No, My Jewish NYC Childhood Was Not Like a Movie


I once met a filmmaker in New York City who believed himself The Man of Lower East Sider-ville and A Serious Artist of the East Village. One day, he found out that I had in fact grown up on the streets he was claiming as his own. And if I grew up there, it obviously meant I was Jewish.

“So, like, was it, like, Crossing Delancey?” Crossing Delancey is a film about an assimilated Jew-girl living uptown from the Lower East Side shtetl who falls in love with the epitome of a Christian man, all the while ducking her grandmother’s and friends’ attempts to marry her off to a Nice Jewish Boy, the Pickle Man. I really don’t think you could stuff more stereotypes into that movie, although at the time it came out I was just grateful there was a movie where the main character, a Jewish woman, wasn’t a fat, shrill second banana.

I think I replied, “I don’t know what to say to that.” How could I, when a complex universe got reduced into a single-cell stereotype? It was only years later, after visiting my mother in the Lower East Side, that what I should have said that day burst into my mind.

No, asshole. It is not, like, Crossing Delancey.

No, I am not from a movie where a Jew-girl runs uptown to escape from cartoon Bubbies and Yentas obsessed with finding nice Jewish boys for all the single Jewish girls.

The Bubbies and Yentas I grew up with had survived pogroms and the Holocaust and horrific poverty in tenements. They had suffered beatings by their husbands and they had buried their babies. They had worked 16 hours a day as maids, piecework seamstresses and pushcart vendors. They had watched their sisters and friends jump out of factory windows in a ferocious attempt to survive fire.

We may have been broke and we may have attended public schools. We may have had strong accents that amalgamated Yiddish and Russian and New York and self-taught English. We may even have been in more fistfights than other folk from other cities, because, at least on the Lower East Side, being Jew-girls often meant being a target.

But, whatever we were, we weren’t fucking punchlines to stupid jokes. We read the New York Times, the New Yorker and the Daily News. We studied Chekhov and O’Henry and Alcott and Malcolm X. We went to movies with subtitles.

We crossed ideas and we crossed cultures. We crossed from Mozart to Copeland to Led Zeppelin. We crossed from Lenin to Kennedy and back to Bella Abzug. We crossed to demonstrations and we crossed the police.

We never crossed picket lines. And after all our crossings, we came home.