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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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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.”

 

When rabbis won’t speak about Israel

AJR panel to offer tips for starting a conversation

Ironically, what should be a unifying topic for Jews often spurs such heated discussion that rabbis tend to avoid it, said Ora Horn Prouser, executive vice president and dean of the Academy for Jewish Religion.

Dr. Prouser, who lives in Franklin Lakes and is married to Temple Emanuel of North Jersey’s Rabbi Joseph Prouser, said that she heard a lot over the summer from rabbis and other spiritual leaders. They said that they were “unable or not comfortable talking about Israel in their synagogues,” she reported.

“It didn’t come from a lack of love,” Dr. Horn said. “They’re deeply invested in Israel, and yet they felt they could not get into a conversation without deeply offending other parts of their community.”

 

Take the Shab-bus

‘Horizontal Shabbat elevator’ picks up congregants in North Bergen and Cliffside Park

You’ve been walking to synagogue every Shabbat for years. For decades.

Now your shul is closing. Well, “merging.” But all the services are taking place in the other partner in the merger, the synagogue that’s just a bit stronger than yours, that has been able to keep a rabbi on its payroll.

But that synagogue is five miles away.

Five miles is too far for a comfortable Shabbat morning stroll.

What are you to do?

 

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Initiative brings student nurses together with Holocaust survivors

Nursing is changing, according to Kathy Burke, the assistant dean in charge of nursing at Ramapo College of New Jersey in Mahwah.

“Nurses need to be prepared to move into the community, away from the hospital,” she said. “The community is the most important care-giving site.”

To ensure that their nurses receive this training, Ramapo provides its students with a variety of clinical experiences which “will redefine the health care of the future,” Ms. Burke said.

A new initiative — conceived by Dr. Michael Riff, director of Ramapo College’s Gross Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies, and Leah Kaufman, director of JFS of North Jersey — brings Burke’s students together with Holocaust survivors.

“Taking care of the elderly, especially those with such a unique history, will double the impact of this experience” for her students, Ms. Burke said. “It’s [important] for this newer generation of nurses to talk with individuals who have experienced the Holocaust.”

 

‘You are not numbers. You have a name’

Tenafly JCC Holocaust commemoration highlights survivor from Tappan

When the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades marks Yom Hashoah this year, its ceremony will combine words from the past with the voices of youth. Indeed — in a twist of fate Holocaust survivors could not have foreseen — Jewish children will sing the same opera performed by children at the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

In 1942, Holocaust survivor Ela Weissberger, who lives in Tappan, N.Y., performed the role of the cat in the children’s opera “Brundibar.” The show was staged in Terezin, Czechoslovakia, as part of an effort to convince Red Cross inspectors, visiting delegations, and the world at large that nothing improper was taking place there.

“They took them to a staged area,” Ms. Weissberger said. “They were really fooled.”

On April 16, Ms. Weissberger — the last surviving member of the original cast — will share her memories as part of the JCC’s annual Yom Hashoah commemoration.

 

Evil, hope onstage in Teaneck

Yavneh students tell the story of Berga slave camp in annual Holocaust play

Glen Rock eighth-grader Shmuel Berman took on the role of murderous SS Sgt. Erwin Metz in Yavneh Academy’s recent Holocaust play about the little-known slave-labor camp at Berga in eastern Germany, where hundreds of American prisoners of war were interned along with Holocaust victims.

What was it like to portray a real-life Nazi?

“It was hard,” Shmuel said. “I had to try to get into the character of someone who was not a good person and did terrible things to people.

“I was hoping the audience saw that Erwin Metz considered himself a ‘normal’ person, yet he lied during the court scenes, claiming that he didn’t mistreat anyone. We can learn that evil could happen anywhere; it doesn’t require an evil person.”

 
 
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