Growing up, books were both entertainment and escape. I was an anxious kid, surrounded by external factors that acted like gasoline on my brain’s ever-simmering flame of dread. Luckily, I also grew up in a house of books and readers. On my parents’ bookshelves I discovered All-of-a-Kind Family, Sydney Taylor’s story of five Jewish immigrant sisters growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century.
Many children grew up with Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. I had Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie, and eventually Charlie (in retrospect, Mama and Papa may have been trying for a boy?). I also had Laura and Mary, Julie/Miyax, and Betsy, Tacy, and Tib. I loved them all. Every book I read was the best, because they took me out of myself: With a story in front of me I was able to focus and let go, exploring other worlds and meeting new people from the comfort of my bed and Beam n Read.
But there was something special about All-of-a-Kind Family. The characters were Jewish, like me. Half of me, to be exact, but the other half got representation, too: At one point, they get lost on Coney Island and are helped by an Irish policeman. He buys them a peanut-candy bar, lollipop, and an ice cream, and it sounds like the best run-in with a cop of all time. The girls have adventures, like the March sisters or Ingalls girls or Boxcar Children. They also observe the Sabbath, prepare kosher food, and invite the library lady to come see the family sukkah. Seeing myself in stories meant something; it showed me that I had a place in the world, and that having fun and being Jewish were never at odds.
And what fun they have. These books are like The Great British Baking Show of Jewish children’s literature, in that they’re feel-good and comforting but never boring or bland: Each chapter is a charming, self-contained nugget of story. Some stories feature the whole family, some feature a few of the girls, and some focus on just one. You get to know each sister’s personality and role in the family: beautiful, responsible oldest sister Ella (who I wanted to be and absolutely was not); spunky Henny (getting warmer); studious Sarah (yoooooo); gentle Charlotte; and baby Gertie. Then there’s Mama and Papa, sweet schlub Uncle Hyman and his wife Lena, Ella’s hot-sounding boyfriend Jules, and a rotating cast of relatives and friends, service people, shopkeepers, teachers, and more.
Sometimes the girls go places: They visit with peddlers in Papa’s shop, take the new elevated train, and see Ella perform vaudeville. But their best adventures always involved food, family, and home. In “Who Cares if It’s Bedtime?” youngest sisters Charlotte and Gertie go to Mrs. Blumberg’s candy store, where sweets are sold by the half-penny. But they don’t stop there. Oh no. They double down and buy a penny’s worth of soda crackers from Mr. Basch and it is on. That night, they play a game:
“…Tucking in the featherbed, Mama said goodnight to all and went out, shutting the bedroom door behind her.
The fun could begin at last! Charlotte directed because the game was hers.
“First we take a chocolate baby, and we eat only the head.” They bit off the heads and chewed away contentedly.
“Now the feet.” That was hard. The tiny feet were very close to the legs but they did the best they could.
“Let’s gobble the rest up altogether.” That was a good order. They gobbled away.
Charlotte continued. “A cracker now.” They fished about in the dark. “We’ll take a small bite just to find out what kind it is.”
They each took a small bite. “Mine is a lemon snap, I think,” Gertie said. “What’s yours?”
“Mine’s a ginger. We have to nibble along the side of this piece of cracker as if we were mice and we have to do it until I stay stop.” So they nibbled and nibbled and pretty soon Gertie exclaimed, “My piece is all gone.”
“So’s mine,” Charlotte told her. She had enjoyed nibbling so much she had forgotten to change the order.
Charlotte had lots of ideas. With the next cracker they had to make a circling movement ten times around in front of their open mouths and then pop the cracker in. But they were not to bite into it. Oh no, that cracker had to be taken out of their mouths again and the circle repeated ten times. After that they could eat the cracker as they pleased.
And so the game was played till there wasn’t a single thing left.”
Normally Charlotte and Gertie weren’t my favorites (I was dazzled by Ella and a Sarah-Henny split in my soul), but reading this scene made me beam every single time. I went back to it again and again, wanting nothing more than to share a bed and eat candy and crackers — something about that peek into the past and heritage settles my racing heart and squirrel soul. A tenement life with multiple siblings was miles and years away from my middle-class, ‘90s childhood experience, but food, warmth, and companionship transcend centuries.
Though All-of-a-Kind Family presented a sentimental and somewhat sanitized view of tenement life, it was not without conflict. Lena becomes paralyzed and almost doesn’t marry Uncle Hyman; Mama falls ill; Ella is torn between Jules and her budding stage career. They also dealt with the issues of their age: scorching hot summers without air conditioning, World War I, Scarlet fever. Mama reacts to the last with her usual grace, quarantining four (!) children in a four-room apartment (!!) during Passover (!!!).
We are currently dealing with our own sweeping sickness. I’m not keeping the house spotless like Mama. I am looking to my childhood favorites for comfort and strength. Through every hardship, Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie had each other. I can look out for other people, appreciate the everyday, and find joy in hardship. And when it all gets too much, as it sometimes does, I have these stories to bring me back.
How I Keep Calm is our new series featuring different ways people manage anxiety. If you have a pitch for this column, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org with “How I Keep Calm” in the subject line.