November 19, 1995
STREETS: A Memoir of the Lower East Side
By Bella Spewack
Feminist Press, 1995
In the early 1920’s, Bella Spewack wrote an unsentimental, almost humorless memoir of growing up a poor Jewish immigrant on the Lower East Side, but did not publish it. At the time she was a young reporter based in Berlin and did not know that fame and comfort awaited her as part of the husband-and-wife team of Sam and Bella Spewack, who would write hit shows like “Boy Meets Girl” and “Kiss Me Kate.” In her memoir, Mrs. Spewack described airless, overcrowded tenements with boarders rotating in day and night shifts, as well as a little girl’s perplexing exposure to a too-adult, sometimes violent world of sexual desire. She relived the burdens and humiliation of being the oldest of three children of a single mother, dependent for survival on the chilly and degrading generosity of charity. She recreated the wearying hopelessness of that youth, but also the wonder and possibility injected into it through the existence of public libraries and public schools. Her voice is strong and individual. Her executors did well to bring the story to publication now, five years after her death at the age of 91.