Retro Review: In a simpler time, ‘All-of-a-Kind Family’ hits the mark on the Lower East Side immigrant story
Prior to the 1950s, literature for and about Jewish children was sparse, if practically nonexistent. That all changed with the publication of “All-of-a Kind Family” in 1951. The book was groundbreaking for its time, as it was the inaugural book about Jewish families and culture, finding its way into the mainstream of children’s literature.
“All-of-a-Kind Family” introduces the reader to the adventures of a Jewish family living in the Lower East Side, circa 1912. The stories, of which five were published, feature five sisters: Charlotte, Sarah, Ella, Henny and the youngest, Greta, who live with their immigrant parents.
“Only one tongue was spoken here —-Yiddish. It was like a foreign land right in the midst of America. In this foreign land, it was Mama’s children who were the foreigners since they alone conversed in an alien tongue — English.”
The book’s descriptions of the Lower East Side are not flattering, but they nonetheless conjure up a vivid sensory image of what it might have been like 100 years ago:
“The East Side was not pretty. There was no grass. Grass couldn’t very well grow on slate sidewalks or in cobble-stoned gutters. There were no flowers except those one saw in the shops of the few florists. There were no tall trees lining the streets. There were tall gas lampposts instead. There was no running brook in which children might splash on hot summer days. But there was the East River. Its waters stretched out wide and darkly green, and it smelt of fish, ships and garbage.”
Regardless of how pretty or not pretty the Lower East Side was, the atmosphere was fun, lively and filled with lots of activity. Peddlers tried to hock their wares — cries of “A nickel a Schtickel” were heard on the streets of Manhattan, and Papa owned a used goods shop where the neighborhood peddlers would gather.
Unlike many families who lived in the tenements, the family lives above the poverty level, though they do teach their children the importance of money. In one chapter, Sarah loses her library book and works out a deal with the local librarian to repay the replacement cost at the rate of one penny per week.
The value of money was also highlighted in a scene in which a stubborn Sarah refused to eat her soup. Because food was too expensive to be wasted, Mama refused to let Sarah leave the table without taking a bite, serving it to her meal after meal until the battle of wills was eventually conquered … by Mama.
The privilege of actually owning and caring for a book was also highlighted.
“Almost no East Side child owned a book when Mama’s children were little girls. That was an unheard-of luxury.”
The book is set up as a series of interrelated vignettes, many of which center around the Jewish holidays. The book is somewhat reminiscent of “Little Women” in that the family is composed of all girls; there is at least one rebellious sister, and they all worship their parents. Even a love story is thrown in, centering around peripheral characters in the book.
A bout of scarlet fever, the search for the perfect present for Papa’s birthday, a lost library book and plenty of Jewish holiday celebrations — all of these scenes were charmingly presented in the book.
The author, Sydney Taylor, the pen name of Sarah Brenner, was born to Jewish immigrant parents in 1908; the books chronicled her own life experiences. The last of the five books in the series was published in 1978, just months after Taylor’s death. Since 1968, the Association of Jewish Libraries has granted the Sydney Taylor Book Award for excellence in Jewish Literature. The series might have gone into obscurity if the last four had not been picked up for a reprinting by a publisher in 2014.
While the storylines are somewhat dated in today’s world of overscheduled and technologically savvy children, they nonetheless serve as a historical record of a simpler time at the turn of the century soon after the first wave of Jewish immigration.
Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.