Born in Newark and a reporter for The Star-Ledger while still in his teens, Nat Bodian devoted himself to becoming the definitive amateur historian of Newark — especially its Jewish community.
For the website www.oldnewark.com, he contributed more than 100 articles on Newark folkways, heroes, and stomping grounds, from the old High Street Y to the gangster Longie Zwillman.
Now, much of his original source material — some dating back to 19th-century business records — is being donated by his family to the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest.
The acquisition was arranged by JHS executive director Linda Forgosh and Nat’s son Les shortly after Bodian’s graveside funeral service on May 4 at Beth David Memorial Park in Kenilworth. Rabbi Herman Savitz, who officiated at the service, paved the way for the acquisition of the collection by telling Les Bodian about the JHS and the opportunity he would have to preserve his father’s legacy in its archives.
“Over the years I helped Nat and he helped me,” she said. “We had a workable relationship. Others in the community who knew Nat also knew what I did, and Les approached me after the service and began the conversation.”
For 30 years until his death on May 1, 89-year-old Bodian lived on a quiet street in Cranford amidst piles of books and papers stuffed with Newark memories.
On June 30, Les Bodian met there with Forgosh to sort through the first installment of his father’s collection.
“He studied Jewish Newark and the experience of growing up in the Third Ward during the Depression,” said Les. “My dad took everything he remembered and everything he could collect from other people’s memories and put them out on the Internet where anybody in the world could read it, and it will be there virtually forever.
“I’d like all his notes and his source documents to be someplace where people can continue to use and benefit from them.”
Among the contents is a business directory of Newark dating back to 1835, the year of the city’s incorporation. There are centennial editions of the now-defunct Newark Sunday Call printed 100 years later. And best of all, according to Forgosh, are the first-person writings of old Newark residents that covered topics including Yiddish theater, synagogues, gangsters, immigrants, and fondly remembered restaurants. She is beginning to take inventory of her society’s newest acquisitions.
“The significance of the Nat Bodian collection has to do with the importance of Nat as Newark’s Internet historian and his ability to capture the history of Newark from a personal point of view, of having lived what he wrote about,” said Forgosh.
Ironically, for a man who spent his later years working on the Internet, his preferred method of communication was definitely low-tech.
“Everything my dad ever wrote he wrote on a typewriter,” said Les, as he examined an old Remington in the back room of his father’s house. “Every e-mail he sent, every one of the 128 articles he wrote on the Old Newark website, he wrote on a manual pre-World War II Remington Model 17 typewriter. He hated electric typewriters. He hated computer keyboards.”
When it came time to work on the website, Bodian entered data “one finger at a time” or gave his manually typed pages to the webmaster to be scanned and transcribed.
Nat Bodian made his living as a marketing manager for professional and scholarly books, but documenting Newark history was much more than a hobby.
“Newark meant everything to my father,” Les said. “It was the center of the universe. Everything that was important in the world could somehow be traced back to a Jew in Newark, and anything that couldn’t be traced back to a Jew in Newark didn’t matter.”
The younger Bodian, who now lives in Silver Spring, Md., and is in charge of computer systems at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, has a vastly different view of Newark than his father’s.
Although he was born at Newark Beth Israel Medical Center, Les and his brother Mark grew up in Hillside, and both were crime victims in the 1960s.
“My dad saw Newark thrive. I saw it decline,” he said. “To me, Newark is a scary place. But he had strongly held views that were generally not affected by others’. As far as he was concerned, the Newark of his world ended in the ‘60s, and everything he wrote about was about how Newark was before things changed.”