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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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Not just blah-blah-blah and pizza

Mahwah shul develops programming for pre- and post-b’nai mitzvah kids

So now there’s a how-to-write-a-blessing class. “The parents are really appreciative,” Rabbi Mosbacher said.

“I used to meet with b’nai mitzvah kids and their families twice,” he added. “Now we meet seven times in the course of a year. The last one is right before the bar mitzvah. Now I’m thinking the last one should be after the bar mitzvah. It’s a lot of time on my part, but it’s time well spent in developing a relationship with the kids and with the families.”

While these efforts are designed to connect children and their families to the congregation before the bar or bat mitzvah, the synagogue also has changed its post-b’nai mitzvah connections to the children.

 

Reworded interdating rules sow confusion, controversy

United Synagogue Youth convention may have eased standard … or not

What’s in a name — or a word?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Take the word “refrain,” for example.

At its annual international convention in Atlanta this week, some 750 members of United Synagogue Youth voted to change some of the wording in the organization’s standards for international and regional leaders.

Most of the changes are clear, easily understood, and warmly welcomed. For example, the group added provisions relating to bullying and lashon hara — gossiping. Leaders should have “zero tolerance” for such behavior, the standards say.

 

French Jews face uncertain future

A look at some stories from a local leader

In the wake of the terror attacks at the Charlie Hebdo magazine office and the Hyper Cacher grocery store — a kosher market — I participated in a Jewish Agency mission to Paris.

Our delegation of Americans and Israelis arrived last week to show solidarity with the French Jewish community. We also sought to better understand the threat of heightened anti-Semitism in France (and, indirectly, elsewhere in Europe). We met with more than 40 French Jewish community leaders and activists, all of them open to sharing their concerns.

On January 7, Islamist terrorists murdered a dozen Charlie Hebdo staffers as retribution for the magazine’s cartoon depictions of the prophet Mohammed. Two days later, another terrorist held a bunch of Jewish grocery shoppers hostage, killing four, which French President Francois Hollande acknowledged as an “appalling anti-Semitic act.”

 

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It was 1971, and Dr. Norman Sohn was finishing his training in Boston. He and his wife, Judith, were faced with a decision. Where would they go next? Where would they settle down?

As a newly fledged surgeon, the world was open to him. He could get a job almost anywhere. He was originally from Manhattan, and his wife was from New Rochelle, so the New York metropolitan area made sense to them.

They knew they wanted a yeshiva education for their children — Dr. Sohn had gone to the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School on Henry Street in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a school that combined religious and secular studies in a way that was progressive for its time — and they also wanted the luxury of choice. They didn’t want a one-school city, as Hartford and even Boston were at the time. “What really attracted me was the multiplicity of neighborhoods that were hospitable to Orthodox people,” Dr. Sohn said. “But here there were so many that if one didn’t work out, there was another.”

 

Sounds of joy

Children’s choir ranked number one by congregation

Perhaps if Tzipporei Shalom’s music were to be reviewed by a professional critic, the word “wow” might not find its way into the finished product. But to the congregants of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck — home to the children’s choir — the word seems just about right.

“It was the top-rated program in two synagogue surveys,” said Ronit Hanan, the shul’s musical director, who co-founded and co-directs the group with congregant Adina Avery-Grossman.

The a capella singing group has appeared with Safam, recorded a selection on a CD with the noted chazzan Netanel Hershtik, sung with Neil Sedaka, and joined with the synagogue’s adult choir, Tavim, on special occasions, most recently at CBS’s recent Shabbaton. They also participate in an annual community-wide junior choir festival together with choirs from local Reform congregations.

 

Affordable BRCA screening available for all Ashkenazi Jews

A new program at Yeshiva University’s Albert Einstein College of Medicine and Montefiore Health System in the Bronx is offering affordable genetic testing for the Ashkenazi Jewish BRCA cancer mutations.

Anyone who is of Ashkenazi Jewish descent, with at least one Ashkenazi Jewish grandparent, is eligible for the testing for a modest fee of $100.

For many years the recommendations to test for the gene were based on family or personal history of breast or ovarian cancer. But a research study recently revealed that in the Ashkenazi Jewish population, the risk of harboring BRCA cancer genes is high whether or not there is a family history of breast and ovarian cancer.

One in forty Ashkenazi Jews carry genetic glitches in their BRCA1 or BRCA2 genes that elevate the risk of breast and ovarian cancer to as high as 80 percent by the time they are 80 years old. In fact, the landmark study of randomly selected Ashkenazi Jewish men in Israel found that “51 percent of families…harboring BRCA1 or BRCA1 mutations had little or no history of relevant cancer.”

 
 
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