Lower East Side Tenement Museum

Monday, September 29, 2008

“Ah you want to learn to dance?” Victoria, a 14 year old Jewish immigrant asks me in her slow, broken English as I, along with my fellow writing 100 peers sit in her small, cramped apartment. I awkwardly nod yes and look around at the faces of my peers. Some look back at me sympathetically as if to say, “I’m sorry you are in such an awkward and embarrassing position” while others just look at me and start laughing in amusement. As Victoria prepares the music for our dance, I glance about her small apartment and think, “I can not imagine having to live here.” Once Victoria finishes winding the victrola, strange music fills the room and Victoria grabs my hand. “It’s so easy.” She says, “Two steps forward, two steps back, and two steps to the side. Slow then fast. Come. you try.” I fail miserably as I attempt to keep up with her pace. “You are such a good dancer! Maybe you can go to the dance hall and dance with a guy and choose your own husband,” she says with a hint of sadness.
The Lower East Side Tenement museum opened my eyes to the struggle that early immigrants faced. To be sure, I had heard about the horrible conditions, the extreme poverty, and the numerous diseases the immigrants faced but those facts did not hit me until I was standing in a small, cramped room listening to the actress portray life in the early 1900’s. I felt heart broken when Victoria explained her love for school and how she felt so happy being able to go to school for two years, before being pulled out to help her family work. I thought I heard a twinge of jealously in her voice as she told us that her brother was allowed to continue his education. I could not imagine and I still can not imagine not being allowed to go to school. I love school, I am a major self described nerd. While most of my floor is out partying I am inside doing research on the history of the Bible. Not to be able to go to school would devastate me and in the 1900s this was happening to young immigrant women all the time.
I have the tendency to take things to heart, so as the museum tour progressed I felt a sense of despair coming over me especially as we stood in the presence of a tiny casket. As the tour guide explained the 27% mortality rate among immigrant babies, I began to imagine all the lives that never had a chance to flourish and about all the people who are lost in time and are forgotten. It just felt so weird listening to the tour guide explain the lives of these immigrants and their families, realizing that many of them have been dead for years. Despite the occasional sadness I felt, it did cheer me when I heard that some of the immigrants’ grandchildren have gone on to be fire fighters and to hold other important jobs. It reminded me that the lives of the immigrants were not in vain-even the life of that little five month old. She did not have the chance to experience life but her death and the deaths of the other immigrant babies forced society to think about how they are treating other human beings.