Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood by Kate Simon 1982

 "The themes of her work—a young woman’s search for independence and selfhood, her discovery and attitudes toward sexuality, her loving and ironic stance toward the secular Jewish left, and her encounters with a wide array of 'places and pleasures'—make hers a unique voice among memoirists and Jewish immigrant writers." Michael Galchinsky in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Encyclopedia

 In this classic memoir, the first of a trilogy, Kate Simon, who was born in 1912 in Warsaw, Poland, brings to life the multi-lingual, multi-ethnic immigrant Tremont area of the Bronx in New York City. Between World Wars I and II she grew up in a tenement surrounded by immigrants and their children. We watch as they eat: the memoir is famous for an early scene of a carp swimming in the tub which is soon to be made into gefilte fish. She describes how they sleep: two and three to a bed. She describes their playing games in the streets, their working in factories and at home (doing piece-work), and their two-week vacations in the summer- either enjoying the sea air on Coney Island or going on day trips by trolley to Orchard Beach.

It’s also a perceptive and frank story about her learning about the world around her, including her dawning knowledge about sex: she recounts what she remembers about her mother being pregnant with her youngest sister who was born at home; about her parents, especially her father, constantly admonishing her about how she should behave around members of the opposite sex, and her having to protect herself against the predatory sexual behavior of boarders and neighbors.

In Volume II, Wider World: Story of an Adolescence (1986) and Volume III, Etchings in an Hourglass (published posthumously in 1990) Simon discusses her life as it developed beyond her early adolescence.

To read the obituary of Kate Simon in the New York Times, click here.

Lonia Babicz – author’s mother; emigrated from Warsaw, Poland
Yukele Grobsmith – author’s father
   Kaila Grobsmith – author’s original name; changed to Caroline in the US. 
   Michael Grobsmith – the author’s brother
David, Rachel, Yentel, aunts and uncles of Yukele who lived on Avenue C
Surrele – Yukele’s sister
Fannie Herman, neighbor
Mr. Herman – owner of small kosher meat market
   Miriam Herman – their daughter
   Tobie Herman – their daughter

Tvarda Gass in the Warsaw ghetto
The Bronx around Tremont Avenue near Crotona Park

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