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Growing up in Hackensack

 
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George Kirsch at Candy Mountain Day Camp in Rockland County; second from left with the five other guys in 1994; and at his wedding to Susan Lavitt in 1968.

Lake Woebegon isn’t a real place, and neither is Brigadoon. There is no such thing as a town that time forgets.

There’s really no such thing as a prototypical city or suburb, either. Each of us grew up in a specific time and place, and each of us is marked by it.

Some of those times and places are well known. Turn-of-the-20th-century Brooklyn or the Lower East Side and postwar to midcentury Newark evoke images for most of us — cold-water railroad tenements, pushcarts, piecework, high schools, finned cars, dark-rimmed (and newly refashionable) glasses, Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Roth.

Many of us aren’t old enough to have earned these memories firsthand, and many of our secondhand memories are of purest kitsch, but still we have them.

George Kirsch grew up in Hackensack. One of a group of six still-close friends, half of them Jewish, half of them not, all born in 1945, they were shaped by a city that was as real, as idiosyncratic, and as molded and battered and occasionally bettered by history than the larger ones in whose shadows it stood.

Kirsch has written about his group of friends and their city in “Six Guys from Hackensack: Coming Of Age in the Real New Jersey.” He has woven personal and social history into the story of people who have gone very far as a result of their own personal strengths and skills — each one of the six is successful by just about any measure — but who most likely would not have become the people they grew into had they done that growing anywhere else.

The six guys and their families were affected by the huge waves of change that washed over the country during the postwar years — race relations, the Cold War, television and popular culture, and then by the war in Vietnam, the draft, and sex, drugs, and rock and roll. They were also affected by such specifically New Jersey developments as the growth of the shopping malls that ate small-city downtowns with much gnashing of chain-store jaws.

Jews first became a presence in Hackensack at the end of the 19th century, Kirsch writes, and in 1908 11 families bought land and founded the Hackensack Hebrew Institute. It was Conservative and also provided a spiritual home for Orthodox Jews, while Reform Jews went to shul in Teaneck.

Kirsch marked becoming a bar mitzvah at the Hackensack Hebrew Institute. “To grow up as a Jew in Hackensack in the 1950s was to go to Hebrew school twice a week and to Sunday school on Sunday,” he said. Families would belong to the YM-YWHA on Essex Street; that agency eventually became the YJCC in Washington Township. Then, it was the community’s social center.

And then there was food. “Jews love to eat,” Kirsch said; they did so at the Famous Deli.

If Jewish life in Hackensack was lived anywhere other than on the surface, or had any meaning beyond the visible, Kirsch did not know it. “Hebrew school, services at the synagogue, basketball at the ‘Y,’ and corned beef sandwiches — that sums up my life as a Jew during the 1950s,” he writes.

“Hackensack was one of the first suburbs to be integrated, 10 years before Teaneck was,” Kirsch said. “My elementary school was segregated.”

The city’s board of education was able to pay lip service to integration, but because the city was growing it was able to build new schools and zone them to keep them largely segregated. It wasn’t until 1964 that school desegregation took hold. (Because students only had to be bused if they lived more than two miles from school and Hackensack is a small city, there never was busing there.)

Often, the drama of desegregation played itself out on the high school sports team, where black and white students found themselves together. Kirsch says that Tommy DellaTorre, a famous football coach, “helped many black guys go to college,” but he disapproved of interracial dating. There was a black football player who had a white girlfriend, Kirsch said; “they would walk down Main Street holding hands in 1962,” and DellaTorre saw that he did not get a scholarship.

Kirsch’s father, Nathan, was a merchant, so the shopping malls’ advent hit him hard — until “he decided that if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em,” his son said. He moved his store, Rose’s Dress Shop, to the Bergen Mall, renamed it Rose’s Bridal, and it flourished.

“People thought he was a traitor,” Kirsch said. “Then he opened four junior women’s stores, and then, when he was 40, he announced that he wasn’t satisfied with his life, and that he was going to law school.

“He went to law school part-time for four years, and became a city prosecutor, and then a municipal court judge in Hackensack.”

Most of Hackensack’s retailers were not as prescient as Nathan Kirsch; the city’s economy was damaged by the malls and has yet to recover.

The first half of George Kirsch’s memoir is about Hackensack; the second half is about how he and his friends dealt with the extraordinary cultural climate they encountered as they left home. Five of the six went to Ivy League schools; each had the sort of career for which a parent would drool, and they still are friends.

Kirsch — more properly Dr. Kirsch, the result of a Columbia Ph.D. — is now a professor of history at Manhattan College in Riverdale; after Susan, his wife of more than 40 years, died in 2008, he moved back from Glen Ridge to Hackensack.

Writing a memoir — even a memoir like “Six Guys From Hackensack,” which is a paean to his friends and to their time and place — demands emotional delicacy as well as a certain pragmatism, Kirsch said.

“What you omit is important,” he said. “I could not include things that might have been embarrassing. Some of our childhood stories would embarrass people.

“The second problem is memory — how do we know that our memories are accurate?”

He was luckier than many other writers, though. “I never throw anything out,” he said. “I had boxes and boxes — my report cards from elementary school, school newspapers, letters from the 1960s, a lot of raw primary sources.”

