At the Edge of a Dream: The Story of Jewish Immigrants on New York's Lower East Side, 1880-1920.
Lawrence J. Epstein's At the Edge of a Dream: The Story of Jewish Immigrants on New York's Lower East Side was published as a Lower East Side Tenement Museum Book, and it shows. The book occasionally reads like an extended advertisement, which it in some ways is--it even locates Katz's deli and Yonah Schimmel's bakery for tourists. Epstein's stated goal is "to provide readers with experience more than analysis ... to feel what it was like to shop on Hester Street on a Thursday night" (p. xiv). Since he hopes to offer's complete tour of the Lower East Side," one is tempted to tell readers to skip the book and take one of the museum's excellent tours instead. This would be a mistake. Despite its choppy writing and overly celebratory tone. At the Edge of a Dream is an excellent introduction to modern American Jewish history, perfectly suited for high school students and a broad general audience.
At the Edge of a Dream is not an academic work. There are no footnotes. It has no central argument, not does it present new data or boldly insert itself into American Jewish historiography. Nonetheless, and to his credit, Epstein relies on some of the finest scholarship of the field, including the work of Hasia Diner, Jonathan Sarna, and Tony Michels. Though he adheres to somewhat rigid distinctions of "German" Jews and "Eastern European" Jews that Diner has questioned, he accurately emphasizes the economic impulse to emigrate, rather than were reaction to pogroms. He also correctly distinguishes between popular memory and fact. He describes the bleak poverty of eastern Europe and the harsh history of the transatlantic immigrant voyage, as well as the often unwelcome greeting on Ellis Island, but notes that "painful realities were often recalled with a fondness seemingly at odds with what the experience was actually like" (p. 20).
If not as visceral as the museum tour, Epstein's presentation reflects the richness and texture of immigrant Jewish life on the Lower East Side. He explores a wide spectrum of the immigrant experience, from the tenements, to the sweatshops, to competing ideologies of capitalism, socialism, Zionism and religious Judaism. He examines Jewish daily life and cultural life, from food consumption and education to the Yiddish theatre and landsmanshaften. He treats processes of assimilation and Americanization in a balanced fashion. He discusses but does not over-emphasize antisemitism, and pays due attention to crucial events like the Triangle Fire and important institutions like the International Ladies' Garment Union. He also lays bare the seedy underworld of the Lower East Side, rife with crime and prostitution.
Throughout the book, Epstein is aware of his audience. He slips in fun factoids, like the immigrant Jewish origin of the Teddy Bear--created by Rose and Morris Michtom in honor of President Roosevelt, who famously spared a bear cub on a hunting expedition. He makes reference to celebrities that might be attractive to younger readers, including gangsters like Meyer Lansky and boxers like Benny Leonard. Having written The Haunted Smile, a history of American Jewish comedy, Epstein repeatedly draws on the memories of such entertainers as George Burns and Fanny Brice, their stories adding color to his stilted prose. He is careful to incorporate women into his story, accounting for contrasting gender roles throughout. He also periodically, if somewhat awkwardly, compares the Jewish experience to that of other immigrants. Indeed, Epstein is occasionally at pains to navigate between the universal and the particular, telling a history "useful to all people at all times ... but especially valuable for American Jews" (p. 269).
The book is peppered with evocative photogtaphs and quotations from relevant primary sources, from the Forverts to memoirs of Jewish immigrants, both famous and anonymous. These images and excerpts are powerful and add to the experiential aspect of reading the book, but they can be frustrating for historians, as they are frequently undated. Nonetheless, At the Edge of a Dream accurately describes the experience of Jewish immigrants to New York's Lower East Side and can serve as an excellent textbook for young students of the period--a textbook enhanced by a field trip to the Tenement House Museum.
New York University
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|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2008|
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