The golden days of American Jewry

The golden days of American Jewry

I was a first year college student in 1957 when our English professor, Dr. McCormack, told us who we were.

His words resonated. After all, I had a certain vision of myself, and he destroyed it in an instant! Were we, as he described my fellow classmates and me, ethnics from an unsophisticated New Jersey city?

Just about then, Philip Roth began writing world-class novels and achieving international fame. Was he too a mere Newark ethnic? I suppose the bittersweet answer is, and was, yes.

So while I was recovering from this stinging description, I had little chance to reflect on it. I was too busy doing homework, playing bridge, and romancing my new boyfriend, who I married three years later. But was the good professor right in pigeonholing us, his students? Or, to put it another way, were we blessed with the good fortune to enter college in the late 1950s, when our problems truly were insignificant? My chevra and I, all Jewish, did not deal with the issues that are tormenting college students in the United States today. I had a better experience than my progeny still in college today.

Antisemitism? What’s that? I might have said. A group of us, ethnics indeed, from Newark and its surrounding communities, were focused on where we were and where we were going. We did not worry an iota about Palestinians, wars in the nascent state of Israel, or discrimination of any kind. Our middle-class values were unchallenged. We wanted to pass exams, get married, get good jobs, and buy houses in the suburbs. You could say our values were simple and uncomplicated. We were undeterred by our religions, our skin colors, or anything else that might cause college presidents to resign today following accusations of Jew-hatred.

They didn’t hate us then; and please don’t ask me who the president of Rutgers was in 1957. I simply do not know and I never did. I was lucky enough to attend college during the golden age. We Jews were accepted wherever we were qualified to attend, and that included medical school and all other graduate programs. We got in and we did well. The nightmare of today when it comes to life on campus just did not exist for my peers.

So who was I, and who were my fellow students? According to the professor, we were college freshmen of various ethnicities, mostly upper-lowers or lower-middles on the economic scale, and mainly first-generation college students. We had the burn to learn. We attended a city college, Newark in our case, and that would identify us forever. Or brand us! We were not rich kids from fancy homes, but we knew that with hard work, we could achieve anything and there was nobody in our way.

We expected to get a good education but we didn’t expect prestige, and we didn’t get any. Many of us came from immigrant families, or at most first generation. My own parents were born in the USA, and my mother had attended Brooklyn College, an anomaly indeed. My father, a son of the Great Depression, got all his book learning from a long lifetime of reading. His formal education had stopped with his high school diploma.

Was that really me? Did I really fit into that mold of strivers? Mostly yes. Our class was largely made up of Jews, Italians, a sprinkling of Blacks, with smaller numbers of other ethnicities thrown into the mix. There were no WASPs, a term I didn’t even know at that time. I had graduated from a Newark high school and made my way to Rutgers Newark, a place where tuition was under $500 a year.

RN felt very much like home. There was no ivy growing up its brick-covered walls, which had started their lives as a razor factory. There was no spacious green campus with lofty trees and abundant flowers. There actually was no campus at all, just a series of unconnected buildings that had previously served other populations. It required lots of foot power to go from one to another. But Newark had always been my city, so wandering its streets, now in search of an education, was familiar and not unexpected.

For me, Newark Rutgers was a place on a continuum started by my mother, a former student at Brooklyn College, which was very much the Brooklyn equivalent of my own school. Both of us, a generation apart, had no aspirations for the so-called sleepaway colleges, which were largely unaffordable for our hardworking families. The schools that Mom’s grandchildren, my children, would seek to attend were still a generation in the future. It hadn’t crossed our radar that we might be sending our progeny to schools like Columbia, Yale, or Harvard. Those were aspirational places, and somehow, although we did not have a valid reason but a mere sense of its being inappropriate for us, neither my sister nor I ever considered them. My husband, growing up in Brooklyn and seeking a topnotch engineering school, similarly did not have MIT on his horizon.

But it was the ethnic description that was so surprising to me. I just hadn’t considered myself an ethnic! Sure, I came from Weequahic, but it hadn’t yet dawned on me that the very fact that almost every student at our famous high school was Jewish was in any way unusual. That had been my life until then. Summers were in the Jewish community of Parksville, New York, where every store and house was Jewish-owned. That never seemed strange either. And the rest of the year was in Newark, with the same kinds of people populating my life. All of our lives.

Places like that just do not exist in America anymore. Today, totally Jewish enclaves are always religious. Our community — both of my communities — were totally secular. But — and here’s the good news — we never felt threatened by our neighbors or our teachers, throughout school and into college. While antisemitism has reared its revolting head yet again, my generation was largely immune from the scourge. Lucky us!

I suppose it’s fair to say that my college years were during the golden age of Jewish life in America. Today, as a very old woman, I despair that those remarkable days will ever reappear and that the innocence that Dr. McCormack so aptly described will come shining through once again.

One can only hope!

Rosanne Skopp of West Orange is a wife, mother of four, grandmother of 14, and great-grandmother of six. 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! She welcomes email at

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