Late evening on the Low­er East Side, NYNY

Pho­to by Britt Fuller, 1943

I’m a child of the Low­er East Side — no, golem is a bet­ter word. I was born into bit­ter pover­ty in the depths of the South Bronx. My father had a crazed stare when­ev­er he looked at me. I was my mother’s favorite. She claimed that I nev­er cried once after I was plucked out of her womb. My old­er broth­er, who had rick­ets, cried all the time. He was, she said, a col­ic baby.” I was silent, observ­ing every detail, as if I had an invis­i­ble pen­cil in my brain. I was con­stant­ly tak­ing notes.

My father’s par­ents lived in a ten­e­ment on Hen­ry Street, near the For­ward Build­ing on East Broad­way. They’d arrived from Poland on a seaborne cat­tle car, and were dumped onto Ellis Island, the Isle of Tears,” where they were pricked and prod­ded by so-called doc­tors and had to tes­ti­fy that they weren’t anar­chists. Those deemed fit were fer­ried over to the ter­mi­nal” for East­ern Euro­pean immi­grants — Yid­dish Land, the Low­er East Side. The only rea­son I’m alive is that my grand­par­ents showed up in Yid­dish Land before the Immi­gra­tion Act of 1924 lim­it­ed the num­ber of East­ern Euro­pean Jews allowed into the Unit­ed States. My grand­fa­ther was an illit­er­ate apple ped­dler. But Tam­many Hall, the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty machine, need­ed his vote. So it helped get him cit­i­zen­ship papers, even though he didn’t under­stand a word of Eng­lish. But my father — Sam — was left behind in Poland because he had con­junc­tivi­tis and would nev­er have got­ten past the prod­ders at Ellis Island. He was giv­en a vio­lin and stayed with rel­a­tives until the con­junc­tivi­tis cleared. He was four­teen at the time, and I don’t think he ever real­ly recov­ered from that ini­tial shock of sep­a­ra­tion. The rage he must have felt was bot­tled up. Years lat­er, some of it explod­ed onto me. I was pinched, punched, slapped, and spat upon, depend­ing on his degree of anger.

I sur­vived the onslaught. 

Every Sun­day morn­ing, we vis­it­ed my father’s par­ents, rid­ing the Third Avenue El down to Chatham Square, and walk­ing the rest of the way, no mat­ter the sea­son. I had lit­tle to say to my grand­par­ents, so a few min­utes after we arrived, I went out to explore the Low­er East Side. I did this from the age of six or sev­en. That pen­cil in my brain was still active. I stopped at the Edu­ca­tion­al Alliance, a stone palace that gen­tri­fied Ger­man Jews had built on East Broad­way to help assim­i­late the new arrivals from East­ern Europe and steer them away from a world of pros­ti­tu­tion and crime. I stopped at the For­ward Build­ing, a sky­scraper also on East Broad­way. My father read the For­ward reli­gious­ly. So the build­ing had its own mag­i­cal pres­ence in my mind. 

I stopped at Orchard Street, a ver­i­ta­ble out­door bazaar with shirts and coats that hung from fire escapes and rat­tled in the wind.

I stopped at Orchard Street, a ver­i­ta­ble out­door bazaar with shirts and coats that hung from fire escapes and rat­tled in the wind. Mer­chants reached out at you from store fronts. They must have been des­per­ate to try and sell a sev­en year old a wash­ing machine or a camel’s hair coat. This was a street of bar­gains, and I was a bar­gain­er at sev­en. I bought peanut brit­tle at half price, with the few pen­nies in my pocket. 

I stopped at Delancey Street, saw posters of Mol­ly Picon, the queen of Yid­dish come­di­ennes, out­side a Yid­dish the­ater. (Years lat­er, after I wrote my first nov­el, Once Upon a Droshky, about a retired Yid­dish actor on the Low­er East Side, and sent a signed copy to Mol­ly, she wrote back, say­ing how mirac­u­lous it was for a young author to write about the lost world of Yid­dish the­atre. To me it wasn’t mirac­u­lous at all. Mol­ly Picon was already in my blood).

Most of all, I watched the faces as I walked. I might have stopped at the Loew’s Delancey The­ater to look at posters of the Dead End Kids, or marched along Allen Street, once the Red Light Dis­trict of the Low­er East Side, where Jew­ish pros­ti­tutes prom­e­nad­ed beside their cadets.” I would stare at men and women on the streets, see how rav­aged they looked, worn out from all their labor. Some worked in sweat­shops, oth­ers were plumbers who had lit­tle shops on Canal Street. But they walked with a stac­ca­to, dream­like rhythm, as if they lived in a bro­ken fan­ta­sy or fairy tale. Their sad­ness crept into me. And I dreamt of the Jew­ish pros­ti­tutes on Allen Street. It was more than a dream. They were ghosts who walked beside me. I could taste” their rouge, sum­mon up the rip in their long stockings.

That became the ker­nel of my lat­est nov­el, Rav­age & Son, about a Jew­ish Jekyll and Hyde in 1913, who attacks pros­ti­tutes at ran­dom on Allen Street with the sil­ver han­dle of his walk­ing stick. His name is Lionel Rav­age. He has a bas­tard son, Ben, whose exis­tence he can hard­ly ignore, since the boy looks exact­ly like his father. Ben becomes the pro­tégé of Abra­ham Cahan, the found­ing edi­tor of the For­ward. Cahan dis­cov­ers Ben at a Jew­ish reform school, grooms him, and gets him into Har­vard Col­lege. Ben grad­u­ates with a law degree, but instead of hav­ing a legal career, he becomes a detec­tive for the Kehilla, a quixot­ic gang backed by wealthy uptown patrons to help the police root out crime on the Low­er East Side. Ben is in love with Clara Karp, a trage­di­enne who plays Ham­let in Yid­dish and Eng­lish every night at a the­atre near East Broad­way. Lionel is also in love with Clara. Ben’s mis­sion is to catch the Jew­ish Jekyll. A game of cat and mouse begins. Will Ben seize Lionel, or will Lionel mur­der the young detec­tive try­ing to chase him down? Hence, you have Rav­age & Son

Jerome Charyn is the author of more than fifty works of fic­tion and non­fic­tion, includ­ing Rav­age & Son; Sergeant Salinger; Cesare: A Nov­el of War-Torn BerlinIn the Shad­ow of King Saul: Essays on Silence and SongJerzy: A Nov­el; and A Loaded Gun: Emi­ly Dick­in­son for the 21st Cen­tu­ry. Among oth­er hon­ors, his work has been longlist­ed for the PEN Award for Biog­ra­phy, short­list­ed for the Phi Beta Kap­pa Chris­t­ian Gauss Award, and select­ed as a final­ist for the Fire­crack­er Award and PEN/​Faulkner Award for Fic­tion. Charyn has also been named a Com­man­der of Arts and Let­ters by the French Min­is­ter of Cul­ture and received a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship and the Rosen­thal Fam­i­ly Foun­da­tion Award for Fic­tion from the Amer­i­can Acad­e­my of Arts and Let­ters. He lives in New York.