At The Edge of a Dream: The Sto­ry of Jew­ish Immi­grants on New York’s Low­er East Side: 1880 – 1920

Lawrence J. Epstein
  • Review
By – December 5, 2011
In 1880, there were approx­i­mate­ly 7.7 mil­lion Jews in the world, of which 75 per­cent lived in East­ern Europe and 3 per­cent in the Unit­ed States. That pic­ture dra­mat­i­cal­ly changes in 1880 with the arrival of mil­lions of East­ern Euro­pean Jews to the Unit­ed States, many of whom set­tle in New York City on the Low­er East Side. These changes are described by Lawrence J. Epstein in his new book. Epstein tells us: By 1920 there were about 3.6 mil­lion Jews on these shores, mak­ing up 3.41 per­cent of the U.S. pop­u­la­tion; 22.86 per­cent of the Jews in the world now lived in Amer­i­ca.”

Epstein’s goal is to pro­vide the read­er with expe­ri­ence more than analy­sis” of life on the Low­er East Side, and he does that through detailed descrip­tions of liv­ing, court­ing, lov­ing, mar­ry­ing, rais­ing a fam­i­ly, going to school, work­ing, pray­ing, pol­i­tick­ing, orga­niz­ing, and enjoy­ing one­self in those crowd­ed streets and ten­e­ments. Poignant and humor­ous archival pho­tos and excerpts from mem­oirs, nov­els, schol­ar­ly texts, let­ters, musi­cal scores, and the Jew­ish Dai­ly For­ward are cit­ed and help recre­ate the vibran­cy of the peri­od. The book is not mere roman­ti­cized nos­tal­gia. It con­tains inci­sive analy­sis of the socio-his­tor­i­cal con­text of the immi­gra­tion to the Gold­ene Med­i­na and how it trans­formed the lives of the immi­grants, world Jew­ry, and the Unit­ed States. The book is both fun and infor­ma­tive. 

Lawrence J. Epstein has pub­lished many books on Jew­ish cul­ture, includ­ing A Trea­sury of Jew­ish Anec­dotes and The Haunt­ed Smile: The Sto­ry of Jew­ish Come­di­ans in Amer­i­ca. Archival sources, index, notes, references.
Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions