Up From Orchard Street

Eleanor Wid­mer
  • Review
By – July 9, 2012

To guess from its title what this mem­oir-nov­el is about should not be a great chal­lenge to the aver­age Jew­ish read­er of a cer­tain age, and maybe even younger ones. The rise of immi­grant fam­i­lies from pover­ty to pros­per­i­ty while liv­ing in the wretched ghet­to that was the Low­er East Side is not an unfa­mil­iar theme. Typ­i­cal­ly the climb to suc­cess is described by a young fam­i­ly mem­ber, who remem­bers every­thing, or has kept a jour­nal, and who has also achieved some lit­er­ary and/​or intel­lec­tu­al distinction. 

That this is the case with Elka, our nar­ra­tor, will not detract from the plea­sure of get­ting to know the res­i­dents of #12 Orchard Street. With painstak­ing detail, the author brings to cap­ti­vat­ing life her hero­ine, the indomitable Manya, whose cook­ing skill is exceed­ed only by the come­li­ness of her looks and the beau­ty of her soul. Her suc­cess demon­strates that out­last­ing pover­ty dur­ing the Great Depres­sion meant not only dodg­ing roach­es and rats, but also doing your best with what­ev­er good for­tune came your way. 

Manya, the author’s bubbe,” has enriched the lives of those around her with her cook­ing and her kind­ness and kept her fam­i­ly togeth­er in the grit­ty world that was Orchard Street. This fam­i­ly fills the rest of the nov­el, as do the noble doc­tors, whose lov­ing atten­tion holds back the dis­eases that even­tu­al­ly claim some fam­i­ly mem­bers, and oth­ers who help the fam­i­ly to succeed. 

As rich in char­ac­ter and eccen­tric­i­ty as any pro­duc­tion of the Sec­ond Avenue Yid­dish the­ater of its day, this mem­oir-nov­el imparts zest­ful life to grand­ma Manya, her fam­i­ly and oth­er devotees. 

Claire Rudin is a retired direc­tor of the New York City school library sys­tem and for­mer librar­i­an at the Holo­caust Resource Cen­ter and Archives in Queens, NY. She is the author of The School Librar­i­an’s Source­book and Chil­dren’s Books About the Holocaust.

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