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Newark USA

A fotojournal about LIVING in Newark USA, New Jersey's largest and most cultured city, by the author of the foto-essay website RESURGENCE CITY: Newark USA.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

'Weequahic Memoirs'

Very long entry, but many fotos for those who just want to see pix.

Old yearbooks are prized mementos in this display case.

I attended the opening Wednesday nite of the exhibition of historical fotos and objects entitled "Weequahic Memoirs" at the Cooperman Center, West Orange Jewish Community Center (WOJCC). The program says:
Weequahic Memoirs: Celebrating Newark's Legendary Neighborhood features 44 panels containing hundreds of photographs that tell the story of Weequahic from the 1930s through the 1960s. There are showcases of artifacts and memorabilia, a Great Map of Weequahic, and a video documentary that transports the viewer back to this legendary neighborhood made famous by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Philip Roth. It's great MetroWest history! ...

Each Wednesday, starting June 25 through August 20, there will be a tour of the exhibition starting at 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.
The tour moves to the Alex Aidekman Jewish Community Campus of the JCC in Whippany in September.
The Cooperman Center is enormous! It has its own parking structure in addition to parking lot, and contains a school, pool, art gallery, auditorium (of perhaps 500 seats), fitness center, and who knows what else. It's hard to discern what is available at the Cooperman Center as against what is available elsewhere, from the joint website of
JCC Metrowest.

This satellite view of the Weequahic area was a good focal point near the front of the exhibit.

The opening ceremonies were scheduled to start at 7:30pm. I was about a quarter hour late, and it took another several minutes to walk thru the Center to the auditorium. But I arrived just in time for the first speaker, Hal Braff, identified in the program as "co-president WHS [Weequahic High School] Alumni Association". He is also father to the actor Zach Braff.

My camera had trouble with the liting in the auditorium. This foto does, however, give you a sense of the packed room. The speaker at this point is Hal Braff.

The auditorium was nearly full, and such seats as were readily visible were far in, blocked by many people sitting closer to the aisles. It really is at the least selfishly unaware, and more like stupid and rude, for people to pile into seats closest to the aisles and thus block off seats farther in, such that well-mannered people (unlike the people I just mentioned) would not want to make a whole bunch of strangers stand up in order for them to squeeze past. Nor do many of us feel comfortable with that kind of unwilling intimacy with strangers. A word to the wise: don't block empty seats. Move over! (I ended up standing for the entire hour the speeches lasted.)

The text above gives an overview of the exhibition. Two mistakes jumped out at me. Do you see them? Others?

Braff gave background about WHS, Beth Israel Hospital and its medical firsts in NJ, various eateries, and other institutions in the neighborhood in the Forties and Fifties.

Next to speak was Linda Forgosh, author of the book Jews of Weequahic, which I mentioned here May 23rd.

The third speaker was Hilda Lutzke, who taught English at WHS for 38 years. Many of the members of the audience seemed to remember her. She is now something like 87 years old.

Last to speak was Mayor Booker. I thought, as the earlier speeches went on, that it was an unreasonable imposition upon this very busy man to keep him waiting to be the last speaker. Booker himself was, however, supremely gracious, and made it sound as tho he was actually glad to have heard all the speeches before him.

This picture is fuzzy because of the distance and probably also because he moved (he is not a static speaker).

Booker has a long history of involvement in Jewish groups, tho he is not himself Jewish. He drew upon his extensive knowledge of Judaism and the dynamics of Jewish communities in his remarks. And he said a couple of moderately amusing things. It seems that the rabbi he dealt with at Oxford University and the rabbi at Yale both had the first name"Shmuley". Booker invoked, "a Chinese blessing, 'May you know two Shmuleys'". Later, he said it was a good thing not all Newarkers were Jewish, because we'd be even more divided than we are now. The audience understood, and laffed, but he added an abbreviated joke about a town with two Jews and three synagogs, by way of clarification.

Among the Jewish Historical Society's most popular objects are street signs from the 1940s, seen above and in the next foto below.

I thought, repeatedly, how good a public speaker Booker is. I took speech classes myself, and speaking to groups is not a problem for me. I remember how happy I was to fite it out with a hostile audience of a couple of hundred Canadians at the University of Guelph (Ontario) decades ago. But I'd have to do a lot more public speaking than I do now to even begin to equal Booker's fluidity and comfort. (And maybe get better fake teeth.)

I also thought how much better Booker would be than Obama as candidate for President. I find Obama a bore. He's a lot like Reagan, the man preposterously called "the great communicator". Reagan always sounded the same. So does Obama. They're both tedious and practiced. (By the way, the -'RE in "they're", um, there, stands for both "were" and "are". Ain't contractions wunnerful?)

