The Confino Tour

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Review

of an Exhibit

by Liat Olenick

Published on March 29, 2011

  • Description:

    Living History at the Tenement Museum: The Confino Family

    The Tenement Museum serves local and distant school groups, families and adult visitors on its tours. The museum’s mission is to promote tolerance and historical perspective through the interpretation of the immigrant experiences displayed within its walls. Based on my experience, I believe the goal of the Confino tour was to bring the story of an individual struggling with a new home, new language and new society to life. In particular, as Sephardic Jews, the Confino family were a “minority within a minority” and then museum chose to emphasize their circumstances as outsiders on the Lower East Side, not only as immigrants to a new land, but within a specific community. Visitors to the Tenement Museum in Manhattan may select one of several in house tours, each of which features a visit to one or two of the restored apartments at 97 Orchard street. Registration must be done in advance, online or by phone. The restorations interpret the lives of immigrant families of different ethnic backgrounds and time periods. Some tours also highlight “unrestored” apartments, replete with peeling wallpaper and layers of linoleum tiling. All of the rooms lack labels or any interpretive text, because the only way to visit the museum is by registering for a guided tour. Of all the tours, there is one that stands out because it features a live interpreter, an actress who plays the role of 14 year old Victoria Confino, a turn of the century Sephardic Jewish immigrant from what is now Greece. My experience in the Confino exhibit was overwhelmingly positive. The apartment itself was visually interesting, with various objects that helped to give a sense of what it was like to live in the apartment in the early 20th century. The low ceilings and small rooms themselves gave a sense of what it was like to live in a tenement during that period. Specifically, the dishware, the laundry hanging across on a line that spanned the room and even the Mediterranean foods like pomegranate and lentils on display on the table gave me and my fellow classmates information about the family’s life and culture. It was easy to imagine the mother negotiating cooking on the coal stove in the crowded kitchen/ dining room, the room darkened with coal smoke, smelling of herbs and soot. The live interpreter herself was extremely charismatic. Her accent felt authentic, and her speech was peppered with Ladino, her native language and Yiddish she would have acquired living on the Lower East Side. Moreover, she subtly included information and asked questions that spoke volumes about the historical figure that she represents. She did so in a dynamic way, moving around the room, asking questions, and making jokes.

    For instance, when we first walked in and introduced ourselves, a group of several women in the role of immigrants from Italy, she commented that it would be hard for our father to find all of us husbands. She then invited us to sit down and smiled at us full of wonder. She spoke about her work and the allure of American movies and culture, about being placed in Kindergarten as a teenager, all in a very fluid, and natural way. She even highlighted some of the objects in the room, like a family portrait of the real Confino family, and a photograph of her families home village in Greece.

    Not only was the interpreter charismatic and charming, but also, she was clearly extraordinarily knowledgeable, able to expound authentically and engagingly on diverse subjects from her family, to religion, to the neighborhood, her social life, and the work that immigrants might be able to find. The details she included gave richness to the experience. For example, I remember one of my classmates asked where we could buy olive oil as “Italians” and she replied with a the name of a store in Little Italy, and compared it to the fare of the “Ashkenazim” who only sold chicken fat. This simple response not only gave a real sense of the neighborhood and its inhabitants, but subtly communicated the Confino’s outsider status within the Jewish community. Likewise, I remember her telling us that her brothers would sleep on the roof in the summertime, when it was hot, a detail that spoke volumes about crowded tenement living. Both of these details were easy to relate to. We all need to consider where to buy the food we like, and we all contend with steaming City summers. In this way I learned so much about the details of the period and Confino story while also viscerally experiencing some of the emotions and sensations of being an outsider. After leaving the museum, I was inspired and energized. I ran across to the gift shop and bought two books about local history. Then, I wandered around the Lower East Side seeing buildings and street corners with new eyes, wondering what they may have looked like in 1914, who might have lived there, imagining the streets thick with foreign sounds and smells. I looked at brownstones, home to trendy restaurants or fabric stores, and wondered what shops they housed one hundred and fifty years ago. History really had come alive, at least for the afternoon.
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