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Book Review: Images of America: Jews of Weequahic
Reviewed by Jay Levinson
Linda B. Forgosh, Images of America: Jews of Weequahic. Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing (2008). $19.95. ISBN 13 978-0-7385-5763-2, 10 0-7385-5763-3
In its heyday Newark, New Jersey boasted one of the largest and most vibrant Jewish communities in the United States. In the early twentieth century the focus of immigrant settlement was in the center-city highlighted by the Prince Street commercial center, but as the second generation entered the work force, the area of residence shifted to a part of the newly developed and quasi-suburban South Ward --- the Weequahic neighborhood.
At first the transition from center-city was gradual, but by 1933 Weequahic had its own high school. Not at all surprising, even in its early years a majority of the students were Jewish. By the early 1950s virtually nothing was left of the old neighborhood, other than a few beleaguered stores and a Reform synagogue whose massive building was hard to sell. For Jews, all eyes were on Weequahic as the place to live.
This book is a major disappointment. Rather than systematically documenting the rise and subsequent fall of a thriving Jewish neighborhood --- from a population peak in 1960 to mass flight that left barely a Jew in Weequahic ten years later --- the 128 page paperback has the aura of a bound scrap book. One has the feeling that the author published what was readily available and what was donated for a public exhibition, rather than doing serious archival research. Pictures are plentiful, but serious explanation is rare. The book might be a pleasant experience for a former Weequahic resident as he staggers down memory lane, bumping into a helter-skelter collection of images from the past, but he will gain no real insight into a once-flourishing neighborhood that has been condemned to the pages of history.
The book begins with Weequahic Park, once known as the Waverly Fair Grounds (named after the nearby Waverly Station on the urban railroad that once ran), then converted in use at the turn of the 20th century. Although many Weequahic residents used the park for recreation, ironically it is outside the purely legal boundaries of the neighborhood.
The second section of the book deals with elementary schools, dominated by class pictures and children posing in "cute" costumes. It might be a nostalgic thrill to find pictures of teachers from a by-gone era, but it would be more constructive to analyze what those class pictures represented. Amongst other things, the schools were a powerful tool of Americanization, which strengthened in the pupils the values of the country to which their parents and/or grandparents had immigrated. The teachers were a manifestation of the ethos of moving from commerce to professions, from hand skills to the quest for knowledge. Unknown in the 1940s and 1950s, those trends would eventually contribute to the demise of the Weequahic neighborhood as the generation became of age and sought a new life style. The emphasis on Americanization, Halloween costumes, Christmas parties, and secular education would also spell the fall of the nominally traditional Jewish community, as inter-marriage, superficial Jewish affiliation (at best), and assimilation intensified during the "post-Weequahic era" beginning with the 1970s.
Weequahic High School takes up a good part of the book. Pictures of reunions abound, but missing is a discussion of why so many of class members sought to keep contact with friends from years ago. The reasons range from sheer habit to true friendship, but a major issue for some is networking in a society that placed major emphasis on achievement. There are pictures of baseball and football teams, players and cheerleaders. The highlight of the football season was the Thanksgiving Day Weequahic-Hillside contest. Hillside is a neighboring area just over the city line, and for years it had a large Jewish community that interacted socially and commercially with Newark's Jews. Not mentioned in the book is that as Jews left the general area, the sports rivalry of decades was no longer relevant. Those games are no longer.
The rest of the book centers around restaurants of once-upon-a-time, social organizations of the past, and synagogue buildings that are now nothing more than reminders of history. In popular lore it is common to blame the Fall of Jewish Weequahic on the Newark race riots of 1967, but that is a trite answer to a serious question. If anything, those riots were the death knell, hastening an already ongoing process. The abandoning of American Jewish neighborhoods can be seen in numerous cities --- Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington to cite just a few examples. This books does nothing to further understanding of why the Weequahic section of Newark is on that list.
If you are from the Newark area, reading this book can be a pleasant return to the past --- more the 1940s and 1950s than anything else. In affording a general understanding of the sociology of American Jewry the book has uniquely little to offer. In contrast, other books in the "Images of America" series provide a much better understanding of the subjects they cover.
from the August 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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