It was interesting to read about Bella’s childhood and developing American and Jewish identity growing up in the Lower East Side. Not surprisingly, there was a wide range in the level of religious observance among the Jews on the Lower East Side. Some Jews were very observant. Bella described the household of one of her childhood friends as follows:
“It was a decidedly quiet house—and more so on Friday and Saturday when religious observance forbade everything that would tend to introduce noise. On Friday before sundown, the four girls of the family would comb their hair, the mother helping the youngest who had to wear hers in curls. Before going to bed each would draw a cap over the freshly combed and plaited hair. In the morning, the cap was removed but no comb touched the hair until Sunday morning.” (p. 53)
On the other hand, Bella and Fanny seemed to live a very secular life. A few pages after this passage, Bella described how she spent her Friday nights. She would meet all her girlfriends and play loud and active games of tag and other outdoor games. Bella also wrote that she felt “no everyday kinship with the synagogue” and “had an idea that it belonged to the menfolk only.” (p. 47) She wrote that she only went to the synagogue on holidays.
Bella in fact experienced real confusion over her religious identity and at one point decided that she wanted to be Christian, not Jewish, much to her mother’s dismay. This desire seemed to have been rooted in Bella’s perception that Christians were more refined: they were gloves, had clean nails, and spoke perfect English. Some of it may also have been rooted in her experiences with anti-Semitism, such as the time she and her mother were lost, walking in a strange neighborhood, and were accosted by a group of boys who called them sheenies and grabbed and poked at them.
Most of Bella’s childhood years, however, were spent focused on her friends, books, and school. In the introduction to the book, Ruth Limmer wrote that the schools Bella attended “were both ideal and wretched—wretched in their overcrowding (class size was forty-five to fifty); ideal…in that they were rigid in their demand that the students seriously attend to learning English.” (p. xx)
The mission of the schools was to Americanize the children of the immigrants (of all backgrounds) by immersing them in English literature, American and British history, physical training and athletics, and culture. Limmer asserted that as a result, parents often became dependent on their children, who spoke English and who were much more comfortable with the American way of doing things.
The schools also tried to instill values, including discipline and obedience. Limmer wrote: “The routines began when they arrived at school each morning. No horsing around. They were required to line up in order of height on sex-segregated lines and, at the bell, were marched silently to their classrooms.” (p. xxii) Bella’s description of her day at school is consistent with Limmer’s overview:
“At school, there was first the assembly period when doors rolled back and mediocre schoolrooms became a vast auditorium. You marched in with your class holding yourself straight and stiff, turning square corners with military exactitude. You looked out furtively from beneath your lashes to see if your teacher… noticed that your shoulders were back and your stomach in.” (p. 66)
The students would then salute the flag and listen to readings from the Bible every day, apparently a common practice in the NYC public schools until after World War II, a practice that certainly conflicts with Constitutional principles as we understand them today.
Bella was also a regular visitor to the city’s public libraries and spent her school vacations at the library, reading as much as she could.
Obviously, she was well-served by those crowded schools and those libraries, as she grew up to be not only capable of communicating in English, but to be a very successful professional writer who contributed to the American culture in which she had been immersed.
Bella’s life was very much confined to her neighborhood; she was at least ten years old before she did much venturing outside of the Lower East Side. Once she and a friend tried to walk to Andrew Carnegie’s house uptown, but got no further than Fourteenth Street, where they were mesmerized by the department store and its escalator. Another time she participated in a play with other immigrant children organized by the neighborhood settlement house, another agency engaged in Americanizing immigrant children. The group of children performing the play went as far uptown as 96th Street, which Bella said was as far from the Lower East Side as any of them had ever been.
Otherwise, Bella and her friends stayed in their neighborhood, where she engaged in common childhood activities, including piano lessons and a sewing club. There is no mention of religious education. Overall, Bella’s childhood, despite the poverty and those incidents of abuse and anti-Semitism, was a happy one up through age twelve. She was a smart, studious girl, but one who had many friends and who knew how to have fun.
Perhaps Bella was looking back with rose-colored glasses, but I’d like to take away from her depiction of her childhood a better feeling about my grandmother’s childhood in the Lower East Side with her siblings. Yes, they did not have an easy life, and losing their father so young must have been terrible. But they had their sisters and brothers and a mother whom they all adored. I hope that like Bella, my grandmother also enjoyed school, played games, and had a network of similarly situated friends with whom to share some of the joys of childhood.
- Streets: A Memoir of the Lower East Side by Bela Spewack, Part I (brotmanblog.wordpress.com)