I've heard Booker speak, in person, several times. He stumbles every now and then, but recovers so fast you don't have time to notice. Booker is basically a brilliant speaker. I confess that I did NOT vote for him, either the first or second time. Unless something changes between now and his next election campaign, however, I will vote for him the next time.
I retain enormous admiration for Sharpe James, who took this city from almost total hopelessness to the point where speaking of Newark's coming back, of its having a "renaissance" or, my preference, "resurgence", wasn't ridiculous. I'm disappointed that James was so money-hungry that the enormous salary (
$203,000 at the end of his tenure) that he won for the mayoralty — which Booker last nite said he cut by 11% when he stepped thru the door (I figure that still leaves $180,670, a very nice chunk of change) — wasn't enuf. But that in no way takes away from James's enormous accomplishments for this city, accomplishments from which I and Newarkers more generally benefit.

The long, narrow object in this picture is captioned, "This panoramic photograph is of Weequahic Park circa 1905. MetroWest resident[ ] Diane Moskowitz discovered the piece in an area 'antique' shop."

People hostile to Sharpe James need to accept that he built NJPAC, Bears & Eagles Stadium, and the Newark Arena/Prudential Center. Without those showplaces of Newark's centrality to this entire region's civilization, Cory Booker would start from a deep, deep hole. The greatest of James's accomplishments, which he achieved against huge odds and intense, widespread opposition — including, till very late in the game, from Cory Booker — was the Prudential Center, which has brought over 1.4 million people to Newark so far, and over 100,000 more each month, to learn from personal experience, actually being here, that Newark is fabulous.

I was looking for a way to give readers a sense of how well-attended the event was, when I saw a man taking pix from a landing above it all. What a great idea, thought I.

"If you build it, they will come." Sharpe James knew that. He was a giant, who dared to think great thoughts, for Newark, not just himself. The little minds around him said over and over that it couldn't be done, it shouldn't be done by a city so hard-pressed to meet more urgent needs. But James understood that to fritter away all of the City's resources on hand-to-mouth programs to meet the most urgent short-term needs, and not build for the future, was a master plan for failure.

In this second foto from the stairs, the elderly lady in pink may be Hilda Lutzke, the teacher who spoke just before Mayor Booker.

Sharpe James had a master plan for success, for brilliant success. He saw the bones of a great city, and he put some flesh on them. Cory Booker stands on the shoulders of that giant. And he has had the courtesy and courage to admit he was wrong. Would that all Newarkers could do that.

This March 14, 1934 edition of the WHS newspaper is not just old. It also contains a brief letter/essay from Albert Einstein, "the great [Jewish] German scientist". Einstein was at that time living in the United States. He had been wintering in Pasadena, California, for several years, and he just extended his stay after Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933. He later moved to Princeton, to work at the Institute for Advanced Study, established by the Bambergers of Newark. The next foto shows a closeup of that portion of the front page.

The Arena should indeed have been built after all. But it wouldn't have been built without Sharpe James, uniquely. Think about that the next time you are in The Rock, or even near it. And think a silent "Thank you, Mayor James."

There is a very serious error in the text. Do you see it?

Now, getting back to Mayor Booker, he may stand on the shoulders of a giant, but he's getting to be a pretty impressive politician in his own right. Some future mayor, after Booker has moved on — and up? — may stand on the shoulders of two giants. Who knows — maybe that next mayor will be me. When Newarkers elect a white man, the world will know that the bad old days are truly thru, and we have come out the other side, to a future briter even than our past, when any Newarker, truly, can be elected mayor, without regard to race, color, creed, and that entire laundry list of things, including, crucially, sexual orientation in my case, that we like to brag about as Americans. By the way, at one point Mayor Booker mentioned, last among past bases for discrimination, homophobia.

This area is dedicated to the 43 synagogs scattered across Weequahic in The Olden Days.

Cory Booker spoke last nite as Mayor of the city that includes Weequahic. But he didn't stop there. He reminded us that Weequahic and all of Newark are just parts of a much larger whole, the United States. It seemed a little out of place when he made his first reference to 'our country', but each subsequent reference seemed less odd. He rightly made the point that the success of the Jews of Weequahic is a story about people who, believing in the principles of the United States, made them work.

Only a nation of immigrants reverential about its diversity and open to people as individuals to rise or fall on their own merits, without undue interference, could give rise to the huge success story of the Jews of Weequahic. And even, sadly, the exodus of the Jews from Weequahic was an American story, not, as it is all too often seen, a uniquely Newark story. Many left for bigger houses on bigger lots. They left because they wanted more, which is what you're supposed to want if you're American, not because they hated what they came from or what was coming into the neighborhood. Oh, sure, there was racial animus and uneasiness and fear on the part of some of the Jews who left. And they might have felt resentment at being displaced by any group of Christians, not just black Baptists. But the Federal Government was telling them, and the popular culture was telling them, that successful people don't stay in "the old neighborhood". They move to the suburbs. So they moved to the suburbs.

Here, a couple is happy to pose for a picture (by a friend?). I don't know if the location, in front of the Music part of the discussion of WHS Activities is meaningful. Perhaps they met in the band. Perhaps not.

I want to help bring the empty-nesters back to Newark. The kids are grown. The house is too big. The lawn is too much to mow and the garden too much to take care of. It's time to move back to the city, back to the Newark not of their youth but of their hopes. Because that Newark is back. Oh, maybe it's not completely back, but it's well on its way. It needs a push. Or two. Or 232,438. Jews know how to 'noodge'. So noodge, already.

