This is “a tale of two cultures.”
We all ferried ourselves back in time on October 19th when the “Y” cornerstone time capsule was opened. It was suddenly 1924 and the Jazz Age was “roaring”. It was a time for new Jewish immigrants to either embrace the wide-openness of America or to strongly covet their European identities, never letting go of their language, beliefs and values.
Those who wanted to Americanize sometimes let their Judaism become more about family memories and reunions than religious practices. Jewish talent was exploding in the entertainment and media fields, perhaps a backlash to centuries of ghetto life or just an opportunity to enter into a new economic field since many others had been closed to them*. In 1924, the musical composition, “Rhapsody in Blue,” written by George Gershwin, was played for the very first time. George’s brother, Ira, and Irving Berlin were among the leading song writers in the music industry. The Ziegfeld Follies, a spectacular production, opened on Broadway. College students were donning raccoon coats, straw hats called “boaters” and strumming ukuleles, all of which became symbols of the “Roaring 20’s.” Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb, two brilliant but misguided Chicago college students, murdered 14 year old Bobby Franks as a “scientific experiment.” In 1927 Al Jolson appeared in the landmark, multi-reel,”talkie” musical film, “The Jazz Singer,” which was about a cantor’s son who defies generations of his devout Jewish family traditions and instead wants to assimilate and sing jazz.
The autobiography of Charles Agnoff is cited in the 1982 book, “The Jewish Americans,” by Milton Meltzer. Agnoff, who was born in Russia, came to live in Boston in the early 1900’s. He later became a novelist, critic and editor. His autobiography recalls his childhood years and how slowly his family adjusted to their new surroundings, especially his father. His father looked upon ice cream as a shameful thing, and as children’s food at best. No matter how many rabbi’s signatures were on a bottle of ketchup, he considered it non-kosher and fit only for pigs. Celery and lettuce were not allowed in the house because “this is a house for human beings not for cows and animals that eat anything that grows. Pooh!” He couldn’t adapt to taking showers, thinking that the only way to get clean was being surrounded by a pool of water in a bath. After seeing his first movie he spat on the sidewalk and thereafter his mother connived to take him and his brothers to movies by herself. The Agnoff family’s lack of compromises to everyday American life was in sharp contrast to their neighbors — the Greenberg’s — who quickly mainstreamed themselves.
Some, like the senior Mr. Angoff, could never yield to the wave of conformity in the new world. He also staunchly opposed wearing ‘low’ shoes, insisting that everyone in the family still wear ‘high’ shoes that laced up. This strange action of Angoff Sr. was symbolic of his tight hold on his old world customs. The Greenberg’s readily adapted to wearing Oxfords and, unlike Mr. Angoff, were not afraid that they would ‘fall off.’ Those same Greenberg’s breathed the air of freedom for the first time in the new democracy that now granted them choices they never had had in the old country and they opted to blend into the melting pot. They believed that ‘sameness’ was what was needed to attain great achievement in America and they swiftly stepped into the shoes of ‘uniformity.’ Today most Jewish Americans, being second and third generation citizens, have long shed both the shoes of ‘resistance’ and ‘submission to authority’ as we knock about in the shoes that make us feel comfortable.
In the early 1920’s the Jewish Community of Paterson, as we suppose everywhere else in America, was in the throes of assimilation. Leaders of the State Federation, a precursor to the Jewish Federation of today, realized that in each of these enclaves there were many Jewish names but very, very few “Jews.” They believed that ethical and religious fundamentals were breaking down. A remedy in Paterson was to erect a modern Jewish community building for the well being of the city’s youth. In 1922 a plot of land was secured on the ground known as the Muzzy-Rodrock properties on Van Houten Street, next door to Temple Emanu-El.** In May of 1924, the cornerstone was laid and soon thereafter the “Y” opened it’s doors to the awaiting Jewish population. A Sunday School was established, lectures were conducted, services were held on Friday nights, naturalization classes were taught, sports were played, music was taught, scout programs were organized and plays were presented in “The Little Theatre.” Jewishness in every concept was promoted with the purpose of building in each and every child the leader of tomorrow and henceforth the future of our people. Adults had a place to redefine themselves without losing themselves. There they had a chance to reinforce their values and pass their knowledge, skills, life-styles and culture on to the next generation during these interwar years. Group activities, including sports and scouts, strengthened and prepared youngsters for the outside world. It was also the perfect forum for the acculturating adults to meet with others “cut from the same cloth.” They created a synergy of the new while still retaining the old tried and true. The Jewish faith has something about it…that although sometimes is “re-wrapped”, can never be changed. A one-stop facility was needed to optimize community spirit. That is “why” the “Y” was built.
It will soon be the end of the secular year and the beginning of a new one. At this time we wish to thank our devoted volunteers at the JHSNJ. The players in OUR “Little Theatre’ are: Anne Friedman Meyers, Ina Cohen Harris, Mireille Lipsitz Schuck, Miriam Kraemer Gray, Lou Mechanic, Dorothy Douma Greene, Barbara Klein Meyers, Pearl Liss, Barry Citrin, Sig Westerman, Tanveer Ahmed and Jerry Nathans. Thank you for your exemplary performance . . . there would be no “us” without “you!”
Happy Chanukah & Happy New Year,
Dorothy Douma Greene, President
*”The Jewish Americans: How the Jews Arrived and Became Part of America’s Heritage”, 1992 by J.J. Goldberg
**The “Y” Criterion, October 15, 1925