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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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Laughing with Joan

I made Joan Rivers laugh.

Of course she made me laugh, like she did to millions of others through her decades-long, often unfiltered, and ever-funny career, but yes, I made Joan Rivers laugh.

At the time, I was working at the celebrity-obsessed New York Post, and as the features writer for its women’s section, I had reason to ring up the raspy-voiced, Brooklyn-born blonde for a quickie. I had to grab a quote for some story that I was writing. As I recall, the conversation had turned to food, a favorite subject of the Jewish woman on my end of the phone, and, apparently, of that Jewish woman on the other end as well. Joan told me that she just adored the creamed spinach served at the legendary Brooklyn restaurant, Peter Luger’s — a must-have accompaniment to its famous and robust steaks. Joan told me she would dine there with a hairdresser-to-the-stars, the late Kenneth Battelle. (She kept her physique petite with this practice: She never ate anything after 3 p.m. If she did find herself dining with someone, she popped Altoids to keep her mouth busy.)

 

Cookin’ it up!

Tales of a Teaneck kitchen prodigy

How did 12-year-old Eitan Bernath of Teaneck come to be on the Food Network’s popular cooking show “Chopped”?

“He’s always been curious and he likes science,” said his mother, Sabrina Bernath. “He thinks it’s cool to mix flavors and watch things rise. He also likes to make people happy,” she added, pointing out that he had just brought his friends a freshly baked batch of cinnabuns.

For Eitan, a student at Yavneh Academy in Paramus, cooking is more than just a hobby. Struggling for the right word, the fledgling chef — whose website, cookwithchefeitan.com, will launch this week — described his relationship with the culinary arts as a “passion.”

 

Policies are the best policy

Teaneck synagogue forum addresses child sexual abuse

Does your synagogue have policies in place to protect children from sexual abuse? Do your children’s schools and camps?

Such policies, Dr. Shira Berkovits told a meeting in Teaneck on Sunday night, can make a difference to children’s safety.

Dr. Berkovits is a consultant for the Department of Synagogue Services at the Orthodox Union, and she is developing a guide to preventing child sexual abuse in synagogues. She was speaking at Teaneck’s Congregation Rinat Yisrael, as part of a panel on preventing child sexual abuse co-sponsored by three other Teaneck Orthodox congregations: Netivot Shalom, Keter Torah, and Lubavitch of Bergen County.

 

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‘Because the Middle East is funny…’

He hates to say so, but American-Israeli comic Benji Lovitt must admit that last summer’s war was good for business.

It led to a 14-show cross-country tour that will include stops at Temple Emanu-El of Closter on October 30 and at the United Synagogue of Hoboken on November 11.

Since making aliyah from Texas eight years ago, Mr. Lovitt has come back to perform in the United States many times, using his immigrant experiences as fodder for his standup routine. But his daily helpings of humor during Operation Protective Edge in July and August splashed his name across the social-networking world like never before.

“People are looking for really positive Israel programming after the war,” he said. “I spent a lot of the war expressing how a lot of us in Israel were feeling, and many people told me that when everybody was depressed I was the one they looked to for a smile.

 

Project Ezra offers help to job seekers

Robert Hoenig of Teaneck takes over as its second director

This is a tough economy that we live in.

It can be hard to find a job, and hard to think straight when you lose one. It’s hard to figure out how to reorient yourself, how to present yourself, how to maintain at least the façade of confidence.

And it’s also hard to figure out how to pay your bills at the same time.

Project Ezra, founded in 2001, has provided help to local Jews ever since then. It was the brainchild — and really, by all accounts, the heartchild and soulchild too — of Rabbi Yossi Stern of Teaneck, who was its first director, and led it until he died unexpectedly in February. His work not only allowed many people to find work, but also helped support them and allowed them to maintain their dignity as they searched.

 

Roy Cho shows up

Democratic challenger in House race talks about Israel and more

What if the Jewish Community Relations Council held a candidates forum — and one of the candidates never came?

That was the situation in Temple Israel in Ridgewood on Monday night.

Joy Kurland, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, had invited both candidates for Congress from the 5th district.

Roy Cho, 33, the Democratic challenger was there.

Scott Garrett, 55, the Republican incumbent, was not.

 
 
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