I sometimes return to my childhood home, to share it with my grandchildren, or just to bring myself back to my earliest days when safety embraced me and familiarity was everywhere. Our house was built in 1927 by Zayda, my father’s father. Situated on leafy Aldine Street between Forest Place and Lyons Avenue, Zayda could not have known what a powerful and profound influence the house would have on his progeny. I often wonder if he knew how serendipitous that house in that place would turn out to be. He was an immigrant from the Pale who never learned English. Yet he had the sense to build a house for his family on an empty lot at 83-5 Aldine Street in Newark. Growing up on Aldine Street placed us in the heart of one of America’s great Jewish communities. How lucky we were.
Long before I was born in 1939, the four-family building had become a true single-family home. Zayda gave three apartments to three of his children living in Newark. The remaining apartment was rented to the Hoffmans who lived there so long that we called them Aunt Rose and Uncle Willie. Their son Marty became my first friend, a friendship that has lasted until this day. Each apartment was treated as our own. We never locked the doors in the house and we never knocked. When Aunt Ceil made her famous kreplach, I was there to help with the tasting. When Zayda wanted to play gin rummy, I was a willing playmate. The house even shared a cat named Lena, a most unfriendly wench who never earned my love, but demanded my respect.
Situated in the neighborhood made famous by Philip Roth and known as Weequahic, the house’s inhabitants lived a Jewish-American lifestyle anchored by the famous high school. Our neighborhood was almost entirely Jewish, and the values shared within our middle-class community were remarkably similar. Many of our parents were first- or second-generation Americans, leaving behind the old country and its ways as relics. We were probably best described as cultural Jews, traditional but not really observant. Just about all homes were kosher but in every direction sat the shtiblach (small Orthodox shuls) that most of us rarely attended. Jewish life was more defined by organizations, such as Hadassah, than by the Jewish calendar or halacha.
We were surrounded by the establishments of Jewish living. Kosher butchers were ubiquitous, the visits there frequent, and I accompanied my mother often to Joe’s on Clinton Place. The floor was covered with sawdust and my mother would select the meat for that evening’s dinner as if her very life depended on it. Lots of inspecting and selecting, and then Joe would turn on his power saw and complete the order, accompanied by a huge blast of earth-shattering noise as the bones gave way. From Joe’s she might stop at one of the numerous Jewish bakeries.
We never ate the glue-like substance Americans call white bread, preferring fresh rye or pumpernickel, challah, or, on Sundays, the world’s greatest bagels, from Watson’s (also on Clinton Place). A trip to Jerry’s grocery store, next to Watson’s, might finish the day’s shopping. Jerry would deliver and take orders by phone as well, pretty convenient. Friday nights my mother prepared her tour-de-force meals. A homemade appetizer such as chopped liver would be followed by her outstanding soup. I still yearn for her flanken-laden sweet and sour borscht. Ambrosia. Main courses would usually be roast chicken with some kugel accompaniment and canned peas. Yes! That’s how it was. Dessert was also straight from the can. The meal and the accompanying candle lighting were symbolic of Shabbat, even though most of the members of our household, like those of our friends and neighbors, did not observe the Sabbath. The only shomrei Shabbat people I knew were my two grandfathers, Zayda and my mother’s father, Pop, who lived with us.
I remember our house and community as being perfect. I’m sure neither were. There was fierce competition for everything from cashmere sweater count to grades and college acceptances. Yet, each day as I left the house on Aldine Street I felt safe in the familiarity that embraced me. Like so many, I miss it still.
Perfect or not, it was perfect to me. Thanks, Zayda.