The key feature I wanted to show from this case, the Camp Mohican Boy Scout insignia, ended up being largely blocked by a reflection. Drat. There are various certificates of appreciation in other parts of the case.

If racism was not at the heart of the Jewish exodus to the suburbs, and Essex County's Jews really feel the warmth for Newark that was manifested at Wednesday's event in West Orange, they should welcome a Greater Newark that incorporates the 'burbs.

The caption by this shirt reads: "This 'T' shirt is [tense?] designed by Weequahic graduate Barbara Kruger, leading artist and feminist, whose work was featured in the Whitney Museum's Biennial exhibition."

Jeffrey Bennett, webmaster of the Newarkology website, had said he'd be there. So I brought my review copy of Jews of Weequahic to give to him, so he can check the accuracy of the text and write a bit about it as the second part of a review here. I showed him where the author, Linda Forgosh, who is also the curator of the Memoirs exhibit, mentions him at the bottom of the first page of the introduction. And I asked him to introduce me to her, which he did.

The right side of one display case is occupied by 16 old postcards, 8 from Newark and 8 from Bradley Beach. The Newark postcards are right-side up in this picture.

I gave her my card and said I'd like to get a picture for my fotoblog. She looked at the card and asked "What do you say about 'Newark USA'"? I replied, "A lot, and I show lots of pictures." Linda indicated that she would pose for a picture but had something to do first. She said to wait right there, because she had to go thank the Weequahic High School Jazz Band before they left. (They played before the speeches began.) She wanted to make sure they knew how much they were appreciated. Is that sweet, or what?

A few minutes later, she was back, and I asked if she'd pose by her favorite part of the exhibition, for which she was curator. She knew immediately what she wanted to show but wasn't certain we could get to it, for the crowd. She was, in fact, intercepted by various people eager to talk to her and offer materials for future use in memorializing the Jewish community of Weequahic.

When Linda managed to get to her favorite item in the display, an elderly woman approached to offer other materials for the Historical Society. Linda was very solicitous in making plain that the Society is collecting only originals, no copies, and people should be very sure that they wish to part with originals. In the foto below, she is holding with her left arm some items just donated. Jeffrey Bennett, standing near, asked if it would be alrite for him to get in the picture too, and of course it was. He works to inform people about Newark's distinguished history (and is indeed planning a walking tour of the Clinton Hill neighborhood for August 10th), so having two local historians makes an even better picture.

It turns out Linda had not just a favorite area but indeed a favorite single piece, a good-scholarship gold medal presented by Louis Bamberger to the top students in Newark's public schools. Linda is working on a biography of Louis Bamberger, and exuberantly praised him as the greatest man in recent Newark history. I playfully suggested, "Until me", but she wouldn't play along. Harrumph! Jeff added that Louis Bamberger was the greatest philanthropist in Newark history. I asked about what I thought was his dauter, Barbara Bamberger Fuld, who gave the Japanese cherry trees to Branch Brook Park. Jeff corrected me. Louis B. did not marry (hmm) and had no children; Caroline (not Barbara) Bamberger Fuld was Louis's sister.

This is a closeup of the Scholarship Medal. I had originally zoomed in by camera to show both the medal and its explanatory plaque. I should have zoomed even closer in with the camera to show the detail of the medal itself, but didn't think to do so. That's why this super-closeup is fuzzy, because I zoomed in my graphics program instead.

Speaking of Newark philanthropy, Gaetano found a sad news story, that a 30-year scholarship program (Project Pride) and the football game held annually to benefit that fund (the Pride Bowl) are being ended. It seems the founder is retiring to Nevada much of the year, and has not provided for anyone else to take over. I wanted to leave a comment at the end of that NJ.com story but the comments feature wasn't working. So I just told Gaetano by email.
I wanted to leave a comment about the scholarship program being a mere bit of egotism on the part of the sponsor, if it ends because he personally runs out of interest. Any real philanthropist provides for important work to continue with or without him.
By contrast, the WHS Alumni Association established a scholarship program that is not dependent on any single individual. It will go on as long as the alumni feel it worthwhile.

As I was getting ready to leave, Jeff proffered the opinion that the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest may be the best historical society in this area, better even than the NJHS. In that (a) I'm not a historian and (b) I haven't seen much of anything in the NJHS building and have seen only this exhibit from JHSMW, I'm in no position to judge. Jeff, however, is a student of Newark history, and popularizer of that history. This much I can say: NJHS needs much larger quarters. If the Newark Museum would build an entirely new building in a different location, say, between The Rock and Newark Penn Station, the Historical Society could take over at least part of the Museum's present space.

The Weequahic Memoirs exhibit has moved to The Jewish Museum of NJ at Congregation Ahavas Sholom, 145 Broadway in Newark, where it will be on view until February 15, 2009. The Museum's hours of operation are as follows: Sunday, 11am-4pm; Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, 12noon-4pm.

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