At the Museum at Eldridge Street, we tell the stories of the immigrants who settled on the Lower East Side through the lens of our historic building. And on July 8th, we will focus on a particular story that has been beloved by families since it’s conception – the All-of-a-Kind-Family story. Sydney Taylor (born Sarah Brenner) who was born in New York City to immigrant parents, wrote All-of-a-Kind-Family in 1951 as a series of five books. The stories tell the tale of five Jewish sisters growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of the 20th century. As one of the few novels of its time to chronicle the everyday adventures of a Jewish family, this book is a true Jewish Lower East Side treasure that is still loved by children and adults alike.
The books are very much a part of real Lower East Side life and mention many locations that we can still visit today – and that’s exactly what we do on our popular All of a Kind Family walking tours. Situated smack in the middle of the All-of-a-Kind-Family neighborhood, the Museum at Eldridge Street is the perfect location from which to start our walking tour, which meanders through the Lower East Side visiting locations familiar to any All-of-a-Kind-Family aficionado – including the famous library and park where readers can easily imagine Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie playing and reading back in 1910.
This summer’s tours will be led by Nancy Beiles, the Museum’s family program coordinator. She first happened upon the Museum while booking a spot in the All-of-a-Kind-Family tour for herself and her daughters, all huge fans of the series. We were able to speak with Nancy and ask a few questions about why she loves this tour and the book that inspired it. Written over fifty years ago, it’s impressive that these books are still beloved by so many children today. However, as Nancy brought to our attention, the books are built to last:
“The book is timeless. It’s a story of a family. It’s also one of the first novels about Jewish characters, and in that, it’s an artifact of a time when narratives of people outside the mainstream culture weren’t generally told. Today, of course, stories of Jewish people are far more common – and we tell stories of Jewish people at the Museum every day – but the book remains fascinating as an early example of a novel with characters for whom being Jewish is both integral and totally matter-of-fact.”
Nancy read the books as a child and shared them with her own children when the time came. With few historical chronicles of Jewish life in widespread circulation, these books connect children with the past and still strike a chord with readers of all ages. Like thousands of other readers, Nancy has a personal connection to the series:
“First, All-of-a-Kind-Family is a book I read and loved as a kid. Second, and more importantly to me, it’s a story that I read aloud to my two daughters when they were about 6 and 8 years old. They do like hearing about my childhood on Staten Island in the 1970s and 1980s, but they really loved hearing about Sarah and her sisters’ childhoods on the Lower East Side in the 1900s. Among other things, they were fascinated by the very thought of five sisters sharing a room. And as kids who love to read, they were absorbed by the central drama around a missing book.”
Although the Lower East Side has changed immensely since the All-of-a-Kind-Family children roamed the streets, tour participants may be surprised at how easily they will be able to recognize landmarks from the novel. Although this will be Nancy’s first time giving the tour, she is already excited about how participants will react to seeing the more well-known landmarks:
“I do really like when we get to Seward Park, the first municipal playground. It’s a place where you see kids doing just what kids would have been doing there in the early 1900s – playing! It provides a pretty clear through-line to the past. Plus, that’s the spot where I get to show the photograph that tends to elicit the most gasps and OMGs.”
The All-of-a-Kind-Family story has touched the hearts of thousands of readers, even many who are not Jewish or from New York City. Whatever your connection to the story is, all readers have one thing in common:
“People who come on the tour love the book. I hope the tour allows them to feel like they’re entering the book’s setting and gaining another dimension of understanding their favorite characters and an appreciation for the book’s historical context. It’s one thing to read a reference about the ‘tenement district.’ It’s another thing to see what a tenement really looks like. It’s another way of knowing a story.”
Before concluding our interview, we asked Nancy who her favorite All-of-a-Kind-Family character is. Her answer highlights what makes this novel so important – it celebrates community spirit and the huge impact small kindnesses can have on a child, a block, or a neighborhood.
“Most people talk about which sister they love most – and we actually do talk about that on the tour – but Miss Allen lodges in my mind because she is such a beautiful example of those special and kind people who, with a seemingly small gesture, end up having a huge impact on someone else’s life. I hope there’s someone out there who thinks of me as their ‘Miss Allen.’ It’s something to aspire to.”
Our All-of-a-Kind-Family walking tours are Sunday, July 8th and Sunday, August 5th at 11:00 a.m.! Spots are very limited for July 8th but tickets are still available for each date. Make sure to check our website for additional events and tour schedulings. Special thanks to Nancy Beiles for her commentary and dedication to this special event.
Amelia Geser is a student at Grinnell College and is a summer intern at the Museum of Eldridge Street. She is studying Art History and Museum Studies.