A Study in Contradictions: A Tenement Museum Employee Visits Saudi Arabia

How do you imagine Saudi Arabia? Desert? Camels? Oil? Oppressed women? That was what I pictured. Traveling to Saudi felt more foreign than anywhere I have ever been. What would I need? Would I lose my identity and independence when the black abaya covered my body? Would its flowing fabric render me invisible or transform me into a wizard out of Harry Potter? With so many questions and so much to learn, I talked to many people in an effort to ensure that I would be respectful and stay safe. In truth, it was difficult to uncover much information. Some people warned me not to go out of fear of the unknown, while others were thrilled by the opportunity for cultural exchange that attending the National Built Heritage Forum in Abha offered.

Beautiful Saudi Arabia

Upon arrival the debunking of my assumptions began with the location of the forum itself. There is no desert in Abha – or camels for that matter. Located in the Asir region of the country, Abha is mountainous and cool. While I had pictured a singular image of Saudi, I discovered diversity, intelligent women, and lots of color. I struggled to reconcile hearing a veiled woman confidently and articulately share her scholarship and expertise with a separate seated audience. These contradictions to my established Saudi narrative kept pushing through the surface, bringing new puzzles and questions with them.

There was the inherent contradiction of attending a forum dedicated to the investment of built heritage and tourism in a country that does not distribute tourist visas. There were distinctions between heritage sites and museums that I was unaccustomed to and differing ideas regarding the authenticity of place and when it moves from real to echo of Disneyland that left me unsettled. Saudis also seem to place more value on the new and modern, a fundamental difference to my own way of thinking which gives preference to preserving the old prior to rebuilding it anew.
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The Tenement Museum Gift Guide: (because you haven’t finished your holiday shopping yet) Part Two

Brooklyn Wash Bag $24.99

You know who she is: that lady in your life who always knows where to brunch and who is able to use the word “repurposed” correctly.  It may be a little intimidating to get her a holiday gift, but she’s guaranteed to like this storage bag with its imaginative mash-up of deco and Brooklyn motifs.


Magic Fire Sticks $19.99

Forget chestnuts! These magic fire sticks will bring merriment to any fireside. Toss them (carefully) in to your roaring hearth, and watch the blaze burn a rainbow of colors. Fireplace sold separately.

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Honoring a Grandparent’s American Journey: Our Shared Journeys Program

Long-time Tenement Museum supporter Marilyn Machlowitz wanted to honor her grandmother’s extraordinary journey from Russia to the United States at the turn of the 20th century. Dr. Machlowitz asked Museum staff about opportunities to support the Museum and celebrate her grandmother, Ida Gorelick Levin, in a meaningful way.

Ida Gorelick came to the United States as a teenager, alone, passing through Antwerp and sailing to America on the Red Star Line. She settled on the Lower East Side and found work in a garment factory, saving enough money over the next few years to send for her mother and brother.

Ida Gorelick Levin, 1906

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Tenement Museum Gift Guide for Holiday 2014

The Little Book Of Jewish Celebrations $18.95

With all the sparkle and shine of the holiday season, we can sometimes forget some of the details, origins, and responsibilities of holidays we’re celebrating. This sophisticated little book could be the perfect reminder for you or someone important.

Tea Leaf Reading Kit $12.99

If you know someone who thinks a message from the great beyond is the same as a message from OkCupid, you’ve come to the right place. Because good old-fashioned superstitions are what we’re missing today, bring home this Tea-Leaf Reading Kit and reach out to something off the grid.

Letters to my Future Self $14.95

They say hindsight is 20/20 but don’t underestimate foresight. These adorable “letters to my future self” are a sweet way of forecasting  the future while finding out what is meaningful in the present tense. The gift  keeps giving long into the future; when the message is opened up years from now everyone will have fun remembering good times, trials, and that bagel place that was gone too soon.

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Giving Thanks Across the Aisle

A match your bubbie would approve of: challah and pastrami stuffing.

Last year on Thanksgiving, American Jews were giving thanks for a little something extra – Hanukkah! For my family, Hanukkah has been more about sharing flavors than exchanging favors so what better gift than the incorporation of horseradish into mashed potatoes or rye flour into our pie crust. Hannu-Giving was a magic moment and over too soon. However this year I couldn’t resist bringing the collaboration back to the table. Continue reading

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! Continue reading

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. Continue reading

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….


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.

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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.

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