Nostalgia for the past and enthusiasm for the new were equally in evidence at the meeting of the Batim-Union Chapter of Jewish Women International on Dec. 22.
It was the group’s first daytime meeting, and its first at its new venue — the YM-YWHA of Union County. The chapter’s president, Elaine Ratner, said she hoped holding meetings in the daytime rather than at night would make it be easier for members to attend, and that proved true. There was a larger than usual turnout of around 35, including a number of nonmembers who came to hear the guest speaker, historian and author Nat Bodian, talk about the old days in Newark
The group had been meeting for 29 years in the cafeteria at the Burnett Middle School on Burnett Ave. and Morris Ave. in Union, which was available only in the evenings. But, Ratner said, many of the members find it difficult to drive after dark, and so could no longer attend.
“We used to have 400 members,” she told NJ Jewish News. “Now we’re down to about 50, but we’re hoping that now more people will come.”
The chapter will meet at the Y at 1:30 p.m. on the fourth Tuesday of each month.
Opening the Dec. 22 event, Ratner said, “The nicest part about this is that we’re seeing people we haven’t seen in ages. Meeting in the afternoon is a win-win situation.”
Ratner, who lives in Union, has headed up the chapter, off and on, for 57 years. “I want you to know,” she told the gathering, “before I became a mommy, I became a president, many, many years ago.”
She grew up in Newark in a family for whom volunteering was a way of life. As a young adult, she cochaired, with her mother, the Weequahic section of the United Jewish Appeal and went on to serve with the Democratic Club of Union, the United Way, the Newark Museum, Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey, and numerous other organizations helping seniors and the needy.
She has no plans to retire from the helm of the JWI chapter — not as long as it needs her. “Volunteering is my life,” she told NJJN.
But the busyness of the present took a back seat to memories of the past when Bodian began to speak.
The crowd was a perfect audience for the 89-year-old “maven of Newark,” as program chair Jeanne Major called him. He insisted that this was a “gedenk,” a shared reminiscence, not a talk, and the guests were welcome to add their own comments or questions. He got lots of interruptions.
Bodian started out with his memories of Prince Street in the ’20s and ’30s, taking a verbal meander past the five synagogues and various Jewish stores on the street. Time after time, someone would call out, “I remember that place,” or “I knew that family — we were very good friends with them.” But, predictably, what brought out the most powerful nostalgia was his description of the Jewish delis, and their signature dishes — like the 10-cent corned beef sandwich from Kaplan’s, or the five-cent hot dog from Millman’s.
“Oh, what memories,” Ratner exclaimed.
Bodian went on to discuss the legendary Weequahic Diner, and that brought a wave of smiles and sighs. “The food was good,” declared Gloria Leibowitz of Elizabeth, a longtime member of the chapter and a former staff member at the Y. She grew up in Newark and remembered the diner’s blond waitresses and the coconut pie and how the owners let students eat for free because he knew they were broke.
“They didn’t have a key to the diner,” Bodian said. “They didn’t need one. The place was open 24 hours a day; it never closed. Any hour, you could find someone you knew there.”
“That’s right,” Leibowitz said, with a smile and a sigh.
The 1967 riots, Bodian said, “brought an end to virtually all Jewish life in Newark. That was the death knell for the diner. It was sold, but the new owners couldn’t keep it going. It’s still standing, but it’s empty and abandoned.” And with that, he concluded his talk, and the focus switched back to the present — and the business of running a revived chapter.
JWI, formerly B’nai B’rith Women, is dedicated to the safety of women and girls, in their homes and relationships. The chapter’s fund-raising efforts include theater parties, luncheons, fashion shows, and raffles. The monthly meetings feature talks on a wide range of subjects. For more information on the chapter, call Ratner at 908-687-4549.