My eight-year-old granddaughter, Cayla, has an American Girl doll. The doll has a name: Rebecca Rubin. Rebecca Rubin is the tenth American Girl historical character, representing early twentieth-century America during the second wave of European immigration and Jewish-American culture.
Amy, Heath, Ilan, and Cayla live in California, and they arrived on July 1 for a two-week visit. Cayla wanted to go the Tenement Museum, because she wanted to know more about Rebecca.
We visited the Tenement Museum on Wednesday; we took the 1911 tour. My father grew up in the Lower East Side, and had four older brothers, approximately two years apart. My Uncle Joe was born in 1910, and my Uncle Shim was born in 1913. That’s why I chose the 1911 tour.
The Tenement Museum owns a building at 97 Orchard Street, in Manhattan. The building was erected in 1863, and is five stories high. Every floor has four identical, three-room apartments: a tiny, master bedroom, a tiny kitchen, and a tiny living room. From the 1880s until the 1920s, the bulk of the apartments were occupied by Jewish families, struggling to balance Orthodox traditions with American traditions. My family was one of them. Our grandparents were Orthodox (my mother was a Newark girl), and I vividly remember my parents’ milk and meat silverware was commingled.
In the display case of one apartment you see objects found in the building: some tools, a Yiddish advertisement, “Learn English Fast,” and a jar of kasha. One apartment was dilapidated; the walls showed the lathing, and holes were in the ceiling. The other apartment was furnished in 1911 furnishings.
If you have never visited the Tenement Museum, it’s worth a trip. It’s a journey back in time, when most of our ancestors were in porverty and unfamiliar with American customs.