History at Home in the Tenement Museum

Several times a day, several days a week, I stand with a group of strangers in the parlor of a Lithuanian immigrant family who arrived in New York’s Lower East Side in 1901. I explain that when the Rogarshevsky family observed the Sabbath each week, their two teenage daughters were away at their jobs in factories: a source of pain to their devout Jewish parents. Abraham and Fannie Rogarshevsky’s religious devotion was both a matter of synagogue record and a theme of oral history interviews with their son, conducted by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum — where I get to tell their story day after day as a museum educator.

“How do you think their daughters felt about breaking the Sabbath?” I ask museum visitors. Nobody answers. An uneasy silence hangs in the air, and with good reason; everyone knows you can’t read a stranger’s mind across a full century.

So I break it down. The Tenement Museum, I tell them, has been researching family history since 1988, drawing on New York City’s rich archival resources, on census records and city directories and public newspapers, on oral histories and cultural histories and comparative religious histories. In 29 years of rigorous historical study, the museum has made an important discovery: that teenagers and parents don’t always share the same priorities.

Okay, it’s a cheap laugh. At the end of a sixty-minute tour, I’m often losing people, and humor can help with that. But humor is also a tool I use throughout my day to bring visitors back from the level of abstract history to the personal, to see things not through an academic lens, but through their own eyes: eyes not so different from those of the Rogarshevky family.

A photo of a group starting a tour at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.
Screen shot of the Lower East Side Tenement Museum website. Book your tour!

“The personal is historical” is our motto here at Nursing Clio, and my work at the Tenement Museum is showing me how many different interpretations that sentence can take. Our tours take visitors through restored apartments in a tenement built in 1863 and use primary source research to tell the stories of the many families who lived at that single address over its 72 years of use. That brings the personal and the historical together in a very real way; we might be talking about immigration reform, turn-of-the-century labor practices, or the Great Panic of 1873, but we’re standing in someone’s actual kitchen to do it.

And in some cases our visitors bring their own personal histories with them. Vistors share with me, “I grew up around the block,” or “My grandfather came from Poland to work in a garment shop just like this one,” or “My mother had the same jar of mustard they have on the shelf here.” Nostalgia and recognition bring moments of clarity to the history we tell, just as much as humor does.

But the personal in our history can be complicated, too. One of the biggest myths we contend with at the Tenement Museum is the idea that immigrants’ names were forcibly changed at Ellis Island. In fact, historical records show that this specific scenario simply didn’t happen. Misspellings in shipping manifests overseas occasionally led to a change in name, but most often families voluntarily took on new names or new spellings in their new home, in order to better assimilate with or simply navigate an environment where a name like, say, “Rogarshevsky” could lead to confusion or even hostility.1 The history of name changes is real and interesting; Ellis Island simply wasn’t the culprit.

Black and white photo of children sitting at a wooden table, an old woman putting a doll on a blanket.
Awaiting processing at Ellis Island, New York. (Flickr)

But try telling that to someone who has heard, for sixty years and through multiple generations, that an inspection official at Ellis Island is responsible for the name on their driver’s license. The histories we carry with us have deep personal stakes, even when the facts are wrong. As an educator, I struggle with this dilemma: how to honor the facts of history without denying the personal weight and value of the myth?

In the end, I think maybe the facts aren’t what matter most. (To all my professors, I’m sorry.) What matters most to me is the sense of recognition and surprise that comes from seeing history on a personal level, and understanding that all the grand narratives historians tell are made out of individual stories. Sometimes our stories match up to those narratives, and those moments can be exciting, but just as valuable are the moments that don’t make it into history books — the mustard, the myths, and the memories we carry with us from past generations, distorted though they might be through use.

Notes

  1. The Rogarshevky family did change their name after the father’s death in 1918 — for the rest of their lives, they went by the more German-sounding “Rosenthal.” Return to text.

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One Comment

larafreidenfelds

I LOVE the Tenement Museum! I haven’t visited in a long time. This is a good reminder that it’s time to take my kids, now that they’re old enough to appreciate it. I also had forgotten that it’s only been around since 1988, when I was midway through high school. At that time, it was still considered exciting and innovative in secondary education to think about the history of ordinary people. When I visited the Tenement Museum in the early 1990s, I had never seen anything like it, and it was the moment I realized that there were some historians who thought like I did (I was studying social anthropology as an undergrad). The argument about whose history counts as “real history” hasn’t ended, of course, but the work of the Tenement Museum is much more mainstream now than it was when it first opened.

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