I grew up in the 40s and 50s in a neighborhood in Newark, NJ known as Weequahic, named for a native American tribe of bygone centuries, a tribe undoubtedly decimated by European settlers while my totally innocent forebears were languishing in Polish shtetls near
Newark was not a large city, at its peak numbering about 500,000, totally overshadowed by its famous neighbor to the east. That was very good news! Having New York City close by, with its museums, theaters, and culture, was just fine. Coming home to Newark was even better. It was a perfect place to grow up. Many of us who did just that still reminisce about the really good old days.
The Weequahic section was made famous by the eponymous Weequahic High School, reputed to be, in our day, one of the five best high schools in the USA. Was this myth or reality? I suspect reality! Compared to college prep schools today, Weequahic HS, with its typically overcrowded (40 students was quite normal) classes, was way ahead of its times and produced, confirmed statistically, the largest, per capita, number of PhDs of any school in the United States. Just about everyone, not just the boys, was on a college tract and except for the very few who chose general courses, or the even fewer who became pregnant, college was on everyone’s radar. Not bad for a public school in a middle class New Jersey neighborhood.
While our school and neighborhood boasted of many celebrities, Philip Roth has remained a major contributor to Weequahic lore with a host of bestsellers that were born in Newark’s South Ward, Weequahic. He couldn’t get the old neighborhood out of his mind either.
But what really was so special about our part of the world? It clearly wasn’t the housing stock. Our streets were ingloriously packed and stacked with mostly 2 to 4 family houses, with a sprinkling of single family homes which we called “one family.” Most of the apartments were actually railroad flats where one walked from one room to the other without benefit of interior hallways. Having only one bathroom was typical and often distressing.
Equipment in our homes was pretty consistent. Everyone had central heat, of course, with monstrous furnaces belching away in the basement. No one had central air conditioning except the Park Theater and the Roosevelt Theater, which we all visited so often they felt like home.
Laundry was done by an automatic washer, usually also in the basement. Drying was always done on a clothesline. I remember my mother precariously hanging out a bedroom window, rescuing the towels which, after blowing in the wind, were impossibly brittle.. But there was no choice. I never heard of any mother falling to a premature death from clothes hanging so I guess the task wasn’t as dangerous as I thought.
Dishwashers were our two hands. No one I knew had an automatic dishwasher until the 70’s.
Everyone, by the late 40’s, had some sort of enormous TV and the entire community, and really the entire country, tuned in to Milton Berle at 8PM on Tuesdays.
But what made Weequahic so special?
I think it was the Jewdensity. Just about everyone was Jewish. Perhaps five percent were ethnic Italians, Poles, Irish or German. Our numbers compared quite favorably to Israeli towns, like Herzliya. No permanent nonJews living in Herzliya that I know of but lots of metaplot, enough to skew the numbers so that they are amazingly Weequahicish.
As far as our religion went, most residents were pretty much secular except that virtually every home was kosher. So kosher butchers sprinkled the neighborhood like the salt my mother used to kasher the meat. My mother spent endless hours at the butcher’s, Joe in our case, selecting carefully that night’s dinner and waiting while Joe cut it to her specifications. We hardly ever dined on dairy main meals except during Shavuot and the days preceding the 9th of Av. Although few were religious, lives were still controlled by the Jewish calendar. It was called tradition.
There were shtibles every few blocks. We never knew their names. There was the Wainwright Street Shul, the Leslie Street Shul and so on. Our own shul, which my two zaydas attended twice daily (I didn’t say they weren’t religious) was around the corner, perhaps a two minute walk away from home. With so many shuls, the neighborhood kids always had to select which shul they would hang outside of for the Yomim Noraim. This was a big social event.
There were also three temples. One was the unaffiliated B’nai Abraham with its famous rabbi Joachim Prinz. There was the Conservative Oheb Shalom and the Reform B’nai Jeshurun. All three are now located in the Essex County suburbs where they continue to thrive.
We also had a particularly active JCC, called the Y of course. It was a meet market par excellence with numerous contemporary grandparents able to trace their marital beginnings to dances at the Y.
Shops, schools, shuls and social lives were the fabric of our lives but what made it all work was the safety. We were always safe. Bad things never happened on our streets. People got sick and died. Of course. But doors were unlocked. Kids zipped through the streets on their bikes at all hours. Our mothers never really knew, or had to know, where we were. We’d be home for supper…..which would be ready. There were always kids our age on the block to wile away the days with. And our simple games like stoop ball, hopscotch, Russia, and stickball could keep us entertained for hours and hours.
None of us had cellphones or computers. But we did have the library on Osborne Terrace with its wonderful, always growing collection of everything we wanted to read. That library was truly hallowed ground for the generations who inhaled its wisdom and learned to love books. That was most of us.
We had our imaginations to take us around the world. Although Newark Airport was moments away, the only trip some of our cohort ever took was to Florida in December. I don’t know who all the other passengers were but they weren’t my schoolmates or neighbors.
It’s hard not to romanticize but, sincerely and honestly, it’s all true. We had outstanding childhoods. We were free. A freedom that is hard to find in contemporary America. A freedom that is not hard to find in Israel, in Herzliya. Heading back there in a few days!