Sometimes history is a jacket.
It’s a brown corduroy bomber-style jacket with two orange stripes and a sewn-on orange felt football, apparently hand-lettered, that reads “Newark City Champs 1951.”
It’s part of the exhibit called “Sharing Our Stories” that will be displayed in the lobby of the Aidekman Jewish Community Campus in Whippany throughout the summer. (The building also houses the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest.)
When the exhibit opened with a celebration a few weeks ago, one of the guests looked at the object on the hanger. “That’s my jacket!” he said.
Not as in “I had a jacket like that,” or “that’s from my school” or “my year” or even “my team.”
No. That was Dr. Marvin Frank’s actual jacket, from back when he was part of the championship Weequahic High School football team. He and his wife, Marsha, live in Cedar Grove now; they came to look at the collection of photos and other memorabilia that connect them with their past, with each other, and with the future.
The exhibit comes from the holdings of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater MetroWest, which is housed in the building; the explanation came from its program manager, Karen Auerbach Bocaletti, and its archivist and curator, Jill Hershorin. Working together, the two women created it.
The exhibit traces the growth of the Jewish community through its beginnings in the neighboring New Jersey metropolises of Newark and Elizabeth (although to be fair, now more of the JHS’s holdings are from Newark; Ms. Auerbach Bocaletti and Ms. Hershorin hope that they’ll get more material from Elizabeth too).
It’s not a collection of fusty old photos of long (and unfairly) forgotten community leaders, posed in appropriate attitudes; it’s a combination of the well-known (because Newark was a huge community, close to New York, and therefore a frequent stop for audience- and fund-seeking celebrities), the familial, and the unexpected. It’s pictures and jackets and hats and long-expired tins of food.
In two astonishing photographs, for example, Dr. Guy Otis Brewster, a Jewish dentist and (seemingly mad) inventor from Dover, shows off the body armor that he had created and his friend Emil Heller, also from Dover but whose ethnicity is unknown, promoted.
The second photo, which looks like an execution performed by Monty Python, shows Dr. Brewster, clad in his armor, being shot at by an apparent U.S. Army firing squad. According to the April 26, 1917, New York Times story called “Fire at Inventor in Test of Armor,” Dr. Brewster survived the test unscathed, and so did his 30-pound contraption — but later the Army passed on buying more of it.
The photos include images of Golda Meir, Amelia Earhart, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and Dwight Eisenhower, as well as of Elizabeth Blume Silverstein, who entered law school in 1911, when she was 16, and later was accepted to the bar at the U.S. Supreme Court, and of Lewis Krauss, a young peddler whose portrait is both fading and haunting.
“Our motivating principles were that we wanted people to be able to see the treasures we have in our archives, and potentially to identify with some of the stories,” Ms. Auerbach Bocaletti said. “We want people to immerse themselves in the story and to see themselves in them.”
It’s not only for people who can trace their ancestry back to the original communities, though, she said; it’s not only for Jews whose ancestors did not leave Ellis Island for the Lower East Side but instead headed west to New Jersey. It’s for anyone who’s part of the community now, no matter how they join it.
There were about 80,000 Jews in Newark in the 1920s, Ms. Hershorin said. There were kosher restaurants — the exhibit includes a photograph of the first one, with its oddly glowering staff posed outside; there were shuls and Jewish schools. There was just about everything that a community could need.
World War I happened toward the beginning of the images and objects in the collection, and World War II marks just about its midpoint, or maybe the start of its downward spiral. There are many photos of men and quite a few of women in uniform here. The exhibit doesn’t address either the story of the Jewish gangsters who prowled Newark between the wars or of how they chased the Nazis from the city; that’s a big part of local Jewish history, but it’s not the only part. It’s been covered extensively, and will be again — but not right here, right now.
The exhibit in Whippany is not straightforward history. It doesn’t trace a straight line from early to late phenomena, and it doesn’t examine ideologies or even trends. It just showcases little snippets of life, women in jaw-dropping hats and children dressed for school. Its goal is to engage.
“We knew that we could do a full exhibit on any of the topics we show here,” Ms. Auerbach Bocaletti said. “But we wanted to show a sample and provide an immersive experience.”
Both Ms. Auerbach Bocaletti and Ms. Hershorin feel deeply committed to the work of the Jewish Historical Society, both as reflected in the exhibit and beyond it.
The archives, housed in wheeled cabinets that can be shuttled forward or backward to create aisles wide enough to allow the drawers to open, contain treasures, some of which are on display in the lobby outside. The documents include one from the mid-18th century, written in a gorgeous, astonishingly legible hand on paper that must have been expensive because it looks almost new. Nothing on it is crumbling. It is a legal document, from the court of pleas in Essex County, about a lawsuit involving a Jewish man. It shows that the community is old.
The archives also include a wealth of material about the Newark-born albeit Paterson-raised (and later famously New York-based) poet Allen Ginsberg.
None of that is in this exhibit, but there are many others still to come.
Ms. Auerbach Bocaletti, who lives in White Meadow Lake in Rockaway, is guided by the memory of her mother, Chana Kagan Auerbach. “You’ll never get lost if you know where you came from,” her mother would say. Until recently, when she began as JHS program manager, she hadn’t been able to apply those words, she said. “But now, here I am, as a Jewish grownup, working in a Jewish community, for a Jewish organization, preserving history.” She’s worked for the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest for six years; when the Jewish Historical Society wanted a program manager, she was thrilled to take on that job.
“It was bashert,” she said. Thinking about how it feels to have people look at the objects in the exhibit and recognize family, or themselves, or childhood friends — or have them realize that although they came from someplace entirely different, still the feelings the objects evoke are familiar — or, even, to have them realize that they know someone’s sister-in-law’s cousin’s best friend, whose grandmother is in the picture — “It’s all about connections,” she said. “It’s Jewish geography as a profession.”
Ms. Hershorin, who lives in Mount Olive, was an undergraduate art history major at the University of Pittsburgh when she started to work for the highly respected photographer Herman Leonard. Eventually, she realized that the work she was doing for him was basically archival, and that piqued her interest in the field. She earned a master’s degree in library science with a focus on archival work, and then used that degree to work for IBM for many years.
From there, she came to the Jewish Historical Society. “I love my career,” she said. “I love having gone from a huge for-profit corporation to a teeny nonprofit. I get to see the struggles, the ups and downs. IBM was corporate. This is heimish.”
Both women hope that seeing other people’s stories will encourage viewers to tell their own. “Everybody has a story to share, and collectively that is our legacy,” Ms. Auerbach Bocaletti said.
It’s necessary — but easy — to arrange to see the exhibit. To learn more and make an appointment, call (973) 929-2954 or email Karen Auerbach Bocaletti at firstname.lastname@example.org.