For Fred Goldstein’s loyal customers, it was the unkindest cut of all: After 74 years as a barber, he was hanging up his scissors.
The Holocaust survivor and Union resident was a fixture at the Tri-State Circle Barber Salon on Mountain Avenue in Springfield since 1968, first as co-owner, then sole owner, and then, after selling it 20 years ago to current owner Ronald Grosso, as a valued member of the shop’s tonsorial staff.
On Nov. 20, he gave his last haircut — for pay, anyway. Goldstein, 88, said he wouldn’t have retired even now, if not for the chemotherapy he is undergoing for his cancer.
“I was absolutely devastated when he told me,” said Leon Lesnik, an attorney in Springfield. “I came to Freddie when I was 18, in 1951, and since then no one else has ever cut my hair. He was just the nicest and most honest barber in New Jersey — maybe in the United States. He worked magic with his scissors.”
Goldstein started cutting men’s hair when he was 14, in his father’s barber shop in Wloclawek, Poland. He thinks that experience kept him alive through five years in concentration camps, before his liberation in 1945 when he was 22.
“I had a skill they needed,” he said.
It also gave him a way to earn a living when he came to the United States in 1949.
“He was wonderful to work with,” Grosso told NJ Jewish News. “In all our years working together, we never had one cross word.” They also cut one another’s hair.
Grosso, who is Italian-American, said Goldstein’s first lesson in Yiddish etiquette was to teach him to wish his Jewish customers a “ziesen Pesach.” “And that’s what he uses for every Jewish holiday,” Goldstein declared with a grin, during a visit to the salon.
“When Ron bought the shop, I thought I’d just stay on for a while,” he said. “But he and his wife Carol were so nice, and we got along so well, I didn’t leave.”
Goldstein is a small, gentle man — just five feet tall, with tiny, immaculately manicured hands, a little bent now but still rock steady. He still cuts his wife Ann’s hair, and colors it for her, a soft honey blond. One customer, hearing he was about to retire, pleaded to be allowed to come to their home for his cuts.
Though not given to talking about himself or his past, Goldstein agreed to an interview to mark this turning point in his life. He chatted with NJJN in their immaculate home. At his side was Ann, also a Polish Holocaust survivor, and their daughter, Renee, who lives in Cranford. They also have two sons, four grandchildren, one great-grandchild, and another on the way.
His career in the United States began in Hillside.
“The day after I arrived, I started work — at the Star Barber Shop on Maple Avenue,” he said. Language wasn’t a problem; most of his customers spoke Polish or Yiddish. But even Lesnik, a Rutgers student at the time who spoke only English, said they communicated without a problem.
Goldstein got that first job through the man who had been his haircutting partner in the concentration camp, Irving Holt. They worked together at the Star, then opened their own shop in Newark, the Circle Barber Shop, on Chancellor Avenue, near Weequahic High School. It was so popular, Lesnik recalled, people would wait an hour and a half for a cut.
After many of their customers moved away in the 1960s, they opened their new venue in Springfield. Holt retired 30 years ago and moved to Florida. “He likes the warm weather,” Goldstein said.
Goldstein worked five days a week in the shop, and then put in more time on Sunday mornings, cutting patients’ hair at Beth Israel Hospital in Newark. In recent years he came in just a few days a week, but he still kept up with changing styles and techniques.
Probably the biggest difference is prices. “When I first came, at the Star we charged $1.25 for a cut — and that was a lot. It was a fancy place,” Goldstein said. “Now a cut is $16.”
In his rare leisure moments, he played poker, and he sang — until a few years ago — in the choir at Temple B’nai Jeshurun, the Reform synagogue in Short Hills. He was always busy. “Till recently, he was the Energizer Bunny,” Renee said.
“It’s too soon to know what I’ll do, but I’ll keep busy,” Goldstein said.
In his case, he literally has stepped down from his job. In his later years, he said, he stood on a box as he worked on customers’ hair. “I did think about cutting holes in the floor to make the chairs lower,” he claimed with a smile.
Ann came over from Europe in 1947 with her twin sister. Like Fred, they had lost all their other family members. She was working as an aide in the children’s ward at Beth Israel when someone there mentioned a young Polish immigrant working at his barber’s, and asked if he could give him her phone number. “We got married three months after we met,” Ann recounted. “What would’ve been the point in waiting?”
Leon Lesnik, meanwhile, needs a new haircutter.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” said Lesnik, 78. “When they moved from Hillside to Chancellor Avenue, I went there. When they moved to Springfield, I went there. Freddie used to do the great big wave I had in front. And when my hair got thinner, he brushed it forward. He always knew what to do without me having to say anything.”