Take a trip down to the “old country” in Newark to discover hidden gems- mostly unknown to outsiders. You will find a treasure trove for lovers of Jewish history and what remains from the bad old days during the 1960’s surprises even the most jaded of both Newark residents and other New Jerseyans.
Yesterday, I invited Rabbi Joe Forman to join me for a tour of the last remaining Synagogues in Newark, NJ. While we traipsed around some less than desirable neighborhoods we noticed something unexpected. There is resurgence happening RIGHT NOW in Newark. The former sense of abandonment is being replaced by a sense of pride of place and pride of reconstruction. After a few hours of research on the Internet, we took the high road (Rt. 280) down to Ahavas Sholom, Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, Oheb Shalom, and B’nai Abraham . It was immediately clear to me that longevity of some of these temples is based in fact that the Black community respects the Jews, hence the availability of “REAL” Jewish Soul Food in the ghetto. Groups like the Jews and the Black community thrive today on the mutual respect, of being “outsiders” amongst others in Newark.
Driving around in downtown Newark can be a lesson in futility. Streets end in dead ends, others drive into “secure” areas around the Essex County Courthouse. Even my nearly new GPS got us lost, several times… Around and around we drove, looking for the hidden-the secret and the preserved due to this mutual respect or religion and a shared passion for great deli food.
We started our tour in near the Belleville border; the old Prince Street neighborhood was once a thriving Jewish ghetto… all gone. The memories have faded, the energy mostly gone. The streets are a mish-mash of bodegas; buildings without windows-their facades are standing with nothing behind them, as if waiting for a movie to be shot out front. There are no people on the streets, hardly any cars to be seen. This part of Newark is still a real disappointment, as we hoped to find some semblance of normality. There are none. It’s pretty much bombed out here.
As a counterpoint to the desolation on Prince Street, sits a particularly bombed out section of town. Oheb Shalom Congregation is in the process of being restored by the enthusiastic and kind- Robin Dougherty and the Newark Conservancy. It’s hard to believe that this Moorish gem of a building was due to be demolished to make room for the Society Hill development. The inside of this former Synagogue is rife with the ghosts of the past. This area, now mostly empty lot upon empty lot is filled with sustainable gardens and the energetic staff who are restoring this National Register of Historic Places temple.
Moving down to the bustling downtown part of Newark, the faces change, the buildings are striking. Lower floors are thriving; the upper floors seem to be abandoned attracting multitudes of pigeons and the hawks that feed upon them. Over on Branford Place and Washington Street sits Hobby’s Delicatessen. This is our first food stop for a bowl of classic Matzo Ball Soup. Thick with egg noodles and placed directly in the middle there is a gigantic hand formed, soft to the tooth Matzo Ball. Oblong in shape clearly made with love. I slurped this down and ended up wearing most of the noodles on my shirt. A Dr. Brown’s Black Cherry soda was similarly inhaled. I had no idea that driving around looking at historic buildings would require so much energy!
Setting off towards the South Ward, Rabbi Joe and I stumbled upon a few more historic Synagogues. All seemed to be turned into churches. That fact alone may preserve them for the years to come. We were able to visit a few more buildings, mostly from the outside. Refreshing to see so many historic buildings being re-used for the good of the community. Hunger from the driving around was creeping up again and we drove up to the Newark/Hillside border for a trip to Bragman’s Delicatessen on Hawthorne Avenue. This specific neighborhood used to have at least a dozen Jewish Delis. Now, only Bragman’s exists. The food here is Jewish Soul Food. Our faces and that of the kind owner are in stark contrast to the neighborhood. Not that this area is unfriendly, just the imagery here is striking. Pastrami with chopped liver is on the menu, along with all the standards of Jewish Deli cooking…The scene here is better than watching television. The chopped liver is sweet, the pastrami and corned beef, hand trimmed, sliced fatty (my favorite way) and the pickles always half-sour and crunchy. If I ate here every day, I’d be as big as a house, as evidenced by the profusion of loyal customers who crowd the restaurant, the line can go out the door and down the block.
After our stomach filling lunch, we were planning to go back to Morristown, but we came across the hulking building that is Temple B’nai Abraham. Here, on an otherwise forlorn street standing strongly against the poverty that fills this neighborhood, Temple B’nai Abraham is still being used as a house of worship, which may explain the reason why it has been preserved for the last forty years.
No longer a Synagogue, Temple B’nai Abraham is now a Gospel House of Deliverance. We happened to drive up, just as a van from the New Jersey Institute of Technology pulled into the driveway! Maybe there was a chance to see inside? We got really lucky. The answer is yes! We were afforded a tour that only an architecture class would be given the opportunity to enjoy.
Winding our way though history of Newark from the eyes of an architecture class is a gift that few have enjoyed, we listened attentively and with passion. A walk up to the top of the magnificent stained glass window gave pause.
I took home memories that will follow me for many years to come.
Wild River Review/ Wild Table editor, Warren Bobrow grew up on a farm in Morristown, NJ. A graduate of Emerson College with a degree in Film, he spent his senior year as a research assistant in visual thinking at CAVS / MIT.
He worked for many years in the corporate world.
Wild Table has bits of visual poetry, terroir and food commentaries. In addition to Wild River Review, Warren writes for NJMYWay.com, NJ Monthly, NJ Savvy Living and NJ Life Magazine. Warren continues to traverse the print-scape and is writing for the Morris Cty., NJ Daily Record for their restaurant and their features column.
He has upcoming work in Edible Jersey Magazine on the topic of organic and biodynamic wine.
Warren is a contributing author for the Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America. Ed., 2.
Warren’s interview for Eco-Motown.
Saveur Magazine’s 100 list for 2010 as #30, the Tuna Melt. Named to the Saveur Magazine 100 list.
Please follow his moving about and drinkin’ ’round on Twitter @WarrenBobrow1
postscript: I just learned from my 90 something something year old grandmother our family were members at B’nai Abraham. She told me that we owned seats for Holiday time. Over 2000 Jewish families from this area were members!