Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925

Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925

Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925

Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars: Life and Culture on the Lower East Side, 1890-1925

Synopsis

At the turn of the century, millions of European women set sail with their families for the United States. Behind them stood a world of peasant agriculture and small town life. Ahead lay the concrete metropolis, swept by the winds of industrial development. Immigrant Women in the Land of Dollars tells the story of the Jewish and Italian women who came to inhabit New York’s Lower East Side during this period of massive migration. By looking at two generations—mothers born in the Old World, and daughters born in the new—and making extensive use of oral histories, Elizabeth Ewen presents the compelling tale of a metamorphosis in life and in perception.

Excerpt

I never saw my grandmother dressed in anything but black. During the time I knew her she stood a tall 4’10”. I barely understood a word she said. She spoke Italian. I pretended to understand. She would talk and I would nod my head in agreement.

When I visited her she was either in the kitchen, about to go out shopping, or in church. Sometimes she would ask me to come with her on her errands. Together, we would walk down the washed-out streets of Beacon, New York, a small factory town populated by Italians who had moved there in better days. She greeted her neighbors and haggled with the shopkeepers. I would hold her hand, fantasizing about life as a girl in an Italian village.

My grandmother lived in a house desperately in need of a coat of paint. The inside was dimly lit; family crests and rosary beads dangled from the mantle, all-night candles burned on the sideboard. A lace tablecloth graced the dining-room table. Only the kitchen was bright.

My favorite room was upstairs. Although my grandmother shared the house with my grandfather, she had her own bedroom. He, of course, had the master bedroom, a large imposing room with an enormous bed in the middle. She had the smallest room, the size of a large closet. I loved her room; it became my hideaway. It was sparsely furnished—a single bed, a vanity—but there was a closet full of her possessions. Its size didn’t matter. What did matter was what was inside the vanity and the closet, what she kept there.

During every visit there was a huge feast: antipasto, soup, pasta, meat, vegetables, and dessert. I never made it past the pasta. I’d sneak up to her room and daydream until someone found me in time for dessert. My grandmother let me sleep in her room at night—a sacrifice on her part. She knew how I felt about her room; it was the place where we shared secret rituals.

When I was little, it was difficult to imagine my grandmother as . . .

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