The third problem is “family stuff.” Tact matters there. “I don’t want to embarrass my family.”

“The fourth problem is lawsuits.”

Memoirs, he said, are “creative nonfiction. There is no such thing as purely objective history. This is not fiction, but it is subjective.”

So, then, what relationship does his memoir bear to his life?

“If this is not the true story of what it was like to grow up in Hackensack, it is reasonably close to what it was like,” Kirsch said.

 
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Praying while female at the Kotel

Women of the Wall representative to speak locally

What’s going on with the Women of the Wall now?

What’s happening with gender equality and pluralism in Israel, now that the Israeli election is over?

Women of the Wall, made up of women from across the Jewish spectrum, has fought for the right to pray at the Kotel — Jerusalem’s Western Wall, the symbolic center of Jewish life, the magnet that draws observant and non-observant Jews, non-Jews, poets, and often even skeptics, close to it, as if they were pure iron filings.

The group, which was formed in the late 1980s, has been bolstered by legal wins. Its most important recent victory was the April 2013 decision by Judge Moshe Sobel of the Jerusalem District Court, who ruled that the city police were wrong when they arrested five women for the crime of wearing tallitot at the women’s section of the Kotel.

 

‘Oy vey, my child is gay’

Orthodox parents seek shared connection in upcoming retreat

Eshel, a group that works to bridge the divide that often separates lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender Jews from their Orthodox communities, is holding its third annual retreat for Orthodox parents of those LGBT Jews next month.

Although most of its work is done with Orthodox LGBT Jews — who may or may not be the children of the parents at the retreat — the retreat offers parents community, immediate understanding, the freedom to speak that comes with that understanding, the chance to learn, and the opportunity to model healthy acceptance.

“There are particular issues to being Orthodox and having a gay child, although it varies a lot from community to community,” Naomi Oppenheim of Teaneck said. “You worry about what the community is thinking about you. Someone — I don’t remember who — said, ‘When my kid came out, I went into the closet.’”

 

Twenty years later

Stephen Flatow remembers his murdered daughter Alisa

When you ask attorney Stephen Flatow of West Orange how many children he has, his answer is immediate.

“I have five children,” he says.

Not surprising. What father doesn’t know how many children he has?

And how are they doing?

Four of them are flourishing; they are all married and all parents. Mr. Flatow and his wife, Rosalyn, have 13 grandchildren, and another one’s on the way. (And three of the Flatows’ children live in Bergen County.)

But the fifth, his oldest, Alisa, was murdered by terrorists when she was 20; her 20th yahrzeit was last week. She has been dead as long as she was alive.

“Just because she isn’t there now, that doesn’t mean I’m not her father,” he said. “I just don’t have any recent pictures of her to show.”

 

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Everybody’s on the bus

Bergen, other local counties send 1,500 to lobby for Israel on Capitol Hill

The relationship between Israel and the United States might be somewhat strained right now, so at least 1,500 concerned Jews from around the area traveled to Washington, D.C., last week to plead Israel’s case.

Many of the members of that Norpac delegation are from Bergen County.

“It was very gratifying,” said Norpac’s president, Dr. Ben Chouake of Englewood. Norpac brought 33 buses to the nation’s capital on May 13.

“We cut off registration on May 4, the deadline date,” he said, noting that while the organization has been known to extend the deadline, this year, as the number of would-be attendees steadily grew, that was not possible.

“The turnout was really impressive,” said Dr. Chouake, adding that the large number of legislators who cleared time in their calendar to meet with members of his group was impressive as well.

 

The North, the South, the Civil War, and us

In Teaneck, Princeton rabbi to examine the war’s roots, its results, and its effects on the Jews

Maybe you think that we fought the Civil War to stop slavery.

Maybe you think that the causes of the war were entirely economic, and had nothing to do with slavery.

Maybe you think that good and evil were clear in the Civil War, and that the North — that would be us — represented unsullied virtue.

Well, you’d be wrong, according to Rabbi Eric Wisnia of Congregation Beth Chaim in Princeton Junction. The North was as morally culpable as the South in the great vice of slavery. There were no angels. He will discuss his understanding of American history at length and in detail during Kabbalat Shabbat services at Temple Emeth in Teaneck on Friday, May 29, at 8 p.m., in a talk he’s called “An Impartial Jewish View of the War of Yankee Aggression.” The talk coincides with the 150th anniversary of the war’s end.

 

A band of sisters

It makes sense, really. There was music everywhere. They were a family immersed in music, four sisters who sang together for years, a talented songwriter, and dreams for the future that always included music.

What else could the Glaser sisters do?

“I always wanted to be a singer in a band,” said the eldest sister, Faige Glaser Drapkin, 34, who, with her sister Chaya, one year younger, helped make that dream come true.

Chaya, too, wanted music to be “a big part of my life.”

Much of it had to do with the link between music and family. “When I saw the Mamas and Papas on Ed Sullivan, I actually thought they were a family,” she said. “I loved their harmony, spirit, and colors, and it looked like they loved what they were doing! I knew that I wanted in on that beautiful fun too.

 
 
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