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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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Pruzansky vs. Matanky

Rabbi’s Nazi analogy draws fire

The president of the Rabbinical Council of American, Rabbi Leonard Matanky, has weighed in on the ongoing dispute between Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck and Gary Rosenblatt of Teaneck, editor and publisher of New York’s Jewish Week.

“I am pained that I have to distance myself from a colleague, but the kind of language that Rabbi Pruzansky used is unacceptable and crosses the line of decency and discourse,” Rabbi Matanky is quoted in the Jewish Week as having written. (Rabbi Matanky lives in Chicago’s West Rogers Park neighborhood — which is more or less the Teaneck of the Midwest — where he is rabbi of Congregations K.I.N.S. and dean of the Ida Crown Jewish Academy.)

 

Reality check

Author to discuss intergenerational ‘experiment’

Katie Hafner began her professional career writing for a small newspaper in Lake Tahoe.

That didn’t last for long, though. “I worked my way up,” said Ms. Hafner, who now writes on health care for the New York Times.

A seasoned journalist, Ms. Hafner was exceptionally well prepared to chronicle an experience in her own life that she calls both an “experiment in intergenerational living” and a “disaster.” Inviting her 77-year-old mother to live with her and her teenage daughter, Zoe, in San Francisco, Ms. Hafner learned that fairy-tale imaginings are no match for emotional truths.

(In her book, Ms. Hafner calls her mother Helen. That is not her real name; her mother requested anonymity, and Ms. Hafner honored the request.)

 

Self-defense or unnecessary danger?

Armed self-defense is a value strongly supported in Jewish law, according to a statement issued last week by a local Jewish gun club, which is urging two of the largest Orthodox organizations in the country to reconsider their positions on gun control.

On July 16, the Rabbinical Council of America, an organization representing Orthodox rabbis in the United States, issued a statement recognizing the rights of private citizens to own weapons and engage in violence for self-defense, but also calling for the restriction of “easy and unregulated access to weapons and ammunition,” and denounced “recreational activities that desensitize participants … or glorify war, killing, physical violence, and weapons….”

The RCA resolution came just over a year after the Orthodox Union issued a similar resolution citing its longtime commitment to “common sense gun safety legislation” and calling on U.S. senators to pass legislation to ensure “a safer and more secure American society.”

 

RECENTLYADDED

NCJW immigration panel decries “broken system”

Participants praise President Obama’s executive action

President Obama’s recent speech on immigration — and his decision not to deport some 5 million people — most likely was driven, at least in part, by the advocacy efforts of groups such as the National Council of Jewish Women.

The Bergen County section, which held a forum on immigration reform last Tuesday, was in the process of sending a letter to the president when his formal statement was issued.

“It was a packed house,” Bea Podorefsky of Teaneck said of the forum, which drew 300 attendees. She and fellow NCJW member Joyce Kalman chaired the event.

“We prepared a letter for attendees to sign urging the president to take some action,” she said, joking that one of the program’s panelists, Rabbi Greg Litcovsky, said she must have had a “connection” to a higher power, given the president’s subsequent action.

Ms. Podorefsky said that the forum’s goals were “to educate ourselves, to educate the community at large, and to work together with our coalition partners.” The coalition, created around last year’s NCJW forum on human trafficking, consists of 24 organizations, ranging from Project Sarah to the Palisades Park Senior Center.

 

Surviving the Holocaust, living to 102

Family, friends remember the indomitable Helen Fellowes

No one survived the Shoah without a story.

No one survived the Shoah without some luck.

No one lives to be 102 years old without both luck and a story.

Helen Fellowes of Ridgewood, who died on November 3 at 102, took advantage of some lucky breaks, and she had very many stories.

Here’s one:

Ms. Fellowes’ husband, Donald, was reunited with their two children, Martha and George, after the war, but he could not find his wife. He had no idea if she had survived. “We waited in Budapest for my mother to return, but she did not, so we went back to Nagyvarad,” the small Hungarian town where they had lived together long ago, before their part of the world went crazy, George Fellowes said.

 

Love and hate in Teaneck

Writing a blog post in response to the bloody, brutal, and unprecedented murder of four Jews at prayer in Jerusalem and the Druze police officer who tried to protect them on November 18, Rabbi Steven Pruzansky of Congregation Bnai Yeshurun in Teaneck has set off a firestorm.

Rabbi Pruzansky is a lawyer and a vivid writer whose political views are out of the mainstream. In “Dealing With Savages,” the post he put up last Friday and had taken down by Sunday, he urged collective punishment.

Rabbi Pruzansky’s blog is at rabbipruzansky.com. Although this post has been removed it has been cached. The post was removed, he told the wire service JTA, in response to unspecified threats, not because he regretted anything he had written. “I don’t think I’m saying anything outlandish,” JTA reported Rabbi Pruzansky as saying.

 
 
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