Lower East Side Memories by Hasia R. Diner, Princeton University Press, $27.95
The Girls: Jewish Women of Brownsville, Brooklyn, 1940-1995 by Carole Bell Ford, State University of New York Press, $18.95
Lower East Side Memories examines American Jewish perceptions of the Lower East Side, and the ways in which our understanding of this neighborhood has evolved over time. The area, which from the 1880s through the 1920s housed more Jews than any other place in America before or since, certainly deserves the prominent place assigned to it by historians. Yet Hasia Diner argues convincingly that popular veneration of the Lower East Side is based not only on the historical reality of the neighborhood as a center of Jewish life and culture, but also on the situation of American Jewry after WWII. As they confronted the destruction of Europe’s Jewish communities, and experienced rapid socioeconomic and geographic mobility, American Jews needed a “place of origin,” a source of values and authenticity. The Lower East Side, Diner asserts, served this purpose.
In Brownsville, however, Jews composed a larger percentage of the population than they ever did on the Lower East Side (an estimated 95% in 1923). “The historical irony here,” according to Diner, “is that Brownsville was actually more thoroughly Jewish, at least in terms of proportions, than the Lower East Side ever was. Yet the Lower East Side has come to be a repository of American Jewish memories on a grand scale.”
There are at least two historical surveys that attest to Brownsville’s formative role in the development of its youth; however, these studies treat the experience of young men as normative and pay hardly any attention to their female counterparts. Carole Bell Ford’s The Girls focuses on the lives of the women who grew up in Brownsville in the 1940s and 1950s. Based on interviews and other sources. Ford describes the aspirations and achievements of these women, who came to maturity before the women’s movement. She found that, though the women did valuable volunteer work for political and charitable organizations, they had limited educational and occupational options. Most took commercial courses in high school (on the advice of parents and teachers), worked at clerical jobs until they married or had their first child, and then assumed full-time homemaking responsibilities. (In the 1950s, more women attended college, though many dropped out before graduating. )The author herself is one of these “girls,” and her realistic portrait of the neighborhood was corroborated by my own mother, who also lived in Brownsville during those years.
Ford’s book illuminates how political events, social class, ethnicity, religious values, gender role expectations and neighborhood culture shape the lives of women. Along with Diner’s insightful analysis, it enriches our understanding of Jewish women’s experience in America.
Reena Sigman Friedman is Associate Professor of Modern Jewish Civilization at Hebrew Union College of New York.