Exploring Trenton’s ‘Jewtown’

Exploring Trenton’s ‘Jewtown’

Authors and historians discover and document community’s rich past

The dry goods store owned by Art Finkle’s grandfather, Sam Finkle, who began as a peddler and had a store on Union Street before moving to this location, the corner of Willow and Spring Streets.
The dry goods store owned by Art Finkle’s grandfather, Sam Finkle, who began as a peddler and had a store on Union Street before moving to this location, the corner of Willow and Spring Streets.

While doing archival research as chair of the revitalized Trenton Jewish Historical Society, Arthur Finkle, 75, whose roots in the community reach back three generations, realized that no one had documented the history of the city’s Jews.

So he set out to do just that. 

Finkle, a history buff, told NJJN, “Here is a community that knew itself, and there was nothing written about it, so I wrote it.” The book that grew out of Finkle’s research, Trenton’s Jews: Beginning, Adaptation and Achieving the American Dream, was published this year by Hadassa Word Press. 

The first Jews in Trenton were Sephardim fleeing the Spanish Inquisition; the next wave, between 1820 and 1850, were the German Jews; and finally, between 1881 and 1914, the Russians and Eastern Europeans. The first Trenton synagogue was Har Sinai Hebrew Congregation, founded by German Jews in 1858. In 1883, Congregation Brothers of Israel (now in Newtown, Pa.) was incorporated, followed in 1891 by its offshoot, Anshe Emes.

By 1888, the city boasted 12 kosher butchers, and, according to Finkle’s book, by 1907, “Trenton’s Jews numbered approximately 4,000 souls”: 700 German Jews, 250 Hungarian Jews, and a little more than 3,000 Russian Jews. In 1909, the Hungarian Jews founded Ahavath Israel, which joined the Conservative movement in 1915. 

Finkle is not the only one whose interest has led to an exploration of the history of the small, interconnected sub-city known among its denizens as “Jewtown” — an affectionate sobriquet that only insiders are entitled to use. Albert Stark, whose great-grandfather was the first Orthodox rabbi in Trenton, has written a novel set in the Trenton he grew up in, and Ed Alpern, a native of King of Prussia, Pa., who discovered Trenton in the old photos that lined the walls of the JCC of Princeton Mercer Bucks when it was in Ewing, has documented its history using videos.

Finkle’s family arrived during the Russian immigration. His great-grandfather was a community activist: president of Brothers of Israel from 1890 to 1900, and later president of Anshe Emes. His grandfather founded the Jewish Republican Club and Trenton’s Talmud Torah. That’s history, but, Finkle joked, “My family also told me lots of other bubbe meises, but I straightened that out as I researched.”

His strictly observant grandfather remained a member of Anshe Emes, Finkle said. His father, Lou, and his Uncle Al were active in Trenton politics. His father did public relations for the Democratic machine. 

Growing up, Finkle recalled, family members would get together every week. “Many of us gathered on Shabbos, went to shul [at Adath Israel], and came home to my grandparents’ house. Jewishness was the theme. 

“From the turn of the century to 1920,” said Finkle, “Jews married within the faith and within the city, and as a result you got a provincial city where everyone is kind of related to one another.”

During his many years blowing the shofar on the High Holy Days for Har Sinai Temple (now in Pennington) and other Reform congregations, Finkle widened his knowledge of the largely German Reform Jews who immigrated to the United States and Trenton in the 1850s. The German Jews, he said, “created their own adaptation to Judaism,” the American branch of Reform Judaism, in 1873. Har Sinai became Reform only in 1920.

Finkle explained that he had two goals for his book: “Historical archiving — just to say this community existed and this is what it was like — and this was the journey of an immigrant from peddler to store owner to professional.”

An interesting thing he shared from his research was that the 1924 U.S. Immigration Act devised a quota system based on the ethnic composition of the population according to the 1890 census, “so people who immigrated subsequently were not counted.” The consequence of this “nativist” act, for Jews leaving Europe seeking better economic opportunities, he said, meant that many had to go to Canada, which had a more open immigration policy until the 1930s.

Citing several of his research findings that he found of particular significance, Finkle noted “the relative closeness of the Trenton community and the marriages between families.” He said there was little ideological dissension regarding the growing Zionist movement. And, the “differences in denominations [were] homogenized in the YMHA and YWHA” on Stockton Street (the Ewing JCC opened in 1955).

Jewish Trenton also had its own sports hero, six-foot-six Mike Bloom, “a fantastic basketball player that nobody knows about because he was in another era,” Finkle said. While Bloom was at Trenton High School in the late ’20s and early ’30s, the team won the state championship every year. At Temple University, his team won the National Invitational Tournament. Bloom played pro basketball for the American Basketball Association until 1936, when the National Basketball Association was created. 

“They didn’t score much in those days, and he might have averaged 11 points a game,” Finkle said. There was no time clock, and, up until 1936, after every basket was a tip-off, where two players threw up the ball between them, each trying to tap the ball to a teammate. “Bloom was six-foot-six, and he got all the tip-offs,” Finkle said. 

