Weequahic Memories of a Great-Grandmother
Our new boy is as yet unnamed but I’m already dreaming of the trip we will take, he and I, to Newark…….to Weequahic to be precise. To the places I loved as a child and to the house his great great great grandfather built on a street named Aldine. I don’t even know what aldine means, but to those of us who grew up in its treelined shade it means home.
I’ve made the trek with each of the grandchildren. There’s already an established route. Of course we start with the house, standing tall and erect in her dotage. That house has to be nearing her 100th birthday but she’s aging better than I am. Her posture is straight, and if she has wrinkles they’ve been well covered with paint. Her bricks are all intact, her driveways, on either side, smooth with unbroken pavement. Her front porch, with its two built in brick seats (memories of watching the world go by while porch perched are as fresh as tomorrow’s bread) are all perfect. Zayda must have been quite the builder. He gets an A plus in the test of time.
Of course, when I take him, I will tell him stories about Zayda who came from Poland with nothing, leaving a wife and 5 children under age 5 behind, so he could pave the way for them. And how he built a business out of building houses and then bought other people’s houses as well. All this without ever learning a word of English. Impossible! Yet true.
Our house was near the corner of Forest Place. I always thought that this was such a whimsical name for a tiny two block little street with nary a tree to shade her, in the heart of a major American city, as far from a forest as could be. They could have just as easily named her Ocean Drive or Sandy Hill or Imaginary Place. No matter. She remains Forest Place.
When we leave the house and tales of playing hopscotch on the sidewalk in front and basketball (that should wow him; his great grandmother playing basketball!) in back, and ping pong in the basement, and sometimes finding time to practice piano and do homework as well, we will continue our tour.
We’ll go next to the greatly grown Newark Beth Israel Hospital where all family members of my generation were born, on the fifth floor, and where his Savta Amy, my firstborn, was born as well. Still a leading hospital after all these years, a friend of mine had a heart transplant done there this past month. This institution is a proud survivor of Jewish Newark. But, life is life and many of our family breathed their last breaths at Beth Israel as well.
We will continue to the Newark Public Library on Osborne Terrace, walking distance from Aldine Street and a place etched into my pores. It had a certain special book smell, hauntingly beautiful. Infinite treasures lay in its stacks and I loved to go there and borrow them. Unfortunately for the family budget, I was better at borrowing than returning and my parents used to think that I was the sole financial support of the Osborne Terrace branch.
Then we will go up Lyons Avenue with a diversion to the holy place where our shul once stood. Rodfei Shalom was not one of Newark’s great shuls, which were known as temples, but it was ours and our family men had first row seating. When I became engaged to the man who is now our baby’s great grandfather, we celebrated with a big party in the shul social hall. I can still taste my mother’s ethereal chopped liver and see the crowd of aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and friends, most of whom are now gone to olam ha ba.
We will return to Lyons Avenue and I will share memories of the shops, the numerous kosher butchers, and all the providers that a neighborhood needs, almost all owned and patronized by Jews. All now gone. And then we will swing left, down Aldine Street again and head to the schools.
Ah the schools. We didn’t know then that classes needed to have no more than 20 kids. The number I remember is 42 but I don’t remember it hurting us and I don’t remember our teachers being overwhelmed. I remember brilliant minds sharing their own solid educations with us and knowing each of us as if we were only one of 20. We all wound up going to college and I doubt that any schools in the United States had the standards that our schools did. How very lucky we were. Schools were safe and learning was serious. We worked hard, even the laziest amongst us which surely means me!
But schools were far far more than academics. Schools broadened our social horizons. We of Aldine Street met kids from farther afield and became their friends. And some of those friendships from the 1940’s and 1950’s still thrive today. We had one major characteristic in common. Just about all of us were Jewish. And even those few who weren’t actually Jewish felt like they were. In our part of Newark we all thought that the whole world must be Jewish because we hardly knew anyone at all who wasn’t Jewish or almost Jewish! What a shock arriving in college was.
We were so Jewish that all butchers were kosher, nary a bar in the neighborhood, shuls all over, a Jewish Y of acclaim, now known as JCC and no longer in existence on High Street or Chancellor Avenue, a day school which I attended for several years (and which became Kushner School where my picture from the 1940’s hangs in the lobby with some of my grandchildren in attendance). Teachers and students never showed up for school on Jewish holidays, even if we didn’t really know what the holiday was. With all this Judaism, practically no one was religious, Zionist or even terribly aware of terrible things happening in Europe. We lived in a safe, happy bubble. It had to burst eventually and it did, but that’s not what I’m going to yet share with my new great grandson.
When he’s ready I will give him the romantic, filtered version of the story where every character is a hero and life was beautiful. In truth, that’s what I remember.