by Susan Reimer-Torn
On May 16th, 1902, a brick came flying through the window of Lustgarten’s kosher butcher shop on the Lower East Side. An irate Jewish housewife who lived down the teeming street sent those glass shards flying. She was one of thousands of women protesting the soaring cost of kosher meat. Their goal was to persuade the retailers to boycott the suppliers until they rolled back the rising prices.
I learned all of this at a talk offered at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum (cosponsored by the Jewish Women’s Archive). Together with other visitors, I squeezed into the narrow hallways, inhaled the musty corridors, warily eyed the peeling paint. I found myself inhaling cooking smells and feeling faint from the suffocating summer heat, even though the weather was still cool.
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum’s mission is to ensure that the stories of past immigrants “endure as an inspiration to the future.” It took me a while to get myself down there. I feel constricted by too much collective memory, fearful of an overdose of inspiration from a prescriptive Jewish past.
Not long ago, my younger son, who spent a few years working in Bangladesh, was very impressed by his visit to this museum. He was struck by how much the overcrowding and lack of hygiene endured by his Jewish grandfather as a young child resembled Dakkha of today, and he wondered if, 100 years hence, the Bangladeshis who he’s come to care about will follow a similar trajectory of economic progress. He urged me to visit the Tenement Museum. Somehow I never did. I often heard my own father, my older uncles and aunt recall their early years as Eastern European immigrants in the 1930s, when they shared dank, overcrowded quarters and lived their circumscribed lives in these once inhumanly clogged streets. The ten-to-a-room, twenty-to-a-bathroom Lower East Side ratios were invoked to override any sense of entitlement their own kids might have. Growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, I looked around and saw that other families had more than we did. The Lower East Side was a reference, like so much from my Depression-era parents’ past, to convince me that we had enough. It was a reference that I preferred to shut out.
Yet the invitation to attend an evening talk about a 1902 kosher meat strike organized by the neighborhood’s housewives was compelling. I took three different trains from the Upper West Side, emerged on Delancey Street, and observe the greatly transformed scene.
It turns out that the 1902 strikers not only shut down over 100 kosher butcher shops on the Lower East Side, their boycott spread to neighborhoods of Brooklyn, Harlem, Newark and even Boston and Philadelphia. They got support from local papers both on the secular left and the religious right, and they made it into the mainstream press. The Forward ran the headline, “Bravo, Bravo, Bravo, Jewish Women” in Yiddish, while the New York Times called for the repression of “the women (who) are very ignorant (and) mostly speak a foreign language.” Best of all, the strikers were effective: The price of kosher meat dropped from 18 to 14 cents a pound. Moreover, they left a prototype for the waves of rent-strikers and activist garment workers whose massive protests would follow in years to come.
Where Do We Go Now?
I never heard of it, but the headline on one of the posted reviews at the Lincoln Plaza Cinema promised an original film by a young woman director (Nadine Labaki). It’s about feminist activism, belly-dancing and hashish. As these are a few of my favorite things, I impulsively bought a ticket and, along with a risk-taking friend, watched as the parched Middle Eastern landscape of Where Do We Go Now? unfolded on the big screen.
The tension is between Christians and Moslems cohabitating in a small remote village. The men swing unpredictably between camaraderie and murderous violence while the women look on in horror and mourn their dead. Even though, for once, the Jews are left out of the fray, the Semitic feel and religious rivalry, restless youth and bereaved women, the land mines and sacrifice of children to sectarian warfare, place us squarely in our own zip code.
It is the women who see the futility of violence. But how to convince the men whose honor is so bound up in settling scores? The women know better than to try to talk their husbands and sons out of their deadly raids. So they determine instead to distract them. Moslem and Christian women get together to bake hash-laced cakes. The narcotic effects and dancing girls bussed in from a local cabaret go a long way to cooling short tempers.
Ours are not easy times. We are all facing mounting social injustice, economic oppression and threats against our basic human rights. Several of my friends have lost their jobs or face small business failures. We wonder what we can do about affording adequate health care. Even though simply by living on the Upper West Side we are fulfilling many an immigrant’s impossible dream, the future is far from secure. It is not unusual to have to talk myself or a good friend out of looming despair.
The meat-strikers of 1902 offer me an empowering perspective. The museum lecturers explain that even though hardly any Jewish women were officially employed, the majority always found a way to put bread on the table. More than half took in paying boarders, whom they both housed and fed in their unimaginably cramped quarters. Others became in-house seamstresses or child-minders and housekeepers for more prosperous neighbor. The tour guide knows plenty of stories of men who abandoned their families or sadly committed suicide when times got too tough. But the Jewish women leave me a legacy of never losing hope, and I am grateful to this museum for helping me to reclaim it. I especially like the way one of the meat strike leaders articulated what the prototypical struggle was about. “We must help our husbands who work so hard,” she explained like a compliant Jewish wife. And she added in the next breath, “We will overturn the world.”
Susan Reimer-Torn holds a Master’s degree in dance history from Columbia University and has written widely on dance, culture, lifestyle, and women’s issues for French and American publications. While living in Paris she had a regular cultural column in International Herald Tribune. She also published Kids Extra!, a quarterly serving the expatriate community. Susan has lived in New York for the past eleven years and works as a writer and a life coach. She also writes a blog, From the Twisted Fringe.