that examined the teen experience during that decade of decadence. Many have stood the test of time and are still as beloved and popular today as they were 30 years ago. Yet for every Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club – teen films that seem to have a ubiquitous presence on Cable television – there is a wonderful hidden gem from the genre such as Old Enough that in many ways is still waiting to be discovered and appreciated. 

Released in the summer of 1984, Old Enough tells the simple coming-of-age story of the friendship that develops between wealthy pre-teen Lonnie (Sarah Boyd) and working class teen Karen (Rainbow Harvest) in New York City. Lonnie lives in a plush brownstone in uptown Manhattan with her parents and younger sister (played by a young Alyssa Milano in her film debut), while Karen lives in a tenement on the Lower East Side with her working-class parents and older brother. The film is as much about class as it is about friendship, and the filmmakers use New York City, and more specifically the Lower East Side, as a backdrop to tell this story.

Old Enough is unusual compared to the other teen films of the 1980’s in that it is one of the few that is about urban teens. Whereas other teen films like Adventures in Babysitting and Big depict cities (Chicago and New York) as a “big, bad, scary place,” Old Enough never goes that route. The city – and more specifically the Lower East Side – is depicted with a realism and grittiness that makes it simply come across as home to these characters.

This might be because the writer and director of Old Enough, Marisa Silver, grew up in New York City on the Upper East Side and Old Enough was very much autobiographical. Believe it or not, Ms. Silver is not the first in her family to make a feature film primarily set in the Lower East Side. Her mother is Joan Micklin Silver, who wrote and directed two Lower East Side cinematic staples: Hester Street and Crossing Delancey (two films that we will be visiting in future FILMS OF THE LES blog entries).

With Old Enough celebrating its 30th anniversary, we were fortunate enough to interview Ms. Silver, now a successful best-selling award winning (this is a lot of adjectives) author living in California, about the making of the film, its origins, and what exactly the deal is with her family and making movies in the Lower East Side!?

Q:  How did you come up with the idea for Old Enough?

MS: Old Enough was loosely based on something that happened to me in my childhood. My family had moved from a rather suburban life in Cleveland, Ohio to New York City. We landed in Yorkville, in the east 80s, where there was a large German immigrant population, and I became friends with a girl from the neighborhood. During the year that I knew her, I was introduced into her world, which was so different from one I was used to, and vice versa. In those days (the late ’60s), kids had, I think, much more freedom to run around, and the girl and I spent an enormous amount of time getting into various forms of trouble. It was a most excellent year.

Q: Did you always envision much of Old Enough taking place in the LES? If so, why?

MS: Since the actual story took place on the UES, I was not specifically looking to film on the LES. What I was looking for was the texture of the neighborhood I’d grown up in, as I remembered it. The street where I lived had a mixture of older, tenement-style apartment buildings as well as single-family brownstones. There was a church on one side, which was the focus of activity for much of the neighborhood. There was a strong sense of a very specific ethnic population, both in terms of the kinds of shops that were around and the way in which people used the street — the way the older people sat out on their stoops, the way the kids played stickball in and out of traffic, the way that people, to some extent, knew one another’s business.   I can’t remember why the actual street in Yorkville didn’t work out for us, but the street we used on the LES had exactly the texture I was looking for.

Q. Filming in the LES in the early 1980’s was probably very different than filming in the LES today. What was that experience like? Are there any stories that stand out?

MS: It was a long time ago! I do remember one canny neighbor who, realizing that we were making a film, started playing his horn every time I yelled “action” and stopping every time I yelled “cut”. I think he was hoping for a bigger pay-off than we could afford. It was a very low budget film! Mostly, people friendly and curious for a little bit, then they went about their business. I think anyone who has ever watched a film being made realizes that watching paint dry would be more interesting. It’s a pretty slow, tedious endeavor and not all that glamorous.

Q. I noticed that when the film was released in Europe it was entitled “Girls Wanna Have Fun”. I take it they were trying to capitalize on the Cyndi Lauper song released a year earlier (albeit a slightly different title). Was there any discussion of changing the title to that in the United States to give a wide distribution?  

MS: I don’t remember that! I guess I didn’t have any input in that decision; otherwise it certainly wouldn’t have been the title I’d have chosen.

