Immigrant life (and recipes) revisited in ’97 Orchard’

97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman, Smithsonian Books, $25,99

By Marc Yaffe

BETHESDA, Maryland — If you were raised in New York City, are well passed the mid-century mark, and are Jewish, you can’t help but harbor your own special memories involving the Lower East Side, in its day the largest Jewish enclave in this country. My own memories involve meeting my mother on occasional Friday afternoons to help carry home her food purchases. I would meet her at the Wallach & November stall in the Essex Street Market, her kosher butcher of choice. Then it was on to the “Chicken Man,” and the “Chicken Flicker.” Shopping concluded with a stop at a deli to stock up on my father’s favorites, the meats always accompanied by one or more wax paper cones filled with mustard; and I would finally receive my reward of the best sour pickle ever to come out of a barrel.

That’s when I discovered the Lower East Side to be unlike any other part of the city. It was decidedly Jewish, with numerous cheders, shops with their signs only in Yiddish, street vendors, and an abundance of kosher restaurants and delis, surely the epicenter of everything Jewish. Little is left of those days although a handful of reminders remain: Katz’s Deli, Yonah Shimel’s knishes, Russ & Daughters, and Kossar’s bialys, to name the more well-known.

We have Jane Ziegelman to thank for reminding us that the Lower East Side was not always a Jewish enclave. So many others who passed through Ellis Island made their homes there as they embarked on their new lives in America. There were German immigrants from different parts of the country, seeking relief from a depressed economy; Irish, fleeing from the horrors of the potato famine; Italians, hoping to cash in on the boom in the construction trades; Lithuanians escaping from abject poverty; and Russian Jews, refugees from state-sponsored pogroms.

Ziegelman calls her book “A culinary history of five families;” It is more a history of life in one tenement in the Lower East Side. She has very skillfully painted a picture of what is surely representative of all the hardships the recently arrived immigrants had to endure: no running water, as many as four families sharing the apartment, and outdoor toilets. When they were first built, beginning around 1860, these five-story tenements were billed as the latest in living accommodations. Opinions regarding them changed quickly, and the very word became a pejorative, synonymous for sub-standard housing. In 1901, the city ruled that the buildings must have running water, albeit cold, interior toilets, and a window in every room.

In addition to skillfully creating an aura of authenticity about life in 97 Orchard Street the author has interjected several historical events. One of the more interesting, and one with long-term significance for the Jewish community, is the author’s description of the break between the Reform and Orthodox movements over the laws of kashruth. True to the book’s subtitle, there are recipes in the book, but to my mind they are more curiosities than inducements to run off to your kitchen to try them out.

Ziegelman’s ability to put the reader into the tenement apartments of her five subject families is testament to the quality and depth of her research. The conversations and events she describes convey an air of total authenticity, every bit as authentic as the historic framework within which she has written this fine volume.

Yaffe is a freelance writer and lover of great food, based in Bethesda.

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