Long ago and far away (at least from my present home in Texas), the Weequahic section of Newark, New Jersey, was the site of a vibrant Jewish community from the 1930s into the 1960s.
The lives of Weequahic’s 35,000 residents are portrayed in this book. The portrait is primarily visual. Linda Forgosh has written a brief introduction to the neighborhood, but the heart of the volume is the hundreds of photographs that she has meticulously compiled, mainly from former Weequahic residents. Appropriate mention is made of children of Weequahic who became famous, of whom Philip Roth is the most celebrated. There is a photo of the home on Summit Avenue, now designated a Historic Site, where Roth lived until 1942. But the book has no individual star. Its leading character is the neighborhood.
To my untrained eyes, what stands out in the photos is time, more than place or ethnicity. There is no sense that Newark, and Weequahic in particular, were somehow different from comparable neighborhoods in Philadelphia, Cleveland, or Baltimore. (Perhaps they weren’t; I don’t know.) There is some feel for the Jewish character of Weequahic, but other than the names in the photo captions, a few of the stores and restaurants, and some of the fraternal organizations, not that much. The pictures of athletic teams and school classes and socials are pretty
On the other hand, one does get a real sense of time. Of course, clothing and grooming, and buildings and cars place the photos in a particular era. Beyond the obvious, a number of the pictures are clearly from a long-gone period. We see, for example, students and teachers at Weequahic High School raising money to purchase war bonds during World War II. There’s a shot of girls at sewing machines in their mandatory home economics class. Monroe Krichman’s Certificate of Posture Achievement from 1951 appears with the caption: “Students in all grades were submitted to an annual posture examination as part of physical education and recreation.”
The 1943 high school diploma of Harold Heshy Blinder (his apparent nickname is shown without quotation marks) is pictured, listing how many credits he earned in English, social studies, bookkeeping, and other subjects. Among the classes that his contemporaries could have taken were Esperanto and millinery.
Many of the photos evoke a real sense of community. One sees it in the mom-and-pop stores on Bergen Street, a leading shopping venue in Weequahic. A wonderful picture shows Pearl Stein of Stein’s Dry Goods “babysitting for Barbara Steinberg, whose parents owned the candy store next door.” There is a chapter on “Weequahic Park: A Playground for All Seasons.” In a time before air conditioning was common, families went to the park, with its 80-acre lake, for boating, fishing, and other activities in the summer. It was busy year-‘round, with ice skaters on the lake in winter.
My family moved to an apartment in Weequahic in 1949 when I was three. We lived there until leaving for a single-family home in the suburbs in 1957. The book brought back warm memories from my childhood—of Chancellor Avenue School (located next to Weequahic High), which I attended into the sixth grade, and stores and restaurants in the neighborhood. I especially enjoyed the photo of Syd’s, which is accurately described as “the destination for hot dog lovers.” I recall how pleased I was when my mother would let me go to Syd’s for lunch and squeeze in with the big kids from high school to buy a frank with mustard, relish, and maybe sauerkraut.
My family’s story was a common one. By the 1960s, many Jews had left Weequahic. Forgosh reports an estimated Jewish population of only 500 by 1977. Today the area, like Newark in general, appears to be largely African American. A number of photos depict the change. A former synagogue is now Union Chapel Church with “an active African American Episcopal congregation.” Another one-time synagogue is home to the New Born Baptist Church, though one can still see Stars of David on the building. Athletic team photos from the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s were overwhelmingly white and featured players with names like Rothman, Greenfield, and Simon. A shot of the 1966-1967 Weequahic High basketball team shows thirteen black players and a lonely-looking Gerry Gimmelstob at the end of the back row.
The Weequahic of the middle third of the twentieth century is no more. The Jews of Weequahic provides a revealing photographic look at what it was.