by Letty Cottin Pogrebin

One Woman’s Tenement Is Another’s Castle

I’m a big fan of the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side which has preserved or lovingly restored several apartments occupied during the first decades of the 20th Century. The Tenement Museum evokes my immigrant mother’s early life in New York, the stories she told about the years when she lived with her parents and six siblings in three rooms and they slept head to foot in a bed and shared a toilet in the hall with 20 or more of their neighbors. This was where she began to create her American dream. Walking through these ill-lit rooms, with their tattered furnishings, their rickety cradles and heavy black flat irons, the icebox and the foot-pedaled sewing machine, the faded wallpaper and rutted floors, I felt my roots so intensely that I could almost hear my mother’s voice saying the blessing over the shabbos candles. I became acutely aware of the impacted, cramped reality of her daily life, her lack of privacy, her poverty, and the fact that a baby might be born on one side of a room while ten feet away someone was dying.

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