- Historic Sites
The Tenement Museum
On Manhattan’s Lower East Side you can visit a haunting re-creation of a life that was at once harder and better than we remember
April 2000 | Volume 51, Issue 2
Josephine died in April of 1998, but to the shock of visitors near the end of the tour, she speaks. Hiding in the tidy kitchen is a loudspeaker that brings her voice back to the apartment again: “I remember how we used to sit here in the kitchen, me and my father and mother and my brother, eating eggs and ketchup, with a roll and butter on weekends.” (The ketchup bottle is standing on the small table.) “My father loved to play games, so we’d sit there at the table, playing cards, checkers, riddles, me and my brother and my father.” (Next to the ketchup is a pack of playing cards.) “Cleanliness was very important to my mother. She would stand all night polishing pots—‘Shine ’Em Up Sadie,’ they used to call her.” (Scrub brushes and steel wool hang on racks above the sink.) “And then she’d turn on the radio and listen to Italian soap operas, and I remember my mother crying, because she missed her family in Sicily.” (Portraits of Josephine’s grandparents are framed on the wall, beside the icons.) “She had left them to come to America. She never saw her mother or father again.”
Up on the building’s third floor, the Rogarshevskys’ place also gleams bright and clean, the front room shimmering with rich red wallpaper and the bedroom half-blinding the visitor with its violent green walls. The apartment shows the cultural marks of its inhabitants in 1918, who were Lithuanian Orthodox Jews; the many sets of plates reflect the Jewish dietary laws’ demand for eating meat and dairy products off separate dishes. A generous spread of bagels, bialys, and hard-boiled eggs lies heaped on a table in the front room, making the apartment seem more lavish, if a bit cramped. But then the guide tells us exactly how many people lived here: Fanny, the mother of the house and later the building’s janitor right up until 1941; her four sons, who slept on the sofa with their legs supported by chairs; her two daughters; and Abraham, the father of the house, a garment presser. The piles of food on the table are here because Abraham isn’t. He died of tuberculosis a few days earlier, and the family is now “sitting shiva,” observing seven days of the initial period of mourning.
The Rogarshevskys’ tiny rooms are filled with stools and wooden crates because mourners must sit on low seats to express their grief. Mirrors are covered, since mourners must not be distracted by vanity. During the week of mourning the Rogarshevskys could not leave the apartment.
The evidence of Abraham’s demise is everywhere. Tuberculosis was considered a “Jewish disease” (it flourished in the close-packed housing of the Lower East Side) in early-twentieth-century America, despite the fact that, statistically, few Jews suffered from it. It was common in the garment workers’ industry, where many Jewish immigrants, including the entire Rogarshevsky family, first found work. Abraham had begun to return home from work pale and weak, pausing frequently as he climbed the steps up to the third floor; his family soon realized he had TB. Around the apartment are remains of their attempts to treat his illness: a creosote inhaler, a bottle of “Orion Eucalyptus and Tar Expectorant, Mentholated.” Abraham Rogarshevsky had come to America for a new life; that new life finally killed him on a hot Friday night in 1918. Because of the Sabbath, the family was unable to move the body. Eight people were occupying a 325-square-foot apartment with only the most minimal ventilation during a hot month in one of the most overcrowded places in the world, and one of the apartment’s occupants had just become a corpse.
Upon Abraham’s death something unexpected appeared— or so it seemed to those used to a European life of distance between various ethnic groups. When Abraham died on that summer night, his non-Jewish neighbors either saw or heard about the family’s inability to respond properly to his death on the Sabbath. They came over bearing buckets of ice to cover the body that would have to stay in the hot room for fifteen hours until the men from the burial society could arrive. Later they came to visit during the shiva, bringing eggs and bagels and friendly faces to comfort the Rogarshevskys. The men and women who put that food on the table in the front room might never have heard of a shiva, but they had heard of Abraham Rogarshevsky, and that was what mattered. In a building filled with lonely, homesick people, the new American residents of 97 Orchard Street had figured out a way to fight loneliness.