It was because of Zayda that our family settled in Newark. He had arrived in America in 1907, so determined and desperate to succeed that he left his wife and three children, three plus the twins in utero, in Europe, with plans for them to follow when he could afford to pay their way. He had a miserable steerage class trip across the roiling Atlantic, and then moved in with family in Passaic. There was nothing wrong with Passaic but he had heard about fulfilling his dreams in a larger city, a tad further south. He was a builder by trade and his final migration was to that city, a place called Newark. His instincts told him that Newark was where he should be. And so it was.
Most of the projects that he created are unknown to me, and there is no one left to ask. What I do know is that in 1927 Zayda bought two lots on Aldine Street, one at 52 and one at 83. He then built a four-family house on each parcel. Each was a faux Tudor and my parents moved into number 83 shortly before I was born in 1939.
Aldine Street was exceptionally well situated for a growing Jewish family. Zayda must have known that. He was a shul-going man and there were at least 30 synagogues to choose from in the Weequahic neighborhood. There were dozens of kosher butchers as well and numerous bakeries offering delicacies that many of us still dream about; and needless to say, many many Jews. At its prime Weequahic was home to about 70,000, a large percentage of Newark’s population and a large community by any standard.
It is with thanks to Zayda who literally saw the foundations of our lives poured in cement that we grew up in such a remarkable place. How lucky we were!
But it wasn’t the housing stock that earned the accolades. This I can tell you after spending many of my adult years as a real estate broker. Nothing to swoon about in the mostly multiple-family residential neighborhood with its wood frame houses where apartment layouts were often described as railroad flats, apartments laid out like trains, one room leading into the next.
Maybe it was the feeling of safety. In our building, the front door was always locked and required visitors to be buzzed in. This was undoubtedly an affectation since the back door was always unlocked, easily accessible to everyone including the Dugan man, the milkman, deliveries from Joe the grocer, Sam the butcher and Phil the dry cleaner, as well as the assorted family dogs and cat (Lena, a one and only), and us kids. No one ever worried about robbers. In truth, there wasn’t very much worth stealing. And robbery wasn’t one of the neighborhood’s major industries anyway.
Zayda built our house with its decorative brick trim and a nice brick stoop where we sometimes hung out. It’s still a nice-looking and solid building. One must give kudos to this grandfather who never learned to speak English but had a good eye for an up-and-coming neighborhood.
I’ve often told my children that I had a better childhood than they did. It’s true. I was born into independence. I was born in the days when a mother might park her baby carriage outside a grocery store and do her shopping while the baby slept. No one was about to steal the carriage or harm the baby. In the days when I was an infant and young child, in the early ’40s, the violence of the Second World War was shattering any norms remaining in the world, but not in the Newark of my childhood. Newark, especially our part of Newark, was a safe place to park the baby carriage. It amazes me still that in the midst of worldwide carnage, my cohort of Newarkers grew up in peace, especially those of us in Weequahic. Family members went to battle and relatives were Hitler’s victims but our lives as children proceeded on schedule.
We Jews lived mainly in two areas by the time of my birth. The community had moved on from Belmont Avenue, Springfield Avenue and the Southside and now were the main inhabitants of the lovely Clinton Hill section, home to Oheb Shalom Congregation, Temple B’nai Abraham, Temple B’nai Jeshurun and the amazing people gathering hub, the YM-YWHA. Weequahic was contiguous with Clinton Hill, and was a natural more densely populated outpost to that affluent neighborhood. Philip Roth may have ultimately made us famous but every single one of us had a part in our bustling, picturesque edge of town with its mature trees, well cared for property and friendly streets. From early childhood, we wandered freely on avenues named Chancellor, Bergen, Lyons and Hawthorne. Our neighborhood was central to our lives.
Wherever we lived we were going to walk to school. And even come home for lunch and race back to school within an hour. And so, for instance, when my sister started kindergarten at Maple Avenue School, a long seven blocks from home, Mom took her to school on day one since Janet had no idea what to do or how to get there. Her assumption, as she tells us now almost 75 years later, was that Mom would be there to pick her up when school was over for the day. But Mom, a most responsible parent, and quite an intelligent one to boot, didn’t envision that my sister would be clueless about getting home. Her cellphone remained about 60 years off into the future and her age at the time, under 5, wasn’t particularly helpful either. Yet, somehow she got home safely, if memorably, and a bit unhappily. The next day she returned to school on her own. Parenthetically, my kid sister has been an Israeli these past 50 years and she remains brilliant, talented, idealistic, and with no obvious sense of direction.
There was a nice safe feeling about having independence, even when that independence took us temporarily out of our safety zones. We were equipped to handle it. That’s how all of us grew up. Maybe being self-confident wasn’t in our genes but it was something we city kids learned early in life. Hence, when I needed orthodontia, my parents had no desire to spend lots of money for straight teeth, especially when my Uncle Charlie was, according to my mother, the world’s greatest orthodontist; and there were no fees for his sister’s kids. The only issue was that Charlie’s office was in Queens and at age 11 I hadn’t yet learned to drive. My parents, however, had no problem with my going to Queens on my own. I would walk to Lyons Avenue, our corner, and take the 107 bus to the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Midtown Manhattan. There I would switch to a subway and then a city bus. Quite a shlep but, honestly, nothing bad ever happened. Once a panhandler asked me for money and so I gave her a few cents but it wasn’t frightening. After all, I had been riding on the bus alone since I started taking piano lessons on Watson Avenue quite a few years earlier. This was in a somewhat depressed neighborhood about a twenty-minute bus ride from Aldine Street via the 8 bus. And, believe me, I wasn’t unusual. The kids in our neighborhood had been independent since they were parked in those baby carriages. Growing up in safety and security means free of fear. We were wanderers, unafraid to explore. I don’t recall that any of the drivers of present-day despair, especially amongst children and adolescents, was present when we were Weequahic kids in the ’40s and 50’s There may have been drugs or violence but I never witnessed either and was completely oblivious to anything beyond the benign.
We grew up in Newark knowing that if we wanted or needed to go somewhere we would have to figure it out for ourselves. That was true for all of us. Certainly, in the suburbs, some kids lived close enough to where they wanted to go to ferry themselves. But, in Newark, all of us did. No one was ever seen being driven to or from school, even my kindergarten sister. Au contraire, my father, in his car, would toot his horn if he passed me with my briefcase heading for school on an inclement day. I once asked him why he didn’t offer me a ride and he said he was building character. I don’t know if that plan actually worked but he never ever stopped to give me a lift.
There was much to love in our old neighborhood. We weren’t forced to live in what some might incorrectly call a ghetto. Our parents and all the others chose to live among other Jews. They moved to our neighborhood to raise their families because of its Jew-density. Growing up, many of us kids thought that everybody’s neighborhood was filled with shuls and kosher butchers and bakeshops, and, most importantly, other Jews. Now we know this was not the way it was. But we had it all and Weequahic was home. That’s what Zayda must have planned for us.