Black Harlem and the Jew­ish Low­er East Side: Nar­ra­tives Out of Time

Cather­ine Rot­ten­berg, ed.
  • Review
By – July 31, 2013

Cather­ine Rot­ten­berg, a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture at Ben Guri­on Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of Per­form­ing Amer­i­can­ness: Race, Class, and Gen­der in Mod­ern African-Amer­i­­can and Jew­ish-Amer­i­can Lit­er­a­ture (2008), has brought togeth­er eight essays ana­lyz­ing the lit­er­ary nar­ra­tives of black Harlem and the Jew­ish Low­er East Side. Harlem has long been con­sid­ered the cul­tur­al and intel­lec­tu­al cen­ter of black Amer­i­ca, while the Low­er East Side has been Amer­i­can Jewry’s icon­ic neigh­bor­hood. The assump­tion of the book is that the lit­er­ary nar­ra­tives of these two habi­tats are worth explor­ing in tan­dem. Rot­ten­berg claims that this is the first vol­ume to take on the task of plac­ing the two urban neigh­bor­hoods in con­ver­sa­tion with one another.”

The con­ver­sa­tion, how­ev­er, is quite mut­ed since the lit­er­ary imagery of Harlem and the Low­er East Side are exam­ined in iso­la­tion from one anoth­er. Thus Hen­ry Louis Gates Jr.’s essay, Harlem on Our Minds,” does not men­tion the Low­er East Side, and Hasia Din­ers essay on the Low­er East Side, Texts of Mem­o­ry: Romanc­ing the Past,” says noth­ing about Harlem. Both essays, as well as the oth­ers in the book, are infor­ma­tive and worth read­ing, but they do not expli­cate any sup­posed lit­er­ary con­ver­sa­tion between Harlem and the Low­er East Side. The one pos­si­ble excep­tion is Cheryl Greenberg’s Sep­a­rat­ed at Birth?: Hen­ry Roth’s Call It Sleep and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It on the Moun­tain.” For the most part the black writ­ers of Harlem ignored the Low­er East Side, and the Jew­ish writ­ers of the Low­er East Side had lit­tle inter­est in Harlem. This is hard­ly sur­pris­ing since each group had enough to be con­cerned about in their own surroundings.

Some of the essays in this vol­ume focus on lit­er­ary heavy­weights such as Roth and Bald­win, while oth­ers dis­cuss sec­ond-rate authors of romance fic­tion and children’s lit­er­a­ture. The book will appeal to read­ers with both high­brow and low­brow lit­er­ary inter­ests, but they will come away puz­zled by the log­ic of yok­ing togeth­er in one vol­ume the unre­lat­ed lit­er­ary nar­ra­tives of two neigh­bor­hoods with such dis­tinct and sep­a­rate his­to­ries. They will also won­der about the inclu­sion of Mered­ith Goldsmith’s Strangers in the Vil­lage: Green­wich Vil­lage and the Search for Alter­na­tive Space in Eth­nic Women’s Fic­tion of the 1920s and 1930s” since it deals only periph­er­al­ly with Harlem and the Low­er East Side. Those unfa­mil­iar with the esca­la­tion of prices of aca­d­e­m­ic books will be sur­prised by the price of such a thin volume.

Edward Shapiro is pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry emer­i­tus at Seton Hall Uni­ver­si­ty and the author of A Time for Heal­ing: Amer­i­can Jew­ry Since World War II (1992), We Are Many: Reflec­tions on Amer­i­can Jew­ish His­to­ry and Iden­ti­ty (2005), and Crown Heights: Blacks, Jews, and the 1991 Brook­lyn Riot (2006).

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