The Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey
In the spring of 2008, Linda Forgosh prepared and mounted a traveling exhibit called Weequahic Memoirs: Celebrating Newark’s Legendary Jewish Neighborhood, which debuted at JCC MetroWest in West Orange. The executive director and curator of The Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey spent more than two years traveling from Maine to Florida, collecting memories and artifacts from graduates of Weequahic High School. On March 14 at 6:00 p.m. in The Chase Room at NJPAC, Linda will present Newark’s Jewish Frontier: Weequahic and Its High School in conjunction with the Newark Historical Society as part of the city’s 350th anniversary celebration.
radius: You didn’t actually attend Weequahic High. How did you acquire such a deep knowledge of the subject matter?
Linda Forgosh: My knowledge comes from contacting and interacting with graduates of the school while preparing the 2008 exhibit. My research took me all over the country. I attended the annual Weequahic High School reunion in Florida. There are still class reunions going back to the Class of ’38. Also, practically all of our members at The Jewish Historical Society, and most of our visitors, have roots in Newark. The majority graduated from Weequahic High School. The school opened in 1933 and we track its history right up to the present. That’s what I’ll be speaking about at NJPAC.
radius: What kind of memorabilia makes up the society’s Weequahic Collection?
LF: A 1951 championship jacket. A 1958 football that commemorate the defeat of arch-rival Hillside. We have uniforms that were worn for sporting events, marching band events, fraternities and sororities.
radius: Will they be on display at the NJPAC event?
LF: I couldn’t imagine coming without them.
radius: One of the many things that distinguish Weequahic graduates is that they are remarkably well connected.
LF: They are. In 2002, Jac Toporek started a weekly email newsletter. It now has over 3,000 subscribers. Graduates write about their memories. I got a lot of the oral history from those newsletters. To this day, every Monday I turn on my computer to see what’s new in the newsletter. Imagine a group that maintains that kind of connection so many years later. There were eight elementary schools in the Weequahic neighborhood and they all fed into the high school, so some of these people were together from first grade through 12th grade.
radius: What’s the most popular topic when old schoolmates chat?
LF: Where people ate. Sid’s. Millman’s. Sabin’s. Watson’s Bagels. Ming’s Chinese restaurant. And the place to be seen: The Weequahic Diner. They also reminisce about where they played pinball or where they worked their first jobs. Bamberger’s was their largest employer after school or during college breaks. And, of course, they share their memories of the teachers.
LF: Yes. Beth Israel sat in the heart of that neighborhood. And they all went to Osborne Terrace Library.
radius: Will you be unveiling anything revelatory during your March lecture?
LF: I don’t think I will be telling this crowd a story they don’t know. I mean, this was a remarkable school. In its heyday, 96 percent of the graduates went on to some form of higher education. No one went to college and had to take a remedial course. Many Jewish families who lived in Newark—but outside the Weequahic neighborhood—still made it available to their children. For instance, there was a Jewish population in the Ironbound. They would write to the board of education demanding that their kids take Hebrew—knowing that the only school in the city that taught Hebrew was Weequahic High School.
radius: What do you think characterized Weequahic High School?
LF: One thing is that parents really stood behind the teachers. They expected excellence from their children and that shaped the culture of the high school. The principal was Max Herzberg. He set the tone. You were given a set of rules as a freshman and you followed them. Imagine trying to do that in a high school today. But, you know, this was a tight, close-knit neighborhood.radius: What’s one of your favorite story about the neighborhood?
LF: There was a boy named Bob Goldberg, who lives in Millburn now. He was walking home after a baseball game in the park. On the way home, he saw a lit cigarette on the sidewalk. He picked it up for a moment and then threw it down and put it out. A few blocks later, he walked up the front steps of his house and there was his mother, standing hands on hips. She looked at him and asked, “So when did you start smoking?” He looked at her as if to say I don’t smoke. Then he remembered the cigarette. He knew all of their neighbors kept an eye out for one another’s kids. In the time it took him to walk those few blocks, someone had picked up the phone and called his mother.
radius: Weequahic High School’s most famous graduate is Philip Roth. Which of his book do you feel gives the most vivid description of life in the old neighborhood?
LF: I don’t know that I could pick one over another. Maybe American Pastoral, because it won a Pulitzer Prize and its main character, Swede Levov, was based on Swede Masin who, in real life, was the ultimate athlete. That book reflected the people and the times very well. Roth attended a Weequahic High School reunion and Masin was there, and that is how Swede Levov came to be.
radius: For those who don’t know this area, it’s approximately due west of the airport, in the southern part of the city. Is that fair to say?
LF: That’s fair to say. The Weequahic neighborhood is exactly 54 blocks. The city designated those blocks an historic neighborhood. It’s not the same as Weequahic Park, even though they shared the same name. Physically, they are connected but their histories are separate.
radius: Driving through the neighborhood today, it doesn’t take much imagination to sense what life would have been like a couple of generations ago. The streets and homes are still very attractive.
LF: I agree. The neighborhood has been very well maintained.
radius: The common mythology is that people left en masse after the riots in 1967. But that’s not quite right, is it?LF: My research shows that the people who lived in Newark and left the city for the suburbs were already doing so because they wanted larger plots of land. The automobile played a big role in that. People continued to work in Newark, but commuted in by car.
radius: The people I’ve talked to who lived in the neighborhood in the ’40s and ’50s say they thought of the high school as the place where they were planting their seeds of success, and it was their success that took them out of the neighborhood and into the surrounding suburbs, like West Orange, Millburn and Livingston. Moving up and moving out was always part of the plan. And yet, the school’s alumni group is extremely active with the current student body.
LF: It is. Hal Braff and Sheldon Bross started the alumni association. Hal is the father of Zach Braff. Phil Yourish and Myra Lawson run it now. Recently they sent one group of kids from the school’s French program to Paris. Every year they raise money from former graduates and award students college scholarships. These are in many cases enormously successful people who are bound together by a common thread of doing and being the best you can. They know Weequahic High School was the secret to their success and they want that for the students today. For them, the high school was symbolic of all that was wonderful about America, especially after World War II. They have never lost sight of what Newark has given to them, and they want to give back. You know how they say you can never go home again? Well, Weequahic is a place you never leave.
Editor’s Note: To attend Newark’s Jewish Frontier: Weequahic and its High School contact NJPAC for tickets and information—see page 31 for more details. The Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey is located at 901 Route 10 in Whippany. Log onto jhs-nj.org for days and hours of operation. Linda Forgosh authored Louis Bamberger: Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist, which will be published by Brandeis University Press this fall.