In the beginning, there was Ozzie Zuckerman. Orvill “Ozzie” Zuckerman, who for many years wrote “The Old Neighborhood” column for New Jersey Jewish News, probably is best known for maintaining and continuously expanding the Jewish Historical Society of Trenton’s archives, a vast collection of documents, photographs, and recordings of interviews, many of them in Yiddish.
It was all to preserve and share with others — through his column that painted lively pictures of events and characters from the ’20s through the ’50s — the richness and cultural legacy of the Jewish community of Trenton.
In recent years, as Zuckerman’s health began to decline, the column came to an end and the archives were turned over to the Trenton Public Library. Today, the collection is housed in an area of the library known as Trentoniana, which essentially is a repository of all things Trenton.
The archives focus on a once thriving community that no longer exists. According to the census, Trenton’s population in 1930 was approximately 123,000, including 7,000 Jews. More than half the Jewish population resided in the geographical area between South Broad and Warren streets, and Market Street and what is now Route 1. It was an area that bustled with nonstop activity.
The natives called it Jewtown.
“I’ve been told by some of the people who lived there that they certainly didn’t consider ‘Jewtown’ to be a derogatory term when they alluded to themselves, but they better not hear an outsider refer to them that way,” Ed Alpern, a 53-year-old Pennington resident, told NJJN.
Since immersing himself in Zuckerman’s collection a few years ago, Alpern, who is not from Trenton, has designs on preserving the area’s heritage “before it’s too late.”
“Once I was exposed to Ozzie Zuckerman’s wonderful work, I almost felt like an archaeologist,” said Alpern, a corporate video producer by trade. “The archives contain such a treasure trove of information, of photos, of history. The thing is, you’d never know such a place existed by walking through that area now.
“The people who lived there and can provide first-hand accounts of what it was like aren’t going to be around forever,” Alpern said. “I want to set up a video camera so I can hear their stories and have them share their memories. There’s such a wealth of knowledge, but as the population continues to age, time could be running out.
“The bottom line is, I feel I have the basis for a fascinating documentary. Not only is it a story I’d like to tell, it’s a labor of love.”
On the morning of March 13, Alpern shared his vision during a program at Adath Israel Congregation in Lawrenceville, where he is a congregant. Guest speaker was Michael Aaron Rockland, a professor of American studies at Rutgers and coauthor of The Jews of New Jersey: A Pictorial History.
During his presentation, Rockland shared archive photos with the audience in hopes that some of those in attendance could identify the events and people pictured. He admitted he was surprised by the number of Trenton connections identified in the photos by some of the more than 60 people present.
At the gathering, Alpern ran a brief video providing an overview of what he calls the “Trenton Jewish Project.” He said he will hold similar programs to get feedback from community members across the region.
“I told the audience that I’m not looking for a list of facts as much as a slice of life, so to speak,” he said.
After exploring the trove at Trentoniana, Alpern is dishing out slices that hold the flavor of nostalgia for a bygone era. For example, he talked about the “epicenter”: Waldman’s Barber Shop. “I was told that everything emanated from Waldman’s,” he said. “Everything.”
Then there was Benny Hoch’s, a popular eatery that served tzimmes “to die for.” One resident told Alpern about the time she was served the dish and the guy at the next table complained that Benny had told him they were out of tzimmes. Benny told the irate customer: “I told you that because you wouldn’t appreciate it.” Benny’s pricing policies led to his eventual downfall. “It seemed that everyone was charged a different price,” Alpern reported. “Four people would order the same thing, and they’d all receive different bills. That finally cost him his business.”
One of Alpern’s favorite stories has to do with the operating hours of Kohn’s Bakery. Jewish store owners closed during Shabbat and felt it was a hardship to observe the Blue Laws that forced them to close on Sundays as well. In order to avoid the $2 fine for opening in defiance of Blue Laws, Samuel and Libby Kohn worked out a compromise with the police. They were permitted to hang a curtain over their window each Sunday, giving silent notice that their shop was closed to gentiles. Jewish customers, however, were allowed to enter through a side door and buy their rye and pumpernickel.
During his presentation at Adath Israel, Alpern also mentioned Olinsky’s, a family-owned hardware store. A few days later, he received an e-mail from Israel sent by a relative of the Olinsky family that contained a wealth of information about the family business.
The Israeli, said Alpern “had heard about what I’m doing from a friend of his who had attended the program at Adath Israel. Word-of-mouth and technology are proving to be two of my most valuable resources. It’s ironic that people who are my target audience may not use the Internet, but they can share this project with others who can.”