As she held aloft an uncorrected proof of her new book, Louis Bamberger: Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist, Linda Forgosh described it as “a cross between an obsession and a labor of love.”
Publication by Brandeis University Press is set for Sept. 6, and for the past eight years, the author, executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of NJ, has spent many nights, weekends, and vacation days working on the biography of one of the most influential figures in the state’s Jewish community.
Beyond founding Newark’s leading department store in 1892, the high school dropout and self-made millionaire became the city’s major philanthropist, in and beyond its Jewish charities and institutions.
“He was a very significant Jew to more than just Jews in Newark, to more than just Jews in Essex County, to more than just Jews in New Jersey — to more than just Jews,” Forgosh told NJJN in an interview at the JHS archives at the Aidekman campus in Whippany.
Had he not exercised his wide-ranging philanthropy, she said, “there would have been no Newark Beth Israel Hospital, no Newark Museum, no YMHA on High Street, no children’s home. There would have been one hell of a lot of things not in Newark.”
Despite his devotion to Jewish causes and institutions, said Forgosh, “Louis was not religious. His overall view of the world involved social justice, and he became a member of the secular Society for Ethical Culture.”
Despite the fact that “he was not interested in synagogue life and formal religion was a turnoff for him,” said Forgosh, Bamberger became a member of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Newark “to make his sister, Carrie, happy, because she and her husband, Felix, were members, and it was the city’s leading German-Jewish synagogue.”
Forgosh’s interest in Bamberger developed shortly after she began working at the JHS in 1999 as a researcher and outreach director, preparing a book on the Jews of Morris and Sussex counties. Curiosity led her to other contents of the climate-controlled vault of the society’s archives.
“I looked at the files and little by little they kept repeating the name ‘Bamberger.’ During one JHS board meeting, a member named Oscar Lax said he could never understand why nothing was ever written about Bamberger. So I took what he said to heart.”
Forgosh began poring over references to Bamberger on the Internet, in books, and in yellowed copies of Newark newspapers. “His name was conspicuously absent,” she said. So she applied for and received a $7,200 research grant from the New Jersey Historical Commission to further her investigation.
“It was a challenge to discover all the things that no one else had the patience to research. It seemed almost impossible to write. He left no business records, no inventories, no personal diaries, not a goddam thing you could trace back to Louis Bamberger.
“So I proceeded to look at: Where in the world was Louis Bamberger? What did he do? Did anybody know him? Were his relatives around? Then lo and behold, a young man appeared at the door of my office.”
The young man was Andrew Schindel, and he was related to Abraham Schindel, the general manager of Hearns Department Store in Newark.
“I asked him, ‘Do you realize you are connected to the Bamberger family?’ He said, ‘Yes, I do. My great-uncle married one of Bamberger’s great-nieces, and that is how we are connected.’”
Schindel told Forgosh he was friendly with Louis’s great-niece, Ellen Bamberger DeFranco, who had grown up in West Orange and moved to Oakland, Calif. He linked the two women into “several years of correspondence,” said the historian. DeFranco sent her many letters and photos, and also connected her to “the relatives of Felix Fuld, Bamberger’s brother-in-law and business partner in what became Newark’s most prominent department store.”
One day, said Forgosh, she opened a package containing a small silver plate and teaspoon, dating to about 1890, with the initials of Carrie Fuld, Louis Bamberger’s sister. An accompanying note said, “This is to thank you for paying attention to our Great-Uncle Louis and writing a book many of us had thought about but no one was going to research or write.”
Forgosh said, “I devoted myself to it because it wasn’t going to get done any other way.”
Even before she finally typed “The end” at the bottom of the final chapter eight years after she had begun to write the biography, Forgosh asked that Brandeis University Press become its publisher. She found an enthusiastic ally in Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History in the school’s Department of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies.
“He is the dean of all Jewish historians,” said Forgosh, “and he said to people at Brandeis Press, ‘What do you mean we don’t have anything about Bamberger? We have to have something about Bamberger. He is one of the more seminal figures of the 20th century.’”
The book will be available on Amazon.
In the fall, the work will be presented to the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ community. An exhibit, “I’ll Meet You under the Bamberger Clock,” is being planned by the JHS for the Aidekman campus, with a talk and book signing by Forgosh on Thursday, Oct. 20. The exhibit will run through Nov. 18 on the campus before traveling to Newark, first to the New Jersey Historical Society and then to the Jewish Museum of New Jersey, which is housed at the historic Congregation Ahavas Sholom.
Long after the exhibits are over, will Bamberger still remain the focus of Forgosh’s attention?
“When you’ve ‘lived’ with a person for as long as I’ve lived with Louis Bamberger — it is now an amicable divorce,” she said. “But he remains a major influence on my life. I see so many things today in light of ‘What would Bamberger have done?’ He was my role model.”
Bamberger died in 1944, but if he were alive and available to talk with his biographer, Forgosh said she would ask him one question: “‘How’s the fishing?’ He loved fishing at his home in Avon on the Shark River in Monmouth County. He found solitude in the water. It took him away from all his problems.”