“As a historian I’m interested in the past but I’m even more interested in people’s relationship to it,” Stuyvesant Town filmmaker Suzanne Wasserman explained to me about her new, short documentary “Sweatshop Cinderella.” On June 8 at 6:30 “The Tenement Museum” will present a screening of the 27-minute film whose subject is writer Anzia Yezierska. Yezierska was a Jewish immigrant from Poland whose family settled on New York’s Lower East Side in 1890. Like many immigrants Yezierska worked in laundries and sweatshops, but Yezierska also pursued an education. She eventually published short stories and novels about the immigrant experience. Wasserman explained that Yezierska “wasn’t a young woman when she started publishing. She was probably 35 or 40 before she published her first short story.” The documentary shows that Yezierska even had a brief flirtation with Hollywood, which made films from some of her stories. Wasserman will attend the screening and conduct a Q & A afterwards.
Wasserman recalled discovering Yezierska’s work in graduate school. “I was very taken with the severe grittiness with the way she portrays the past,” she recalled. On personal level Wasserman explained, “I was very interested in how that neighborhood (the Lower East Side) figures in people’s memories and imaginations particularly for Jews who either lived on the Lower East Side and left, like Anzia did, or Jews like me who had never lived on the Lower East Side. My family was in the Midwest in Chicago but yet the Lower East Side has a special role for me in my identification as a Jewish American.”
Wasserman talked about the tension between having nostalgia for the past and portraying the past warts and all. She described Yezierska’s story as being “very personal because my relationship to the past is similar to Anzia’s in that I think that we both are interested in portraying the past as it really was; she as a novelist and me as a historian, but at the same time we also both feel very wistful and nostalgic for the past and I think that’s interesting.” Wasserman elaborated, “In terms of being a nostalgic person I think it’s interesting that it sort of stopped Anzia from really living a full life. She was so buried in the past and she was so consumed by what did and didn’t happen with John Dewey (famed educational reformer with whom Yezierska had an affair) and I think it really stopped her from finding love.” She concluded, “Aside from really learning from her as a historian I felt like personally she was kind of a cautionary tale for me. It’s great to use the past. It’s good if you can channel that energy and that interest in the past but not to get lost in it like I think she did.”
Wasserman, in addition to being a filmmaker, is also a historian. She runs the Gotham Center for New York City History, part of the CUNY Graduate Center located at 34 Street and Fifth Avenue. As to how she balances running the center with being a filmmaker Wasserman explained, “Its difficult. I have full time job here and it’s a lot of work and its very rewarding. But I do the filmmaking in the evenings and on holidays and I do work with a professional editor so the editor will be working.”
Wasserman said that one of the basic challenges for “Sweatshop Cinderella” came in making a film about a subject on whom there is no filmed footage. She explained, “I had to really figure out could I make a feature film and decided that I couldn’t. So there’s a lot of story there and I think it moves along but, you know, I have to do it with a lot of archival footage and talking heads and with stills.” Wasserman also employs an audio recording of Yezierska and clips from “Hungry Hearts” (1922) a film based on one of Yezierska’s novels.
Regarding Yezierska’s place in today’s literary world Wasserman said, “Her books went out of print in the 50s and they went back into print in 1975 because she was like a proto-feminist. I mean she really appeals and her work is still very compelling and contemporary. Her books have not gone out of print in the last 35 years and they’re taught in many, many, many classrooms: women’s studies, Jewish studies, immigrant studies, Lower East Side studies, New York history. I think her books have sold like 100,000 copies in the last few decades.”
The screening at the Tenement Museum is free but reservations are recommended. For reservations go to http://www.tenement.org and click on “Tenement Talks.” For more information on “Sweatshop Cinderella” please go to http://www.gothamcenter.org/cinderella.