As she began an hour-long trip down the Jewish memory lane that was the Weequahic section of Newark, the executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of NJ made a confession.
“I was, alas, not born at Beth Israel Hospital and did not graduate from Weequahic High School. The best I can claim is that my bat mitzva dress was purchased at Bamberger’s department store,” said Linda Forgosh, who grew up in Woodbridge.
Addressing an audience of nearly 500 in the Victoria Theater at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark, she described Weequahic as “the best-known Jewish neighborhood in all of America. With or without novelist Philip Roth, Weequahic’s history stands on its own.”
Her anecdote-laden lecture, “Newark’s Jewish Frontier: Weequahic and its High School,” began, of course, with a bit of history via a 1913 real estate ad from the Newark Sunday Call projected onto a movie screen.
It offered “cheap high-class building plots” in an area builder Frank Bock named Weequahic after a Native American tribe. The houses featured in the ad ranged in price from $2,500 to $3,500, with only one street allotted for commercial use. It also proclaimed in bold letters — NO SALOONS.
As she displayed a photograph of vintage street signs, the first in a series of collective sighs came from the audience. Many of its members were born at what was then Newark Beth Israel Hospital and graduated from Weequahic High School as far back as the 1940s.
They recognized much of the vast sampling of memorabilia projected on the screen, and a seeming majority of people in the audience raised their hands when Forgosh asked how many of them had been “born at the Beth.”
She showed an art deco apartment building on Lyons Avenue that was home to both Newark’s only Jewish mayor, Meyer Ellenstein, and its most notorious Jewish gangster, Abner “Longie” Zwillman.
Among their more noble deeds, Zwillman’s colleagues provided security for Weequahic High School athletes when they traveled to away games in parts of Newark that were less hospitable to Jews, she said.
But inside their predominantly Jewish neighborhood, where upward of 35,000 people lived between the 1930s and 1960s, “there was no anonymity,” Forgosh said. “It was as if an invisible barrier was erected by the Jewish families who lived in the neighborhood with an understanding that each would keep an eye on the other’s children.”
On one occasion, as Forgosh told it, eight-year-old Bobby Goldberg was spotted smoking a cigarette several blocks away from his home on Pomona Avenue.
“When he arrived at the front steps of his house, he was greeted by his mother, hands on her hips, tapping her foot, and inquiring: ‘So, Bobby, when did you start smoking?’”
Food was a potent trigger for happy memories among audience members, as Forgosh scrolled through photos of Syd’s Hot Dogs, Cohen’s Knishes, Watson’s Bagels, the Weequahic Diner, and the upscale Tavern Restaurant, not to mention the original Eppes Essen — now in Livingston — and Tabatchnick’s “the Herring King.” And, of course, she showed an example of what was a staple of local Jewish life, Ming’s Chinese Restaurant.
“Syd’s sold the best hot dogs,” Forgosh insisted. “Just ask the scores of young men who ran past Syd’s during high school gym class every day. It was routine to disappear into the luncheonette, grab a hot dog, and — if the coast was clear and the coach didn’t spot them — get back into the group of runners.
“If the gym teacher was too close, its owner, Morty Bratter, let the boys run out the back door to catch up with the group on the second lap around the block.”
Making a minyan
On a more serious note, Forgosh displayed a full-page list of Newark’s synagogues from a 1962 issue of the Jewish News.
“Of the 43 small neighborhood synagogues located in Newark at this time, 16 were in the Weequahic neighborhood. Synagogues occupied nearly every third corner,” she said.
Forgosh said that in Weequahic, “becoming a bar mitzva took on a community responsibility as well as a religious one. It meant you could participate in a minyan.” So if teenage boys happened to be passing by a synagogue at prayer time, they might “find themselves “‘shanghai’d off the streets for hours” by men who needed them to “make a minyan.”
Asking for audience participation, Forgosh projected the words of an “unofficial” high school cheer immortalized by Roth in his Newark-based 1969 novel Portnoy’s Complaint. Many joined in to chant: “Ikey, Mikey, Jake, and Sam; we’re the boys who eat no ham. We play football, baseball, soccer. We keep matzas in our locker.”
Weequahic High School “was a neighborhood school,” said Forgosh. But for those who lived outside the area, there was one way they would be allowed to transfer — by expressing a desire to learn Hebrew in the only Newark high school where it was taught.
Forgosh cited statistics showing that Weequahic High School between the 1930s and ’60s — when the percentage of Jewish students was “almost 100 percent”— could boast that 96 percent of its graduates went on to institutions of higher learning and that it led the country in the number of graduates from a single school who earned doctorate degrees. She said such figures “reflected the importance that Judaic tradition places on education. Homes at this time might not have had televisions, but they always had books.”
White migration from Newark to its suburbs changed its demographics, and Weequahic’s current student body is largely African-American and Latino. To maintain continuity between current and former students, graduates Hal Braff of South Orange and Sheldon Bross of Bloomingdale formed the Weequahic Alumni Association in 1997. “It has been a major success — raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for scholarships and activities for today’s Weequahic students,” Forgosh said.
During a question-and answer period, an African-American from the class of 1976, Andre Francis III rose to thank his fellow alumni from earlier generations.
“Whatever you give back to the kids on the football team, to the soccer team, whatever you give back to the high school, we really appreciate it. We thank you for giving all the time. You’ve got to admit it is the greatest high school in the city of Newark.”