One Woman’s Tenement Is Another’s Castle

I’m a big fan of the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side which has preserved or lovingly restored several apartments occupied during the first decades of the 20th Century. The Tenement Museum evokes my immigrant mother’s early life in New York, the stories she told about the years when she lived with her parents and six siblings in three rooms and they slept head to foot in a bed and shared a toilet in the hall with 20 or more of their neighbors. This was where she began to create her American dream. Walking through these ill-lit rooms, with their tattered furnishings, their rickety cradles and heavy black flat irons, the icebox and the foot-pedaled sewing machine, the faded wallpaper and rutted floors, I felt my roots so intensely that I could almost hear my mother’s voice saying the blessing over the shabbos candles. I became acutely aware of the impacted, cramped reality of her daily life, her lack of privacy, her poverty, and the fact that a baby might be born on one side of a room while ten feet away someone was dying.

My Husband and I choose to celebrate our 35th anniversary by renting the Tenement Museum for an evening and inviting our extended family to bring photographs and mementos and come reminisce about their roots on the Lower East Side. The museum’s director, Ruth Abram, escorted us on a guided tour after which we convened for a meal typical of the Jewish immigrant period, served in the Tenement kitchen on mismatched tables with similarly time-worn chairs that accommodated 24 of us. Not only was the event celebratory and unique, but it introduced our children to the history they only knew from pictures and stories—it was as if the Tenement Museum was the museum of our own family.

Letty Cottin Pogrebina founding editor of Ms. magazine, is the author of nine books including her memoir of reconciling Judaism and feminism, Deborah, Golda, and Me and her first novel, Three Daughters. She is also a past president of the Authors Guild.