The Taste of the Past
- Hasia R. Diner (Author)
Lower East Side Memories: A Jewish Place in America. Princeton University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- David E. Sutton (Author)
Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Berg Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Norman Ravvin
In Lower East Side Memories, Hasia Diner examines the iconic—some might even say sacred—blocks of Manhattan bounded in the north by Fourteenth Street, in the south by Fulton, in the west by Broadway, and in the east by the East River. The unique status of the Lower East Side, she argues, is its ability to "stand for Jewish authenticity in America, for a moment in time when undiluted eastern European Jewish culture throbbed in America." By examining the photographs of Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, the music of Mickey Katz, the novels of Henry Roth and Abraham Cahan, she conveys the contrast between Manhattan’s historical downtown and the mythical "epicenter of American Jewish memory" that this area has become. For historical accuracy, Diner reminds us of the importance of Jewish immigration to other centres, such as Chicago and Philadelphia, and of the less documented Jewish enclaves in New York City, such as Brownsville and early Harlem. She reminds us, too, of astounding data connected with immigration patterns of the last 125 years: between 1885 and 1899, 471,010 Jews disembarked at New York City; while by 1910, over 500,000 Jews lived in the area we now think of as the Lower East Side. (In these early years the neighbourhood was simply called downtown, or the ghetto, or the east side.)
Diner argues that it was partly the weight of numbers that lent the Lower East Side its centrality in modern Jewish identity. But she points to other interesting factors as well. These include the sheer concentration of these numbers that created a blurring of public and private space, an antic street scene and public activity that "forced men to deal with each other." With this came uncommon institutional diversity, and a plethora of journalistic and literary venues, including the Yiddish press and theatre.
Diner is most interested in postwar developments that were at least as important as the actual cultural ferment of the Lower East Side’s heyday. With Europe’s Jewish world largely destroyed, the Lower East Side came to be seen by American Jews as a remaining source of authentic Jewish experience. Not only could those who had left for the suburbs return, usually for dinner, to "consume authenticity," but they could also more easily consume "the texts of Lower East Side memory" in their suburban living rooms. Mickey Katz on Delancey Street, Roth’s recovered novel of a downtown childhood: these became the artifacts of what Diner suggests has become a sacred narrative—the Lower East Side as an all-Jewish neighborhood, a wholly eastern European one, as a poor and isolated neighborhood where the senses operated at a sharper level than elsewhere where other Jews lived and where the Lower East Side’s residents later moved.
Some Canadian readers may find the iconic quality of this narrative familiar. The idea of New York as a "Jewish City" has been echoed, though less stridently, in Montreal and Winnipeg. In the case of the former, the old Jewish "ghetto" has even passed its moniker to the less culturally bounded McGill student ghetto.
But the most peculiar aspect of Canadian experience regarding the iconic quality of urban Jewish space is the relative amnesia surrounding what was once Toronto’s Jewish downtown, centred on Spadina Avenue. There, just before World War II, I.B. Singer found a recreated east European-style precinct, so reminiscent of Warsaw it made him uncomfortable:
I was told that Spadina Avenue was the center of Yiddishism in Toronto, and there we went. I again strolled on Krochmalna Street—the same shabby buildings, the same pushcarts and vendors of half-rotten fruit, the familiar smells of the sewer, soup kitchens, freshly baked bagels, smoke from the chimneys.
Encountering Singer’s portrait of Spadina is startling, because of how little of what it portrays has survived, as Diner puts it, as a "landscape of memory."
Hasia Diner’s Lower East Side Memories focuses on textual memories—in book, photographic and filmic form—without commenting on the intersection between food and memory. It is the latter relationship that is examined in David Sutton’s Remembrance of Repasts: An Anthropology of Food and Memory. Sutton’s ethnographic study draws a portrait of the Greek island of Kalymnos, where, he argues, memory of food has contributed greatly to local identity. One of the issues he aims to explore is the way "the flux of new foods provide a threat to certain types of memories rooted in local knowledge." The Kalymnian diet, like the rest of the world’s, has been influenced since World War II by American food, along with a standardization of foods through global markets. The impact of these changes, according to the Kalymnians Sutton interviews, is the introduction of food "unable to produce memories and identities." One of Sutton’s interviewees calls such food "insipid," in a translation of the Greek used to describe it.
Sutton acknowledges a lack of theoretical work on the relationship between food and memory, especially in the American context. He makes use of Greek literature to expand his frame of reference, and if Remembrance of Repasts has a key theoretical influence, it is Mary Douglas’s work on food and ritual. A somewhat undeveloped theme is the relationship between food and traumatic memory, which Sutton acknowledges has been explored in studies of the German concentration camps of World War II. For Kalymnians, trauma means the long Italian occupation of the Dodecanese, ending in 1942. But Sutton does not examine in detail the way hunger, loss, and a certain nostalgia for prewar innocence affect people’s attention to such Kalymnian concerns as meals, hospitality, shopping, and food preparation.
Food memories on Kalymnos, like the Proustian madeleine, open a conduit to the past and its sensations. Sutton acknowledges that in forgetting there is freedom, but his book means to make us consider the cost of such freedom.
- More of the Same by Lisa Grekul
Books reviewed: Tricks with a Glass: Writing Ethnicity in Canada by Rosalía Baena and Rocío G. Davis, The Ukrainian Wedding by Larry Warwaruk, and Two Lands, New Visions: Stories from Canada and Ukraine by Janice Kulyk Keefer and Solomea Pavlychko
- Writing: Verb or Noun? by Stuart Sillars
Books reviewed: The Notebooks: Interviews and New Fiction from Contemporary Writers by Michelle Berry and Natalie Caple, Addicted: Notes from the Belly of the Beast by Lorna Crozier and Patrick Lane, and Entering the Landscape by Eric Henderson and Madeline Sonik
- How Should We Remember? by Adele Holoch
Books reviewed: A History for the Future: Rewriting Memory and Identity in Quebec by Phyllis Aronoff, Jocelyn Létourneau, and Howard Scott
- Taboo Intimacies by Maya Simpson
Books reviewed: Race Mixing: Black-White Marriage in Postwar America by Renee C. Romano and Interracial Intimacy: the Regulation of Race and Romance by Rachel F. Moran
- An Impossible History by Christopher Lee
Books reviewed: Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver by Paul Yee
MLA: Ravvin, Norman. The Taste of the Past. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 6 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #180 (Spring 2004), (Montgomery, Carson, Bissoondath, Goodridge). (pg. 126 - 127)
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