By Andrew Jacobs, New York Times, October 15, 2000
NEWARK— HARRY BALK died a young man in 1925. He was just 21, and like many impoverished Jews living here at the time, he was probably taken away by tuberculosis, influenza or a simple infection. His grief-stricken family spent a lot on a handsome granite marker, affixed to it his photograph, and etched in stone the following words:
”You took with you all that made life worthwhile. The flare of your youth has gone with you too. And all that is left is a beloved memory of you.”
Looking at his grave in a crowded cemetery in Newark, hard by the Garden State Parkway, it is difficult to imagine that anyone remembers Harry Balk.
His headstone has been vandalized, his sepia photograph pummeled with a rock. All that is left of his image is a torso dressed in suit and tie. Spreading out from his narrow plot in every direction is a landscape of chilling desecration. Photographs obliterated, headstones toppled and bronze memorial plaques ripped out, perhaps to be sold as scrap.
When Ed Brody went to look for his grandfather’s grave a few years ago at the cemetery, he was stunned to find that the tombstone had disappeared.
”Maybe it ended up as a first base for someone,” said Mr. Brody, 76, who grew up in Newark but now lives in Livingston. ”It’s very disheartening.”
There are nearly 100 Jewish cemeteries in Newark, and most of them are monuments to vandalism and neglect. Gates are flung open, beer bottles litter the ground and tombstones are pushed over like bowling pins.
These are not the pillaged burial grounds of the vanished European shtetl, but the resting place of Jews whose descendants, among the wealthiest in the country, live just a few miles away in places like South Orange, Short Hills and West Caldwell. Except for one day during the High Holidays, when aged Jews make an annual cemetery pilgrimage to Newark protected by the police, there are no visitors. New interments are rare, most of them first-generation Russians still struggling with poverty.
America is strewn with abandoned cemeteries, but few have been as ravaged as those in Newark, a city that once boasted a vibrant Jewish community of 80,000. European immigrants who arrived at the turn of the century, they started out destitute and within a generation, had achieved a prosperity that fueled a second mass migration, this time to the fabled suburbs of Essex County and beyond.
Jewish Newark, immortalized by Philip Roth and kept alive through the stories of its former residents, is a familiar one. But it is difficult to understand how this community of urban pioneers, so proudly linked to Newark, could so easily leave behind their dead. After all, these cemeteries are the only physical reminders of what once was.
To William B. Helmreich, a sociologist at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, Newark’s forgotten graveyards are a heart-rending metaphor for a people whose memories are often tinged with bitterness.
”They are darkest expressions of how a community was born, flourished and then withered away and died,” said Mr. Helmreich, whose 1999 book, ”The Jews of Newark and Metrowest,” (Transaction Publishers), documents the rise and fall of Jewish Newark.
Talk to a Newark native, and the story is almost always the same. Life was sweet, the story goes, until the 1967 riots, when everything was swept away. Of course, history is much more complex. In fact, Newark’s Jews had begun leaving their Weequahic neighborhood and migrating west long before black rioters burned and looted stretches of the Central Ward.
If anything, it was the charms of suburbia, the alternative to cramped urban living, that lured Jews from their beloved Bergen Street, Weequahic’s civic and commercial spine. The post-war building boom, generous loans for returning G.I.s, and the affordable automobile helped draw Jews to the new Promised Land of Livingston, Millburn and the Oranges.
”It’s a typical American story,” said David Mallach, the director of community relations for the United Jewish Federation of MetroWest, an organization that is trying to rehabilitate the graveyards. ”Everyone scatters and disperses and only the cemeteries are left.”
BUT Mr. Helmreich sees something deeper in the abandonment. To him, the cemeteries are unpleasant symbols of loss, a reminder of the guilt that some people feel for having walked away from Newark. ”For many, it is just too painful so to keep the memory out of their consciousness they don’t go back,” he said.
It was not supposed to be that way. In contrast to Christianity, with its strong belief in heaven and hell, Judaism focuses on remembrance as a way of immortalizing the dead. According to Jewish tradition, the cemetery serves as a memorial those who have passed on, a place that helps the living keep alive the memory of the dead.