Q. Was the film only released in NYC? In the 30 years since it has been released what has been the general response to the film?

MS: I think it was released a bit more widely than just NYC, but I don’t remember its release pattern. Like most films, it got some nice notices, some not so nice ones. It was invited to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival, and it won first prize in the US Film Festival, which was later renamed The Sundance Film Festival. So it had a pretty nice life. For me and my sister, Dina, who produced the film,  this was our first real adult accomplishment. So it was a big personal success for us.

Q. So between your film, Old Enough, and your mother directing Hester Street and later Crossing Delancey, the Silver family seems to have the corner on making feature films that take place in the LES. Does your family have history in the LES? If not, what do you think the appeal of the LES been for you?  

MS: Again, our choice of the LES was more happenstance. Hester Street and Crossing Delancey could only have been made on those streets. My family lived on the UES. But our forebears started on the LES when they immigrated to America. As a kid, I used to go down to the LES a lot — to wander around Hester and Ludlow, check out the clothing vendors, hang out on St. Mark’s Place doing, you know, what you did on St. Marks Place in the seventies.

- Post by Jon Pace 

A Blintz is Just a Blintz, as Time Goes By

The author had more sophisticated tools than the Russian peasants in her proverb but not probably more sophisticated than those used by her grandmother.

Much of the wisdom passed down from my Dad’s family is only of the most practical nature: make sure you have cash when you travel and  remember whatever is wrong could always be worse.

But there are two actual proverbs my Dad handed down. This one floated up this weekend. A clutch of Russian peasants are gathering after a long day scything barley or being exploited in some other way. One peasant says to the others, “Blintzes! I keep hearing about blintzes all the princes eat all day. I just wish I could eat one blintz.”

“Let us make some,” says the another peasant. “What could be so difficult? We’ll have our own blintzes in no time.”  So the peasants [in the tale they are genderless with work and grief] get their hands on a recipe and find someone who can read it to them.

“This says ‘fine white pastry flour.’ We don’t have that.”

“We’ll just use rye.”

“The next ingredient is sweet butter.”

“We’ll just used chicken smaltz [this is chicken fat- we could call it lard but that would make it sounds disproportionately artisanal].”

“The recipe asks 3 eggs.”

“Skip that part.”

And so forth and so on the peasants make what substitutions they can to cobble together the recipe for blintzes.

Finally they sit down to taste the fabled dish. The result? “Ouch, this is foul stuff.” “Mine is not so great either.” “Who needs these blintzes anyway?” “The princes can have their stupid blintzes.” And the peasants return happily to their kasha.

The moral? Up for debate.

This weekend, however, I decided to take part in the centuries-old tradition of blintz-lusting and make my own. My dad found me his mother’s recipe, which was based on her own mother’s.  My mother typed up my grandmother’s lean instructions and emailed them to me. My grandmother was an extremely disciplined and professional home cook. I am not. Typically empathetic, my mom also sent Mark Bittman’s more supportive recipe along via a snazzy Mark Bittman app I didn’t know she had.  Bittman asked me to keep in mind during the frying stage that the first blintz almost never looks good. This is not the kind of comment my Grandmother’s notes included.

My first sally, with the help of a Kitchenaid portable mixer older than I am, went fine.

My blintz-taster-in-chief deemed them a great success. We feasted with copious peach preserve. He asked whether I felt connected to my fore-mothers. I said yes, but I also said that next time I made them I thought I could do better. The blintz-taster-in-chief correctly identified this self-depreciation as the kind of vital connection to my foremothers at which he was hinting.

But try it yourself. If it doesn’t work out… at least you won’t know what you are missing.

Grandma Marion’s Blintzes (typed and annotated by my mother)

2 eggs

1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup + 1 Tbls milk
pinch salt
Beat well, adding each item in the above order.
Let rest so bubbles disappear. It will be a very thin batter.

 

The author's grandmother offered this one piece of reassurance, "it will be a very thin batter." Indeed.

Cheese Filling #1
1 lb Farmer’s cheese
1 egg
1 Tablespoon butter
drop of sugar
salt to taste
Cheese Filling #2
1/2-3/4 lb ricotta
2 egg yolks
grated lemon rind
mix well. use to fill blintzes

Pillows of ricotta for the filling, as well as raw egg yolks: baker beware.

