Some eight months ago, Gary Levenston, a 46-year-old psychologist in Boca Raton, Fla., received a genealogy report from ancestry.com. It triggered an interest in his Newark roots and the lives of his great-grandparents, who arrived there at the turn of the 20th century.
In researching his family history, he discovered that his great-grandparents played a significant role in the history of Newark’s storied Jewish community.
Levenston’s great-grandfather, Joseph Marantz, was one of four founders of a social club called Erste Bershader K.U.V.
Bershad is the town in Russia Marantz, and the other charter members had lived in, before moving to Newark circa 1904, and “Erste” is Yiddish for “The First.” K.U.V. is an acronym for Kranken Unterstutzen Verein or the Chronic Sick Benefit Society.
The club began in 1906 with a membership of 15, and soon after Levenston’s great grandmother, Elsie, followed her husband’s lead and helped establish the Erste Bershader Ladies K.U.V., or the “Ershta Bershta,” as she used to call it. And yet Levenston knew nothing else about the mysterious club.
“When I visit my grandma, Miriam, who is now 96, and I mention the ‘Ershta Bershta’ her eyes light up,” he told NJJN. “Her recollection is that everyone would chip in to bring poor people over from the old country. But that is all the history of the ‘Ershta Bershta’ I ever got from my grandmother.”
His curiosity piqued, he decided to supplement her memories with readings on Newark’s Jewish history and its 75 landsmanshaften — a Yiddish word meaning a fraternal organization made up of immigrants from the same region ¬— formed by German and Eastern European Jews in Newark that began in the late 1800s and survived until the 1980s.
He learned that Erste Bershader’s primary functions, like those of the other landsmanshaften, were to help its members acquire life insurance, cemetery plots, and funds to pay for funerals, emergency financial assistance, and small interest-free loans through a credit union. Until the organization disbanded in 1986 it owned plots at the King Solomon Memorial Park section of West Ridgelawn Cemetery in Clifton.
By the 1930s, Levenston learned, Erste Bershader had become a well-known organization in Newark and a strong backer of Meyer C. Ellenstein, the only Jew ever to serve as mayor of the city. Between 1933 and 1941, when Ellenstein was in office, Levenston estimates the organization had grown to “about 1,000 members” and was active in the founding of what was then Newark Beth Israel Hospital, now Newark Beth Israel Medical Center.
During World War II Erste Bershader was involved in efforts to boycott German imports and sell U.S. war Bonds. Other Jewish immigrants from places such as Austria gravitated to Erste Bershader “because it was so prominent.”
But Levenston admits he knows “very little about its early years” beyond the fact that “it was a self-identified Jewish organization which celebrated Passover, held Purim parties, and had rabbis who led memorial services,” he said. “Around Rosh HaShanah they would advertise in the [Newark] Jewish Chronicle to wish everyone a happy new year and they would donate thousands of dollars to local charities, and some of its prominent members became involved in the United Jewish Appeal in the 1940s.”
As he searched for information, Levenston learned that some treasured memorabilia was available to help him in his quest: The Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey (JHS) has in its possession nine reels of eight- and 16-millimeter home movies which had been donated to JHS in 1996 by Joseph Weinberg, a member of Erste Bershader.
“I wanted to see these films because it is quite possible my great grandparents are on them,” Levenston said. So, he and the JHS split the cost of digitizing the films. Linda Forgosh, executive director of JHS, hired videographer Bruce Bertrand of Morristown, owner of Early Films, to convert the grainy home movies into digital videos.
Despite the fact that there is no sound, the films provide a unique look at many happy occasions in the life of Erste Bershader members, including indoor and outdoor parties.
In one, at an unspecified resort hotel during what appears to be some time in the 1940s, the men sporting ties and most of the women outfitted in dresses, the footage captures a range of scenes, from a child on a swing to a woman serving hors d’oeuvres to a couple flirting.
At an indoor gathering in the late 1940s or early 1950s, guests at an amateur talent show watch an imitation of “The Ed Sullivan Show” — an emcee introduces a trio of teenage girls who bang away at a xylophone, apparently imitating the Andrews Sisters, a woman sings, and a magician dressed in tails calls on volunteers from the audience to participate in his tricks.
Another reel, titled “Mock Wedding,” shows what appears to be a female “groom” with a fake, bushy beard and a male “bride” in a white gown standing under a chuppah with a “rabbi.” The ceremony ends with the breaking of a glass.
“For sure it is a slice of history with people who felt really good about what they were doing,” said Levenston. “It’s kind of neat.”
He also discovered that many Erste Bershader social events were held in Newark venues such as the Workmen’s Circle Labor Lyceum, Krueger’s Auditorium, the Essex House Hotel, and the Mosque Theatre (now Newark Symphony Hall).
The silent movies continue through 1951 and include footage of the 10th, 15th, 35th, and 45th Erste Bershader anniversary parties.
“I enjoyed looking at them,” Forgosh said. “You see these people as more than just members of a mutual benefit society. It speaks to another era of Jews living in America who got on a boat and left the old country and learned to speak English. They were risk-takers who had a great sense of humor.”
Forgosh is hopeful viewers will help identify their ancestors. “If there is someone who has a story to report about Erste Bershader or any of the other landsmanshaften, I hope they will get in touch with us,” she said.
Levenston plans to combine his research about the club with what he learns from the films to “memorialize what is known so that it is not lost to history,” he said. “I want to track down descendants of Erste Bershader charter members. I want to know what their interest might be, what they remember, and if they have anything to share about the organization.”
After screening the videos on a computer, Levenston told NJJN, “In some ways the films are underwhelming, like watching someone’s old home movies.”
But there was a payoff: He spotted his great grandmother in several scenes. In one, as the camera quickly swept past people at the gathering, he eyed her wearing a print dress with dark-colored buttons. “It was good to see her and several other people I could recognize,” Levenston said.
Once the processing has been completed, Forgosh said JHS will sell DVDs of each of the films for $36 apiece. To purchase the DVDs, or to learn more about Erste Bershader or the other landsmanshaften, contact Forgosh at firstname.lastname@example.org or 973-929-2994. For more information on Erste Beshader contact Levenston at email@example.com