”In Judaism, there is a feeling of connection to the people who went before us, of seeing oneself in a chain of generations,” said Rabbi Cathy Felix, director of the federation’s rabbinic cabinet. ”The spirit may be gone, but we still have an obligation to people who died, even if they’re not our own family members.”
And because some Jews believe the Messiah will bring about the resurrection of the dead, cemeteries are considered sacred places.
Throughout their long history of migration and forced relocation, Jews made the establishment of a burial ground one of their first civic tasks. In Newark, with its colorful collection of European Jews — some Orthodox, some barely observant, some German, some Polish — that meant a jumble of competing burial societies.
By the 1920’s, there were nearly 100 of them, their sponsors a mix of trade unions, congregations and groups named for a town in the old country, known in Yiddish as landsmanshaftn. Even today, the arches that grace the cemeteries along Grove Street attest to the dizzying variety of organizations: Anshe Warshaw (for those from the Polish capital), Workmen’s Circle (a union) and B’nai Jeshurun, Newark’s first congregation, founded in 1848 by a group of German immigrants.
Typically, an organization would buy a cemetery and sell off graves to subscribers, who would pay between $5 and $10 a year for a plot no bigger than the dimensions of a coffin, said Irwin Shipper, former president of the New Jersey Cemetery Board.
Unlike the generously spaced plots in an adjacent Catholic cemetery, the string of Jewish graveyards along Grove Street is thick with headstones, each one nearly touching the next, as if close proximity to one another might give comfort to the dead. In reality, economics more than anything probably dictated the tightly packed layout of Jewish cemeteries.
But the multitude of fraternal organizations and burial societies were not long for this world. Formed by newly arrived immigrants, groups like the Oddfellows and Anshe Russia had little appeal to American-born children eager to assimilate.
Today, except for a handful of congregations that long ago moved out west, none of these burial societies survive. Newark, which once boasted 63 synagogues, now has just one. ”These people just didn’t see a day when their societies would fade away,” said Mr. Shipper. ”And they didn’t leave endowments for long-term care.” By 1971, when a state law mandated that cemetery owners establish permanent maintenance funds, it was already too late.
AS Jews relocated to the suburbs and Newark’s fortunes declined, people sought out newer burial grounds in places like Clifton or Kennilworth. Landscaped memorial parks, with their flat grave markers and expansive lawns, made Newark’s Old World cemeteries seem even more obsolete.
Sandy Epstein, who still runs the monument business his grandparents founded in 1913, said there were about 500 annual interments in Newark’s Jewish cemeteries in the late 1960’s. Today, there are a few dozen, he said. ”We still have room but they hear the word Newark and they want to go elsewhere,” said Mr. Epstein, whose company still maintains graves here.
By the 1970’s, as Newark was consumed by crime and decay, reports of cemetery muggings kept visitors away. Of course, as time claimed the older generation, fewer and fewer people had any connection to those buried in Newark. ”People may visit their parents’ graves, but not many people visit the graves of their grandparents or great grandparents,” Mr. Epstein said.
The annual cemetery pilgrimage, once a central part of Jewish culture, has also faded. Alice Gould, 71, a retired math teacher from West Caldwell, remembers growing up in Newark, when her family would visit her Uncle Albert’s grave every year around Rosh Hashanah. ”Younger people just don’t do that anymore,” she said.
Marsha Dubrow, 51, a musicologist and information technology consultant from Upper Montclair, recalls the shock she felt four years ago when she visited the graves of her grandparents in Talmud Torah, a small cemetery that is adjacent to the parkway and enveloped by a much larger Catholic one.
”I was absolutely appalled by the condition,” Ms. Dubrow said. ”I said to myself, ‘Why isn’t anyone doing anything about it?’ I couldn’t fathom that this enduring legacy was being neglected.”
Armed with a series of photographs she had taken, Ms. Dubrow started showing the images to friends and family members. ”I decided I had to do something about the destruction,” she said.
MS. DUBROW was not prepared for the response. On seeing the photographs, an uncle wrote her a generous check and before long, she had $300,000 in her Legacy Fund, which is now administered by the Whippany-based federation. Ms. Dubrow ultimately hopes to raise $2 million for the rehabilitation and restoration of Newark’s orphaned cemeteries. As its first act, the group recently set upright about 70 headstones that had been knocked over in the Adas Israel cemetery. Ultimately, the organization hopes to do more than spruce up burial plots.
