Newark natives recall antics of Jerry Lewis
Class clown became celebrated comedian, philanthropist
When Ellen Simon was 9 or 10 years old, she joined the other kids on Lehigh Avenue in Newark as they crowded around the building where Jerry Lewis had lived as a youngster and where he had returned to visit relatives.
“Jerry had already become very famous,” Simon told NJJN. “The kids were downstairs chanting, ‘Jerry, Jerry, Jerry,’ but he didn’t come down.”
Then several kids went into the lobby and kept ringing the doorbell to his relatives’ home. “I’m sure it drove his family crazy,” Simon said. “He came running down and he was nasty. He was furious. He started cursing at the kids, using profanity and telling them to get out of there. He went back into the building and never gave an autograph, which is what they really wanted.”
Simon and a girlfriend decided to remain after Lewis had angrily gone back upstairs. Then he obviously had a change of heart. “When he came down again he was very friendly,” said Simon. “He gave us an autograph, and he talked to us a little bit. He was very nice and very different from the way he had come down earlier yelling profanity. We were absolutely ecstatic.”
Her memory is one of many shared with NJJN in the wake of his death on Aug. 20, by those who knew him personally or even just knew of the comedy icon during his years in Newark and Irvington. The legendary entertainer — who made his mark as a comedian, actor, singer, filmmaker, writer, and humanitarian — was 91 when he died at his home in Las Vegas.
Norman Ring, who was a member of the class of 1952 at Newark’s Weequahic High School (WHS), recalled that Lewis “asked my cousin, Fran Dondershine, for a date when they were both attending Irvington High School. She said, ‘No thanks,’ because she thought he was crazy.”
Lois Weinstein, WHS class of ’53, remembered seeing a desk in a classroom in the school with his name etched on it. “Who put it there?” she asked rhetorically.
Larry Steinberg, WHS class of ’64, remembers Lewis when he was an adult and Steinberg was a child of 5 or 6 some time in the early ’50s.
Steinberg spotted “a bunch of cars on the corner near an old-fashioned bra and girdle store” that was owned by one of Lewis’ relatives. “I walked down there and saw a limousine, and he comes running out screaming ‘Aaaah’ and running into the store. Then he came out and the limousine took off.”
When Iris Blumenau was attending Union Avenue School in Irvington, she remembers a 15-year-old Lewis visiting her class for bond rallies during World War II and taking part in a lip-syncing routine to drum up support for the cause. He wore “a blond mop on his head and did a fantastic job of appearing to sing with the Andrew Sisters records,” Blumenau recalled.
Those were some of the antics that still stand out in the minds of people old enough to have seen the adult Lewis and remember the teenage version from the days of their own childhoods. Maybe that is because they seemed to have had much in common with the goofy Jewish comedian, who was born Jerome Levitch at Newark Beth Israel Hospital on March 16, 1926.
His parents, Daniel and Rae Levitch, were vaudeville performers who encouraged his show business inclinations, which apparently overrode his desire for a formal education.
When Lewis was a teenager, Weequahic was considered the most prestigious high school in the state. But that didn’t faze Lewis; he was expelled in his freshman year.
When she was a student at Weequahic some 20 years later, Barbara Rothschild worked in the principal’s office, where she managed to sneak a look at his file to learn why Lewis was kicked out. “When the principal was at the weekly assembly addressing the student body, Jerry, being Jerry, made a Jerry comment, which everybody laughed at. But the principal did not take to that very kindly, so Jerry was thrown out,” she told NJJN.
Because he had an aunt who lived in Irvington, Lewis was able to use her address to transfer to Irvington High School.
Then, in 1942, he claimed he could not tolerate the principal’s anti-Semitism, so he quit school around the time of his 16th birthday.
Though she never met Lewis, Rothschild told NJJN, he was a friend of her older brother, Albert Hirsch. The two families lived in the same apartment building at 1 Hillside Ave. Though Hirsch was 3 and Lewis was 6, she said, she recalled that the two boys enjoyed playing and riding bicycles together.
When Hirsch died in 2016, Lewis posted a sympathy greeting on Rothschild’s Facebook page. It said, “Sending deepest condolences on the loss of your dear brother Albie.”
When Lewis turned 90, Rothschild wrote on his page, “Zei gezunt. May you live to 120.” He did not acknowledge her message.
While Lewis prospered in the world of entertainment, as the comic half of a duo with singer Dean Martin between 1946 and 1956, he retained off-again, on-again ties with his Jewish heritage.
In “King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis,” biographer Shawn Levy wrote that “the comedian was never observant, but was still very Jewish. His grandmother sent him for Hebrew lessons so he could be bar mitzvahed, but he didn’t have a strong religious life.”
Nonetheless he donated a memorial plaque for his grandmothers, Hannah Levitch and Sara Rotberg, that now hangs at Yeshiva Gedolah Zichron Leyma (formerly Congregation B’nai Ahavath Shalom) in Union.
On one special occasion, Lewis was honored by Leila Jacobson, a Weequahic High School graduate and one-time member of the Greater MetroWest Jewish community, “at a welcome home dinner for our own Jerry Lewis,” according to a notation on the back of a photo of the event. The comedian, his first wife, Patti, and his parents were honored at a banquet at the Ivanhoe Restaurant in Irvington on Nov. 2, 1952.
Perhaps the essence of Lewis’s Jewish identity was philanthropy. He chaired the Muscular Dystrophy Association from its beginning in 1950 and hosted the charity’s annual Labor Day telethon between 1966 and 2010.
But in 2008, Lewis ignored an invitation to be honored by the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey with its Lasting Impressions Award. The idea came from the late Jerome Horowitz, who was the organization’s president from 2006 to 2008. Current president Bob Rose recalled the failed attempt.
“Jerry Horowitz had many memories of Jerry Lewis, as we all did. He was very desirous of having him honored by our community since he had grown up in Newark,” Rose told NJJN. “We attempted to reach out to him through a publicist but unfortunately, but we never got a response. We were very disappointed,” he said.
“When you think about the folks from our community who had achieved so much in their lifetimes, Jerry Lewis was at the very height of success and probably one of the most successful entertainers to have ever come out of the Jewish community in Newark,” said Rose.