Academic journal article Shofar

At the Edge of a Dream: The Story of Jewish Immigrants on New York's Lower East Side, 1880-1920

Academic journal article Shofar

At the Edge of a Dream: The Story of Jewish Immigrants on New York's Lower East Side, 1880-1920

Article excerpt

At the Edge of a Dream: The Story of Jewish Immigrants on New York's Lower East Side, 1880-1920, by Lawrence J. Epstein. San Francisco: JosseyBass, 2007. 299 pp. $40.00.

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 Schimmels 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 "a 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, nor 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 mere 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. …

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