Thursday, August 26, 2010

From Work Space to Space for Worship

What can a pair of tarnished candle sticks hidden away on a kitchen mantel tell us about a family?

For Harris and Jennie Levine, making a living in America meant using their small tenement apartment at 97 Orchard Street as both home and workspace. Harris, like many other Eastern-European immigrants at the turn of the century, made a living through piecework for the garment industry, eventually employing a handful of other workers in his family’s living room.

Levine Family Parlor in the Tenement Museum

During the week Jennie and their children shared the space with Harris and his workers as they pieced together ladies’ dresses. Harris might have been cramped over the sewing machine situated near one of the few windows in the apartment, while up to half a dozen women stitched pieces of fabric alongside him in the living room. In the kitchen a presser, a senior male member of Harris’ staff, ironed the completed pieces next to the same stove Jennie would be using to cook and clean for her family.

The Levine Family Kitchen in the Tenement Museum
On the kitchen mantelpiece are two candlesticks – small objects that tell a larger story of how the Levine family would have maintained their culture and religion in this home/work environment. With the Jewish Shabbat beginning at sunset each Friday evening, Jennie would have a limited amount of time in which to reclaim her home and transform it from a work space to a space of worship. She might have waited impatiently for the workers to leave on Fridays so she could move the dress model out of the center of the room, dust around the sewing machine, and put away the tools of Harris’ trade, like the bobbin, pattern tracer, and scissors.

Though Jennie wouldn’t be able to reclaim the space until Friday afternoons, she might begin her Shabbat shopping on Thursday nights or Friday mornings to gather all the necessary ingredients to prepare a proper meal, as none of this work could be done after sunset.

A New York Daily Tribune reporter visiting the neighborhood market on Fridays stated that “the people are massed so thickly on the pavements that it is only in aggressive fashion that one can make his way through the crowd. As for the middle of the street, there is no middle to be seen.” Homemakers like Jennie poured into the streets to gather last-minute ingredients for this weekly holiday.

For working families, Shabbat rituals helped transform the tenement into a special space for one day, with the aroma of stew and challah filling the apartment instead of freshly steamed dress pieces, and the sounds of song and prayer replacing the hum of the sewing machine. As sundown approached, Jennie would bring out the candlesticks, hidden on the mantel during the week, and place them prominently on a table to signify the beginning of the family’s day of rest. On Shabbat, the Levine family could find comfort in the old traditions, modified for a new home.

All photos by Battman Studios, Courtesy Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

- Posted by Shana Weinberg

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