Ms. Dubrow said she wants to create a museum documenting the rich history of Jewish Newark and its dispersal to the suburbs. She envisions a walkway of the diaspora using the archways that still bear the names of Eastern European towns erased by the Nazis.
”These cemeteries are a symbol of an era when there were these vast waves of Jewish immigration to this country,” Ms. Dubrow said. ”All of us who are descended from this wave have benefited from the efforts of these pioneers, and because of that, we really should honor this community. It also becomes a way of understanding our own heritage.” According to her plan, an abandoned cemetery office in Talmud Torah would be turned into a small museum.
Even without a museum, those curious or intrepid enough to venture into the cemeteries can learn a great deal from this great forest of headstones. There are mausoleums to once-legendary rabbis and powerful industrialists and monuments referring to episodes of history that few can remember. In one Grove Street cemetery stands a majestic granite archway memorializing a pair of 22-year-old unionists, Morris Rubin and Abe Nowak, who died during a furrier strike in 1915.
Another marks the grave of ”the Lizzie Borden of Newark,” who was convicted of killing her brother with an ax in the late 1940’s. After spending the rest of her life in prison, she, who died in 1998 and was given a Jewish burial. The numerous plots of children and young adults, some of them topped by seated lambs, are testaments to the epidemics that swept through the city’s overcrowded tenements. Sprinkled throughout are the graves of fallen soldiers who died in two world wars.
TO help document the dead, a group of volunteers has begun collecting information from headstones and researching the defunct burial societies, using deeds and death notices. Because most of the cemetery records have been lost, the Jewish Genealogical Society, led by Alice Gould, has spent the last five years creating a registry of names that will be accessible on the Web. So far, she has collected 13,000 entries, which include the Hebrew name of the deceased, the dates of birth and death and the location of the plot.
”If we don’t do it now, all this history could be lost forever,” Ms. Gould said. The database she and her late husband created has already helped numerous people track down the long-lost graves of their relatives. ”It’s very gratifying when I can help someone find the plot of a family member,” she said.
On Nov. 5, Mrs. Gould plans to bring another group to Grove Street. As in the past, members of the Essex County Sheriff’s office will be on hand to keep an eye on the workers. (Each year, around the High Holy Days, a volunteer group of Jewish law enforcement officers escorts people to the cemeteries. The annual pilgrimage, sponsored by the federation, drew hundreds on Sept. 24.) ”People are afraid to go there without protection, and rightly so,” Mrs. Gould said, although she admitted to occasionally working in the cemeteries alone.
Those seeking to preserve and protect the final resting place of some 150,000 Jews hope they can interest the heirs of those who lived and died in Newark. Although MetroWest has a modest budget to repair fences and cut back weeds, there is not enough money for more extensive rehabilitation work, Mr. Mallach said.
The task, Mr. Mallach said, is daunting. But ultimately he hopes that even those who do not trace their roots to Newark will be moved to contribute to the cemetery campaign. Honoring and caring for the dead, he points out, is considered a mitzvah, or a blessed act, in Judaism because it does not involve any tangible compensation.
”There are no tangible rewards,” he said. ”It’s the ultimate act of reverence.”
The Jewish cemeteries of Newark will be the subject of a program Oct. 29 presented by the New Jersey Historical Society. A lecture at the society’s headquarters, at 52 Park Place in Newark, will be followed by a bus tour to several cemeteries. Price: $10. Information: (973) 596-8500.
Photos: The graveyards along Grove Street, top, are packed, as if the close proximity might comfort the dead; most could only afford a plot the size of a coffin. In nearby Elizabeth, a policeman patrols B’nai Jeshurun Cemetery. (Photographs by Norman Y. Lono for The New York Times)(pg.1); Alice Gould, who is putting together a registry of Jewish grave sites, at a cemetery off Grove Street in Newark. There are nearly 100 Jewish cemeteries in the city, including one at 19th Street and South Orange Avenue, bottom. Most have fallen prey to neglect and vandalism as Jews moved out of Newark to suburban communities and as relatives of the dead have aged and died themselves..