Thursday, July 22, 2010

Visitor of the Week: Debbie Keller

Over the summer, look out for this new feature - Visitor of the Week! Each week we'll profile a different person who's been to the Tenement Museum. If you're coming to visit and would like to be profiled on the blog, send us as email.

Meet Debbie Keller, a writer and teacher from Sacramento, California who recently visited the Museum with her husband, Jim Muldavin and son, Noah. Like many of our guests, Debbie was in town visiting the city because she loves it here and still has many friends to visit.

Besides being born in Greenwich Village, Debbie has interesting Lower East Side ties. Her grandparents on both sides of the family, as well as her husband’s grandparents, all at one point lived on here in tenements and were involved in the garment industry. They emigrated at the turn of the century, sometime between 1908 and 1913. Her grandfather reupholstered furniture, and later in life he got his own company started. Debbie speculated that he started as a tailor and stayed in the sewing realm for the rest of his life. His family eventually moved to Washington Heights.

Her maternal grandparents (last name Schertz) came from Austria and her paternal grandparents emigrated from Poland (which at the time was part of Russia). What I thought was really cool was Debbie’s story of how the name Keller came to be. When her grandparents came to Ellis Island, their name was changed from  “Kalles” to Keller, which is the name she goes by today. Her husband’s family came from Moldova (northeast of Romania). Their original last name became Muldavin when they passed through Ellis Island. [Editor's note: no names were actually changed at Ellis Island. It's likely the family name change came later, either through transcription errors or by the family's choice. The Rogarshevsky family, whose story the Museum tells on the Piecing it Together tour, changed their name to Rosenthal by the 1930s.]

Debbie and her family had seen the Piecing it Together tour when I talked with them, but this was not Debbie’s first visit. She first came with her uncle shortly after the Museum opened. She was amazed by 97 Orchard itself.

“The condition of the building, actually, and the stairwells was what struck me the most," she commented. "But I was looking for more details about the living conditions, specifically. For example, the lack of sanitation, and there’s no sunlight or ventilation, and how crowded the rooms were. Also, my husband and son had never seen it before, so I’m glad they came with me!” [For more information about sanitation, check out the Moore Tour or read the blog.]

After leaving the Museum the family was planning to eat lunch Katz’s or Second Avenue Deli (at 33rd Street). Debbie was very impressed by the Lower East Side neighborhood.

“It’s changed even since I’ve been here before, I like it. It’s very cool and artsy.”

Debbie left me with something she wanted to share with everyone. “This Museum is fantastic. I just want everybody to come see it! It’s so rich with history and so amazing and so many Americans came through this gateway, it’s just the coolest thing!”

-posted by Devin

1 comment:

  1. What a great post. When I visited the museum, there were several people on my tour who were retracing steps of their immigrant grandparents. The neighborhood and museum have so many fascinating stories to tell.


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