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December 2016 – March 2017

Michael Weinstein Gallery


Vintage postcards from the Blavatnik Archive offered rarely seen glimpses of the shtetls of Eastern Europe and the “Jewish Ghetto” of New York City’s Lower East Side. At a time when immigration policy was front-page news, these early twentieth-century postcards provided important historical perspective. In captivating color and stark black and white, they recalled vanished places that are at the heart of the Jewish immigrant experience. They also suggested how cultural conceptions and types were disseminated in popular culture.

Captions on European cards of men with long beards described them as “Jewish Types,” while wooden homes along unpaved streets characterized the “Jewish Quarter.” Some of these images were taken by passing soldiers during World War I who were struck by the exotic-looking community they encountered. Images of New York’s Lower East Side, long an immigrant gateway, included bustling streets with pushcarts and horse-drawn carriages, a pickle vendor, and a surprisingly beautiful view of tenements with laundry suspended from one tenement to the next. The Lower East Side is described on both the front and back of postcards as “The Ghetto” or “Judea.” During the first decades of the 20th century, the term “Ghetto” was more descriptive than derogatory and was understood as the place where the Jews lived in New York City. Looked at together, the Old World views often looked very similar to those of the Lower East Side.

Vintage postcard depicting street markets from Poland (left) and outdoor marketing on the Lower East side (right).
Street markets in postcards from Poland (left) and the Lower East side (right).

Postcards, some presented as enlargements, proved to be surprisingly eloquent artifacts, especially those that included personal, handwritten messages.  They provided images to support the stories of immigrants who may have worshiped at the Eldridge Street Synagogue in its heyday and gave visitors to the Museum a sense of a now-vanished Jewish Lower East Side. Some of the images were paired with quotations from oral history interviews with early Eldridge Street congregants or with stories of life on the Lower East Side.

The Blavatnick Archive is a nonprofit foundation dedicated to preserving and disseminating materials that contribute to the study of 20th-century Jewish and world history.

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