Tuesday, August 19, 2008

A Slice of Life

Yesterday I discovered a great book at the New York Public Library of Humanities & Social Sciences. It was a slim little text called Not So Long Ago: A Recollection by Emma Beckman, published in 1980. Ms. Beckman immigrated to NYC from Hanover, Germany as a young girl (5 or 6) at the beginning of the 20th century. Her brief and delightfully candid memoir is full of the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the Lower East Side in the early 1900's. The volume tantalizingly ends just before 1917 as Ms. Beckman gets hired and (and fired from!) her first job as a secretary.

Here are just a few of the details I found:
  • going to Orchard Street for bargains
  • buying fish at the end of the day, when they nearly gave it away
  • naptha soap which smelled like kerosene
  • pushcarts "piled high with slightly rotted fruits and vegetables"
  • attending the Hebrew Technical School for Girls to learn stenography, typing & bookkeeping
  • public baths for children on Hester Street
What I loved the most about this book is that I felt like Ms. Beckman was speaking directly to me, telling me stories from her childhood. The chapters were simple and straightforward and really conveyed the angst and heartbreak of leaving one country for another and what it meant to be an immigrant, a Jew and a young woman in New York City.
When the book was over, it simply ended. No prologue, no summation. I wondered if Ms. Beckman decided to end her stories there or if she simply couldn't write any more. I have the feeling that there were many other stories to tell and I would have loved to have seen more of New York through her eyes.

Here's an image of Hester Street around the time that Ms. Beckman and her family moved to the Lower East Side, courtesy Wired New York.

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