Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America

Article excerpt

by Hasia R. Diner. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000. 219 pp. $27.95.

Ironically, it may have taken a well-placed, if less than charitable, review of Hasia Diner's Lower East Side Memories to prove, beyond any doubt, her most salient point about the power that immigrant hub continues to play in American Jewish consciousness generations after it ceased being the largest Jewish community in the entire world. In November 2000, several weeks after the book appeared, the New York Times granted this slim volume -- really a long, if thoughtful essay -- a major spot in its Sunday book review section and gave a reviewer license to essentially give his own take on what downtown's legacy meant to him. While quick to aver that he did not want to "put too much emphasis on my own left-wing political nostalgia," he was also sure to credit the spirit of Socialism that once pervaded its streets during the neighborhood's heyday, with insuring that this renowned enclave would remain special, meaningful, and enduring to American Jews. Seeing the Lower East Side as this lost social justice utopia, he was dismayed that the ghosts of radical thinkers and writers did not loom large in Diner's analysis and that she did not share his emotions and sensitivities.

But, in taking Diner to task for not focusing on "his" Lower East Side, the reviewer evidenced this imaginative historian's most essential finding. So many Jews use or rewrite the history of the Lower East Side -- each in their own way -- to project what they wish their group's life was, or should have been. And, for themselves, Times editors could not resist according this modest effort the type of space usually reserved for future best-sellers or the most controversial of works. Seemingly, recollections of what the Lower East Side represents could not be evaluated sufficiently within the "Books in Brief" section. Ordinarily, when dealing with Jews, only books on the Holocaust, a very different type of memorial touchstone, get as much room in the paper.

For myself, I am basically satisfied with Diner's explanation of what has permitted American Jews to filter out of their minds the dirt, disease, delinquency, and desperation that was also part of the downtown immigrant experience and to speak with such reverence of the newcomers' neighborhood as a very special, almost wondrous, world of group cohesion. …