Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Out of Mulberry Street Stories of Tenement life in New York City - by Jacob Riis

Free US/UK Kindle Classic
Out of Mulberry Street Stories of Tenement life in New York City, is non-fiction by American Jacob Riis. (US Edition)  (UK Edition)   I might have said he was Danish as he was born and grew up in Denmark before emigrating; but the famous social reformer was American through and through.  The account of his many failures, ill-advised decisions and near starvation before he achieved spectacular success as a journalist make his Wikipedia biography enthralling reading.  Yes, those are words seldom paired - but someone did a good job there on Riis.

But turning to the book on offer:

It purports to be a series of journalism pieces, but seems to have been put together as one piece on Christmas in the Bowery.  I don't want to mislead you that this is a Christmas story.  In fact he describes a Jewish wedding.  It is just that Riis is writing at that time of year when so many get the only time they will have off work.

Farthest down-town, where the island narrows toward the Battery, and warehouses crowd the few remaining tenements, the somber-hued colony of Syrians is astir with preparation for the holiday. How comes it that in the only settlement of the real Christmas people in New York the corner saloon appropriates to itself all the outward signs of it? Even the floral cross that is nailed over the door of the Orthodox church is long withered and dead: it has been there since Easter, and it is yet twelve days to Christmas by the belated reckoning of the Greek Church. 

But if the houses show no sign of the holiday, within there is nothing lacking. The whole colony is gone a-visiting. There are enough of the unorthodox to set the fashion, and the rest follow the custom of the country. The men go from house to house, laugh, shake hands, and kiss one another on both cheeks, with the salutation, “Kol am va antom Salimoon.” “Every year and you are safe,” the Syrian guide renders it into English; and a non-professional interpreter amends it: “May you grow happier year by year.”

The moral of this brief review might be, "expect the unexpected."  On the eve of September 11, my attention turned to New York City in 2001, but this book written in 1898 has just brought me back to the present day.

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