People gather for an outdoor concert in Weequahic Park in a postcard from the 1940s.
Photo courtesy Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest
June 12, 2008
It was one of the best-known Jewish neighborhoods in the United States, and thanks to the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, many of its relics and artifacts will be on vivid display starting Wednesday evening, June 18, when “Weequahic Memoirs” opens at the Cooperman JCC in West Orange.
Newark Mayor Cory Booker will kick off the 7:30 p.m. opening ceremony for the elaborate exhibition, which will run until Aug. 27; it will be on display at the Alex Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany from Sept. 9 to Oct. 11.
Replete with displays ranging from oral histories on video to vintage clothes, street signs, and restaurant menus, “Weequahic Memoirs” will tell the story of the area from the 1930s to the 1960s.
It is the only part of Newark with a Native American name, which, according to Linda Forgosh, JHS curator and outreach director, means “head of the cove” in the language of the Lenape nation.
“Weequahic, the neighborhood we are exhibiting, was a development of a residential community by Frank J. Bock somewhere around 1913,” she said. “He promoted the development of Weequahic as ‘cheap, affordable housing’ on farmland being sold by the Lyons family.”
Some 40 years later, approximately 35,000 Jews lived on the 58 streets of Weequahic. In the early 1960s, 17 of Newark’s 43 synagogues operated within its borders.
“Jews had been a significant presence in Newark since the turn of the 20th century. As their business became more prosperous, they looked to get out of what was the Third Ward and is now the downtown Central Ward. They moved a little further out of the center city to Weequahic,” said Forgosh.
Businesses and cultural institutions followed suit. Newark Beth Israel Hospital relocated from High Street to Lyons Avenue in 1928. The Hebrew Sheltering Home and the YMHA relocated, and doctors, dentists, and other professionals shifted their homes and practices to Weequahic as well.
If one single individual made the area internationally known, it is Philip Roth, the Newark-born author of 29 novels. Roth began writing about his neighborhood in his first published work, Goodbye, Columbus.
Forgosh, who has studied his work, finds one sentence in Goodbye, Columbus — spoken by protagonist Neil Klugman in pursuit of Brenda Potemkin of Short Hills — especially notable.
“Wait until she hears I’m from Weequahic,” Forgosh recited. “It is a great seduction line.”
Perhaps no institution in the community holds more significance than Weequahic High School. “When it opened in 1933 in the depths of the Depression, the board of education hired Max Herzberg, an English instructor, author, and literary critic, to become its principal. They gave him carte blanche to hire teachers from every other school in the district. Learned people, many with higher degrees, joined the faculty,” Forgosh said.
It made the school what she called “almost a self-contained world with a predominantly Jewish student body. It was one of the finest schools in the state of New Jersey and maybe in the country, based on the fact that 96 percent of its graduates went on to some sort of higher education.”
But Forgosh insisted the exhibition she has been planning for two years “is not just the world’s largest Weequahic High School reunion.” There will be memorabilia from the neighborhood — menus from the Tavern Restaurant and the Weequahic Diner, ads from local movie theaters, photographs of mom-and-pop merchants, jackets worn by high school sorority and fraternity members, and signed autograph books from eighth-grade students — including Roth.
Linda Forgosh, curator and outreach director at the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, reaches for a vintage street sign from the Weequahic section of Newark.
Photo by Robert Wiener
In addition, she watched videos of Weequahic class reunions, interviewed ex-residents from several generations, drove around to scout locations of old luncheonettes and appetizing stores, and collected facts and artifacts from such faraway places as Florida, Arizona, California, and even Argentina.
One big assist came from Jacob Toporek, executive director of the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations and a 1963 graduate of Weequahic High.
For the past 10 years, he has been e-mailing a weekly newsletter to fellow alumni as a chance to share reminiscences. He now has some 1,500 subscribers, some in their 80s and 90s.
“I’ve been trying to hype the exhibit and have people contribute memories and memorabilia and buy into the project,” he said.
Toporek’s own contributions include the letter and miniature soccer ball he won as a member of the school’s championship team in his freshman year.
“I have a special connection, a special bond with Weequahic,” he said. “I realized that the success you’ve achieved is a result of the education you’ve received. The friends you make when you are young remain your friends, no matter what, even though you may not have been in contact with them for years.”
Forgosh said it is not just Weequahic’s former residents or the alumni of its high school whose imaginations were captured by the prospect of the ex
Weequahic High School students at the Class of 1950 senior prom. Future novelist Philip Roth is fifth from right.
Photo courtesy Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest
hibit. “I’ve had some great stories told to me by some of the guys who come in here to work on the ventilation system and the duct work on the ceiling.”
As those workers stand on ladders at the JHS office, they can’t avoid noticing six pairs of street signs that marked Weequahic intersections in the 1940s, and they trigger old memories, Forgosh said.
Even though the historian is a graduate of Woodbridge High School, she is an honorary Weequahic alumna and is so well versed in its lore she claims she “could tell you which teacher to take for history or English.”
As she reflects on the neighborhood and its heritage, Forgosh places them in a venerable context.
“If you were going to transmit Weequahic stories, you could probably do it at Passover,” she said. “They have the same weight as the Haggada. They reconnect families not only to the city of Newark, but to times that were real Weequahic memoirs.”
- Comment: email@example.com