Trenton’s ‘Jewtown’ lives again — on the web
It hardly seems unusual that Herb Spiegel became aware of Ed Alpern’s blog, trentonjewishproject.blogspot.com. After all, the blog is dedicated to Trenton’s Jews, a once thriving community. Spiegel not only was born and raised in Trenton but lives in nearby Lambertville. His family’s furniture business was one of Trenton’s true landmarks.
What is unusual, however, is that Spiegel was in Russia when he discovered the blog.
“Never underestimate the value of word-of-mouth,” said the 78-year-old Spiegel, who was vacationing in Russia when he heard about the blog.
“At first, I read it and I enjoyed it, but I didn’t have any action on it,” said Spiegel. “Then I started looking at some of the photos, and I was drawn in. The memories came flooding back.”
Alpern set up the blog in 2010 to publicize his efforts to film a documentary about Trenton Jewry. It includes clips of interviews he has conducted for the film, as well as readers’ reminiscences, vintage photographs, and the occasional obituary. The blog has attracted hits from folks across the United States and as far away as Israel.
A few years ago, Alpern, who lives in Pennington and is not from Trenton, immersed himself in the Jewish Historical Society of Trenton’s vast archives. The collection includes documents, photographs, and audio recordings, many in Yiddish. Those archives had been maintained and regularly expanded by Orvill “Ozzie” Zuckerman, who for many years, through 2006, penned the “The Old Neighborhood,” a column about the Jews of Trenton, for New Jersey Jewish News.
In recent years, as Zuckerman’s health began to decline, the archives were turned over to the Trenton Public Library. Today, the collection is housed in the library’s Trentoniana section.
Zuckerman is a resident of Greenwood House, the Jewish seniors’ complex in Ewing.
According to the census, Trenton’s population in 1930 was approximately 123,000, including 7,000 Jews. More than half of the Jewish population resided in the area between South Broad and Warren streets, and Market Street and what is now Route 1. It was an area that bustled with activity.
Today, the area bears no resemblance to the community natives affectionately referred to as “Jewtown.”
Alpern, a video producer by trade, began to envision what he believed would be a fascinating documentary. His goal was to bring the area back to life “before it’s too late.”
“The people who lived there and can provide firsthand accounts of what it was like aren’t going to be around forever,” said Alpern, 54. “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.”
Alpern’s blog attracted the attention of former Trenton resident Sol Weinstein, a one-time Trentonian reporter who went on to write four satirical novels (recently reissued) whose central character was Hebrew Secret Agent Israel Bond (code name Oy-Oy-7). Weinstein also was a television comedy writer for Dean Martin, Sammy Davis Jr., Frank Sinatra, Danny Thomas, and Bob Hope. Today, Weinstein lives in New Zealand with his son, who is a klezmer-playing rabbi.
“I did a Skype interview with him,” Alpern reported. “He’s still hilarious.”
Another notable who reached out to Alpern was Trenton native Tony Siegle, who grew up in Trenton and whose 97-year-old mother lives at Greenwood House. Siegle is a senior adviser in the baseball operations department of the San Francisco Giants.
“I found out about the blog from my aunt,” said Siegle, 71, who has worked in Major League Baseball for four decades. “If you spent your childhood in Trenton, like I did, it didn’t take much to become interested in Ed’s blog. It was such a wonderful place to live. You could get wherever you wanted on your bicycle. Things are a lot different today, but the place I read about in the blog is the Trenton I choose to remember.”
Last summer, during a family vacation on the West Coast, Alpern and his son, Joe, a senior at Hopewell Valley Central High School, met with Siegle at AT&T Park, home of the San Francisco Giants. They videotaped an interview with him during their visit.
‘The big city’
Sherry Spiezle is also a fan of the blog. She moved to the city as a young bride 52 years ago with her husband, who was a Trentonian. He died at a young age; she eventually remarried, and her second husband, it turned out, also hailed from Trenton.
“I loved the work Ozzie Zuckerman did and I love connecting with people,” said Spiezle, who lives in Ewing. “I met up with Ed at a program last March at Adath Israel. Once I learned about his project, I was so intrigued that I expressed a willingness to help in any way I could.
“Being from Lakewood, which was a small, sleepy town in those days, I considered Trenton to be the big city,” she continued. “There were department stores and restaurants. I remember getting dressed up on Saturday nights to go to the movies. It was a time when Trenton was a true destination.”
Spiezle has another enduring memory of her early years in Trenton.
“So many young couples purchased their first pieces of furniture from Herbie’s family,” Herman Spiegel Furniture, she related. “That’s includes my husband and me.”
Said Herb Spiegel: “My dad came to Trenton with 20 bucks in his pocket. He eventually brought a garage on Market Street. Years later, he bought the whole building, which once had been my grandfather’s hotel and had been lost during the Depression. He was so thrilled to bring the property back to our family. Ernie Kovacs was in the first commercials for our store. Willie Mays used to come to the store. And, of course, there were the locals.
“It was such a vibrant area,” said Spiegel. “Everyone had a favorite deli or butcher shop. So many people from my generation married their high school sweetheart and went into the family business. That’s just the way it was. The next generation in large part didn’t stay in the area. It’s heart-wrenching to see what happened to this once-lovely city.
“I guess that’s why Ed’s blog has touched so many of us. Everyone loves nostalgia.
“Our store moved from Trenton to Lawrenceville in the 1960s, but I’ve never been a guy who says I’m from Princeton. I am, and always will be, a Trentonian.”