More than 100 graduates of Weequahic High School’s class of 1948 came together on May 16 to wish themselves a happy 80th birthday, even though some of them insisted they were “only 79.”
They gathered in the crowded clubhouse of the Suburban Golf Club in Union, some of them traveling from as far away as California, Florida, and Nevada to revisit an era they all still regard as special.
“Weequahic was the best time I had in my whole life,” said Marcia Marks Jones, who now resides in Livingston. “Some of these people I haven’t seen in 50 years.”
To many of them, what made the experience special was coming of age in an environment that was overwhelmingly Jewish. More than 90 percent of the high school’s student body and the middle-class area of Newark where they lived was Jewish.
“It was like a ghetto,” said Alma Lazerwitz Silverstein of Rockaway. “We are a very close-knit class because we love each other and the place we grew up in.”
“It was our neighborhood. It was a unique experience,” said Ruth Pierce Lobalbo. “The world is not like that anymore. There is such divisiveness today. These are different times.”
As he greeted classmates after their buffet lunch, class president George Kaye recalled the world they entered after they received their high school diplomas.
In 1948, the Soviet Union blockaded Berlin, Israel became a state, Harry Truman defeated Thomas Dewey for president, and Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated.
It was also the year the first McDonald’s opened, Milton Berle made his television debut, and the Cleveland Indians defeated the Boston Braves in the World Series. A gallon of gasoline cost 12 cents, and the average home sold for $7,700.
And, for the record, Weequahic’s perhaps most famous son, author Philip Roth, was a sophomore, a member of the class of 1950.
Pauline Levine Levine of Jackson — she married a man named Aaron with an identical surname — said, “The lifestyle there was much easier than it is today. There is no bond between the Weequahic of 1948 and the Weequahic of today.”
That’s not exactly true: The Weequahic High School Alumni Association has been raising funds for scholarships and other assistance for the present-day school’s largely African-American students, an effort chronicled in the documentary Heart of Stone. The 2009 film is the story of Weequahic’s sad evolution from an academic mecca to a seriously underachieving urban high school and the steps being taken to reverse its downward slide. Directed by Montclair resident Beth Toni Kruvant, it was honored at the Slamdance Film Festival in Utah.
But the gathering was definitely a celebration of the bonds forged in that long-ago neighborhood that have survived six decades.
“You better believe I’m connected to these people,” said Joan Claire Marcus of Jackson. “I’ve stayed in touch with some of them since graduation.”
Irwin Korngold of Bridgewater said he came “to see everybody I can see today. I’ve been in touch with a few of the fellas over the years.”
As a resident of Las Vegas, Arnold Markowitz has lived far away from his hometown — and from most of his classmates; more than 80 percent remained in New Jersey.
But he was drawn back east by powerful memories. “I was a member of the Marine Corps and I’ve been through a lot. Weequahic is something to remember because I had a good time there and I don’t want to forget my teens.”
“It is so nice to see people you have not seen for many years and talk about the happy times Weequahic brought to us,” said Ronald Lauer of West Orange.
“This is not a reunion,” Lobalbo reminded him. “This is an 80th birthday celebration.”
“I’m not 80,” insisted one of her classmates standing nearby. “I’m not either,” shouted another.
But Helen Solondz Shane, who flew up from Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., had no intention of hiding her age.
Because she was preparing to turn 80 on May 20, classmates presented her with a small cake, and circled her table to sing “Happy Birthday” to her and to themselves.
“It’s hard to believe we’re 80,” remarked Lenore Elias Pollock of Tinton Falls. “For an 80-year-old group, we look damn good.”