Cheese Filling #2
1/2-3/4 lb ricotta
2 egg yolks
grated lemon rind
mix well. use to fill blintzes

Lemon zest addition.

Preheat small pan to hot, then reduce to medium.
Butter each time with a buttered bread crust (or paper towel)
pour in 1/4 cup of batter
should make about 15 small blintzes

Pouring out the batter.

To fill, put spoonful in middle, fold in the sides, then roll up from
bottom, what Dad remembers.

The blintzes beginning to look like blintzes.

Dad thinks his Grandma fried the blintz again after filling. That makes them really crispy.  (He still remembers….) Also could bake,

as other recipe said.

Delicious!

 

–Posted by Julia Berick

Hometown Traitors: A Tale of Love, Betrayal, and Spies on the Lower East Side

One of the last remaining players in the most notorious spy cases in United States history died in July, but the news was only announced this week as the deceased was living under an assumed name. On Tuesday, the New York Times discovered that David Greenglass had died in a nursing home. He was 92.

Greenglass became infamous in the 1950’s after he provided testimony that sentenced his sister, Ethel Greenglass Rosenberg, and her husband, Julius, to death on charges of passing nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

Ethel and Julius Rosenberg after being found guilty by the jury in 1951. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The story of the Rosenberg’s trial is extremely complicated and is a miasmic portrait of family betrayals and loyalties as well as national and political ones; and it all began on the Lower East Side…

It was not uncommon for some of the Eastern European immigrants on the Lower East Side or their children to be Communists in the early days of Communism and the birth of the Soviet Union. Though many Lower East Siders later became critical of the realities of Communism, at first the political tenets seemed like the equality for which these exiles had been hoping. The Greenglasses and the Rosenbergs were extreme examples of this idealism.

Shots of a Communist demonstration in 1937 from the photo archives of the New York Public Library.

Ethel Greenglass and her brother David were the children of Eastern European immigrants; their mother was from Austria and their father was from Russia. They grew up on the Lower East Side – Ethel met Julius Rosenberg, the child of Russian immigrants, in high school. Initially Ethel’s parents did not approve of Julius, and the young couple met in secret in the rooms of Ethel’s brother Bernard, where there was much discussion of the Communist party.

David also met his wife, Ruth Leah Printz around their Lower East Side neighborhood. They were neighbors and allegedly childhood sweethearts, who also shared a love of the Communist party (it’s hard to imagine now, but for some, Marxist revolution was quite romantic).

David attended Haaran High School and later Brooklyn Polytechnic but he flunked out. He was not seen as an especially bright engineer but he was somehow assigned to work with the top secret Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. There he was able to successfully gather information on the atomic bomb, which he eventually brought back to his sister’s apartment in Knickerbocker Village, a housing complex on the Lower East Side. Either Ethel or David’s wife, Ruth, transcribed the documents, but this matter remains up for debate.

A early photo of Knickerbocker Village, a housing development on the Lower East Side, home at one point to Julius and Ethel Rosenberg. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Ruth alleged that it was Ethel who had typed the notes, and David defended this position on the witness stand. It is seen as one of the most damning pieces of testimony in the case in which Ethel and Julius were sentenced to death via electric chair. Speculation today entertains the possibility that David exaggerated the roles of his sister and brother-in-law to draw attention away from his own deeds.

David received 15 years in prison for his role in the spying, and was released after 9 ½ years. Ruth faced no prosecution due to the Greenglass’ cooperation with authorities. While evidence today suggests that Julius was guilty of treason, New York Times reporter and Tenement Talk alumnus Sam Roberts prompted an admission from David that he lied on the stand. Though he claimed it was his sister who typed the fateful notes, he had no real memory of this being the case. Roberts received the answer, “’I don’t remember that at all,’ Mr. Greenglass said. ‘I frankly think my wife did the typing, but I don’t remember.’”

[Even after all the years of reflection, David said he had no regrets] “‘My wife is more important to me than my sister. Or my mother or my father, O.K.? And she was the mother of my children.’”

That’s as dramatic a tale as any of love and betrayal on the Lower East Side.

A 'modern' cell at Sing Sing maximum security prison where Ethel and Julius were held and eventually executed. Photo courtesy of the New York Public Library.

–Posted by Julia Berick