A proud Newarker

A proud Newarker

Growing up in the 1940s and 50s in a neighborhood called Weequahic, in a city called Newark, was the very best place to be a Jewish kid. You name it — we had it. I never understood the rush to move to the suburbs, which were more picturesque than practical. But that’s history and we lived it, and left Newark behind. Why? For no good reason that I can conjure.

Our neighborhood was safe. No one ever thought about owning a gun. We could walk the streets alone, day or night. And our bikes were terrific transportation, never even needing to be padlocked to a telephone pole. Our feet also came in handy, since we could walk to almost every important destination. All of our needs were easily filled, and we could get wherever we needed to go. To expand our horizons we had buses, which included the 8 Lyons and the 14 Clinton Place. There was also the 107, whose route included our corner at Lyons and Aldine and the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. And further afield, we even had a major airport.

Some of us were less than perfect. Many of us, including your writer, did smoke cigarettes. It was so cool looking, you know. All the movie actresses smoked, and they held their cigarettes in a very glamorous way. And who didn’t want to look like a movie star, especially if you were a 14-year-old girl with pimples?

But I never ever knew anyone to use drugs or even drink alcohol. It just wasn’t our way.

And almost every single one of us at Weequahic High School was in a college prep program. College wasn’t just an option. It was what most of us knew we would do. School was competitive and classes were huge. More than 40 kids in each class was typical. It didn’t seem to make much of a difference, though. Academic success was pretty common.

But don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t paradise. Some kids came from rich families and were known to flaunt it. A girl I knew had just passed her driving test when she was seen with her brand-new Plymouth convertible, cruising up and down, up and down, over and over again, on Chancellor Avenue. Where better to be seen?

Another girl bragged about owning 17 cashmere sweaters. I couldn’t make that up! But by and large, parents loved their kids and tried to do their best for them. It never occurred to me to suspect that one of the neighborhood kids was abused or neglected. Who even knew parents like that existed? All the parents wanted their kids to succeed. And seriously, most of the kids did.

And we had all the goods and services that we needed.

Did you need a drugstore? Rubins, Goldmans, Slonims, Halems, and many more all a quick walk away. And did you ever need a kosher butcher? Too many to count. Or a kosher deli? Take your pick. Or a grocery store that delivered — that would have been all of them. Or a place to buy fancy clothes or less fancy clothes? The world’s best bagels, Watson’s, but also terrific bakeries for every other kind of bread. Mom never bought Wonder Bread, which she thought looked like baked paste. Bread came from Baker’s around the corner (aptly named, because the family who owned the bakery were, in fact, seriously, really, the Bakers). The most divine cake came from Silver’s on Hawthorne Avenue. Who could ever forget the Victory Cake, which was probably the worldwide best cake ever created in celebration of the end of a war, but so good that that cake went on for decades. It was, you know, a very bad war, so the good stuff had to continue indefinitely….or until the bakery ultimately closed.

But the Victory Cake was a creation to be remembered for a lifetime; chocolate cake, chocolate crumbs, and divine tufts of luxurious pillows of pure rich whipped cream, never whipped topping, an invention of another era. That cake is alive in my dreams. Its sensuous taste is a reminder of so much left behind on the lovely streets of Newark.

Our Newark was a major metropolis, standing firm in the shadow of a more major metropolis. If we wanted Broadway theater, it was a bus or train ride away. If we wanted madding crowds or frenzy, it was across the Hudson River, on that same bus or train ride, so near when we wanted it and so far when we didn’t.

Memories are all I have left of my Newark. They’re simply not enough.

I was born at the Beth, the Newark Beth Israel Hospital on Lyons Avenue, known today as the Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, a beacon of our neighborhood, high and heroic, visible from most points in the thriving city I knew. Every member of our family grew up in the healing embrace of the Beth. We were born there and some of us died there, including Zayda and Uncle Abie. Not a one of us would ever have thought to go elsewhere for a second opinion. Why would we? Why should we? The Beth was a renowned institution, home to the most committed and skilled doctors, like Henry Kessler, or Victor Parsonnet, or Rita Sapiro Finkler, or endless others, who created enviable reputations for themselves and the hospital itself. No. Our community was inextricably linked to the Beth, which sat in the midst of the stores and homes we shopped in and lived in, part and parcel of our neighborhood and its profound Jewish ambience.

We were surrounded by shuls, big ones with massive magnificent edifices and famous rabbis like Joachim Prinz, small ones, and tiny shtiebels with part-time or no rabbis at all.

Our superb schools were supplemented by the wonderful library on Osborne Terrace. I never even knew that books could be bought in bookstores. The library was the destination we headed to for our book needs. Everyone in my household was an avid reader — even Pop, who had to be content with the Yiddish Daily Forward. We always had piles of books, all beautifully attired in thick plastic, all tempting and more, or less, fascinating. Dad was known as a strict reader of only nonfiction. He never read anything that he couldn’t learn from, a pattern that led him through life even when he ultimately lived in Herzliya, from ages 80 to 97, where he was known as the major borrower at the Herzliya English Library. Mom’s focus was on great literature. She never read junk, but it was always fiction.

We kids, my sister and I, were loyal patrons. The library was on two floors in a small but beautiful brick building covered by ivy. I loved that place, filled with mystery, or humor, or drama, or everything else. It had an earthy, bookish scent. It felt like a serious place. We knew to be very quiet there and to speak in whispers. We were confined to the second floor, the children’s section, where helpful librarians, patient with children, would be kind if you couldn’t find what you were searching for in the nail-breaking card catalog. It was a hushed place, and Dewey and his Decimal System were treated with respect. No computers existed. Who knew? Every trip there was a trip well beyond the library’s walls, trips to the entire world and beyond. Adventures awaited always. And best of all, Nancy Drew seemed to live there too. I devoured those books about a young, awesome girl detective, brave as I wished I could be. I read them quickly and passionately. What a woman she must have become!

The Newark YM-YWHA, the Young Men’s, Young Women’s Hebrew Association, the Y, was another favorite place whose memories often rebound. We grew up at the Y, attending events that were age appropriate. In high school there were dances on Saturday nights that attracted hundreds of us, Jewish teenagers, looking for romance. Often we found it! No doubt many marriages were made at the Y.

The Y was also where our clubs met. Our famous high school, Weequahic, was very busy with clubs and jackets. My club, the Filantes, met at the Y and created programming just for us. And what a thrill it was when our jackets, designed by us, finally arrived, with our individual names scripted in front and the name of the club, in huge font, on the back. That was us, strutting our stuff. Most of us were in clubs, boys as well as girls.

I can tell you so much more. About the Roosevelt Movie Theater. It never mattered what the films were. And the Weequahic Diner. And the rollerskating rinks and Weequahic Park. And Olympic Park. And sashaying on Chancellor Avenue. And Torch Day at the high school, which was certainly one of the most moving events any high school anywhere ever produced, a truly emotional farewell to the school that had nurtured us.

What is there to say about those glorious days that were ours? Certainly the memories are beautiful. We grew up in a transcendent place, Newark, New Jersey, and in a transcendent time. We were safe and loved and well taught. We grew up comfortable and confident. The war to end all wars was over, and we would know peace in our city, our sanctuary.

Is there any wonder why I, and so many like me, miss it still?

You can contact me at rosanne.skopp@gmail.com

Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of three. She is a graduate of Rutgers University and a dual citizen of the United States and Israel. She is a lifelong blogger, writing blogs before anyone knew what a blog was!

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