Lola Robins Oremland said she remembers how excited she was to transfer from Central High School to Weequahic High School in 1934.
“It was a brand-new, beautiful immaculate school,” she said.
Today, at the age of 100, Oremland is the oldest living graduate of the high school that was a flagship of Newark’s once-thriving Jewish community. As might be expected, she only received that distinction after her Weequahic friend, Rosalind Savad Shill, died on Nov. 15, just a month before what would have been her 101st birthday.
Despite her advanced age, Oremland’s mind is sharp, and more than seven and even eight decades later, she has many memories from her teens and 20s. She delighted in sharing several with NJJN in the living room of her home at Sunrise of Cresskill, an assisted living facility.
At Weequahic she said she was a “typical student,” involved in “as many activities as I could,” and she said she was a member of the drama club and belonged to the High Street YM-YWHA in Newark. Oremland was also interested in art and took classes at an art school while at Weequahic and during her early professional years. Following high school, she attended New York University for two years before going to work as a secretary at the Prudential Insurance Company in Newark. “There was a quota for hiring Jewish people at that time but I came in on the quota.” Then again, few of her coworkers knew she was Jewish until she brought in matzah for lunch during Passover, but she said she didn’t get any flak for it.
Although her grandparents were Orthodox, Oremland said her mother “broke away from that,” and though her family attended Newark’s Temple B’nai Abraham, now in Livingston, “we weren’t very religious.” Her father, David Robins, had liked one “little” Orthodox synagogue, but she can’t remember which one. “It was small and dark and he loved to daven there.”
B’nai Abraham’s longtime rabbi, from 1902 until 1939, was Julius Silberfeld, and he preceded famed German refugee and civil rights leader Rabbi Joachim Prinz, Ph.D., who served at its pulpit for even longer, from 1939 until 1977. “We were neighbors of the Silberfelds, and I dated his son,” Morton, Oremland said. “We were very proper in those days,” and so once, when Silberfeld tried to kiss her, she stopped him. “I said ‘Mort,’ and he said, ‘My father’s a rabbi. I’m not.’”
Her father was a doctor who was the physician for one of Newark’s taxicab companies, and he also served as an expert witness in medical malpractice cases David also wrote poetry which was published, in English, in the Italian Tribune newspaper. Her mother, Sally, helped run his office.
At the age of 26, Lola married Bernard Oremland, whom she met on a blind date while he was serving as an Army lieutenant during World War II. After the war he opened a wholesale textile business on Springfield Avenue. In Newark, then Verona, they raised two sons and a daughter, Debra Oremland, who lives in nearby Demarest. One son, David, lives in Virginia, and the other, Stuart, is in California. She has three grandsons, all in their 20s.
At 50, Oremland decided she wanted a change and took courses in interior decorating at the New York School of Design. She was hired by the Lord & Taylor department store in Millburn, where she worked for 10 years, and she visited private homes to consult with their owners about furnishings. It was the right decision for her. “My husband used to say, ‘You should pay them because you love your work so much.’”
Bernard died in 1999, but in the 19 years since, Oremland has managed to stay active and engaged in the world around her. She volunteered as a docent at the Montclair Art Museum and also to read to children at the West Orange Public Library. She even drove until undergoing heart surgery at 95. “The doctor told me, ‘That’s it.’”
At Sunrise Oremland plays bridge and progressive rummy with other residents, and she participates in a variety of activities that range from current-events lectures to floral arranging classes.
Oremland turned her love of films into a service for Sunrise, taking on the role of unofficial in-house movie critic for the community: She reads reviews and orders DVDs from Netflix of “the ones that sound good,” and then she and the residents watch them on a large screen TV in the activity room. She says she prefers “the older romantic movies.” Today’s films, packed with violence and sex, are “difficult for people for our generation,” she said.
Debra, who was present during the interview with NJJM, said she’s not surprised that Oremland has managed to maintain her independence since becoming a widow. “My mother has always been interested in learning,” she said. “She took cooking classes and art appreciation classes. She was very curious about everything. I admire her continual interest in everything.”
Looking back through the years, Oremland said she regrets two missed opportunities at Weequahic High, neither of her own making. “I didn’t go to the prom because the young man who was supposed to take me had an emergency appendectomy,” she said. “I was devastated.”
The other came much later. In 1985, she missed her class reunion on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of their graduation. “My son David was ill, so I cancelled. I was very disappointed.”
Asked how she feels about becoming Weequahic’s oldest living graduate, she said, “I think it’s amazing. I never expected to live a long life. My mother died at age 70. My father at 62. As a child, I was considered very fragile.
“But now everyone says I’m the Rock of Gibraltar.”