Stark, an attorney, told NJJN that his great-grandfather Samuel Meyer Stark was the first Orthodox rabbi in Trenton, at Brothers of Israel. The Vilnius native arrived in the Lower East Side in 1878, and initially came to Trenton to purchase pottery to peddle in New York. There he met nine German-Jewish families and began ministering to them in their homes in 1883. After he died in 1889, the congregation supported his two sons and daughter until 1903, when the two brothers went to New York to earn money for their mother and sister. 

Returning to Trenton after three years, Stark’s grandfather, Louis, opened a grocery with partners Bill and Stan Barlow and worked there until the business closed in 1935 during the Depression. Louis Stark then became an entrepreneur for the rest of his life.

Stark’s father, Sidney, an attorney, served on Har Sinai’s board and as its vice president. The family lived in West Trenton until moving to Lawrenceville in the late 1950s when Albert was in college. In Trenton, he remembers, “we walked everywhere. I went to Junior 3. It was great growing up in Trenton. We had a neighborhood that was predominantly Jewish but was very mixed. We were the middle-class kids; the rich kids lived in Hiltonia, the downtown kids on Market and Lambert streets. We all went to the YMHA on Stockton Street — that’s where the Jewish social life was, and at Har Sinai and Adath on Belleview and the three shuls in the Market Street area.”

Stark graduated from a totally integrated Trenton High School, a melting pot with blacks, Italians, Poles, Irish, and Jews. Not surprisingly, Stark said he was taken aback when, in 1956, he went to a youth group meeting at an Alabama shul, and a little red-haired girl with blue eyes said to him, “We like our segregation — you can have your integration up north.”

Stark recently published a novel, The Statement (Outskirts Press, 2016) which, he said, is “a fictional account of what it was like in Trenton during the civil rights era, ’68 to ’72, after the riots”; another goal of the book was “to advocate against the death penalty.” 

In his novel, Stark said, the 15-year-old protagonist, Lester Gold, watches his father being murdered and then the police manipulate him into giving a statement against a black activist and troublemaker, who ends up on death row. “Lester realized he didn’t tell the truth, but it wasn’t all Lester’s fault. The story is about how he manned up, how he lived with this heartache, and became a newspaper reporter at The Trentonian,” Stark said. 

In researching his great-grandfather, Stark used many documents in the Trentoniana collection on the history of Trenton and Trenton Jews. He also suggested that the adjacent Jewish cemeteries, for the Reform Har Sinai Temple and the Orthodox Brothers of Israel, were an important historical source. “On one side are the German Jews — old Trenton — then a hedge, and on the left side of the hedge were the newcomers,” said Stark, whose great-grandfather was the second person to be buried in a Brothers of Israel plot. 

Alpern, a video producer/director/storyteller who became an amateur historian, moved to Pennington in the late ’90s. In 1999, when his kids were going to the old JCC in Ewing, he noticed pictures on the wall of Trenton old-timers. Because they were getting yellow and dog-eared, Alpern scanned them all. Many of the photos had been donated by Ben Olinsky, coach of the Ewing JCC’s Biddy League basketball. 

Alpern then got in touch with Olinsky, whose health was poor, and interviewed him on video. One story Olinsky shared was that his wife, Muriel Schultz, had challenged him to a free-throw shooting contest and won, which was why he “had to marry her.” Two days after Alpern completed the video a year later, Olinsky died, and Alpern gave the video to his wife.

One thing led to another, and Schultz came to Alpern’s home for a Passover seder in 2009. She “told stories about the wonderful place Trenton was: the neighborhoods, the smells, the stores,” said Alpern. Schultz then invited him to come with her and Mark Litowitz, a former judge, to see the materials that Ozzie Zuckerman (see sidebar) had donated to the Trentoniana collection at the Trenton Public Library.

Alpern remembered the Trentoniana curator, Wendy Nardi, pulling out a picture of Jimmy Carter with a woman. Alpern said, “Mark looks up and says, ‘Oh, that’s my wife, Selma Litowitz, who taught at Lawrence High; she was Jon Stewart’s favorite teacher when he was growing up.’

At that point, Alpern started publishing a blog, trentonjewishproject.blogspot.com. “People came out of the woodwork and would respond to me,” he said. 

Alpern got an e-mail from David Weinstein, a rabbi and klezmer musician in New Zealand; his father, Sol Weinstein, had grown up in Trenton, was a reporter for The Trentonian, and later wrote the “Loxfinger” series, about agent Oy Oy 7, a satire of Ian Fleming’s secret agent 007, James Bond. Weinstein later wrote episodes of the TV shows Love, American Style and The Jeffersons and wrote a song for Bobby Darin.

While interviewing Rutgers history professor Michael Aaron Rockland, Alpern asked what killed “Jewtown.” Rockland’s answer was simple: “prosperity.” Jews thrived and eventually moved into the surrounding areas, and, in a touch of irony, bought the bankrupt Greenacres Country Club, a “restricted” club that had not allowed Jews to become members.

Alpern is still taken with Trenton and said he has lots of material that he hasn’t put together or released. “I still have a goal to do some kind of a movie,” he said.

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