In Trenton, between Warren Street and South Broad Street, where the Kingsbury Towers apartment buildings now stand, there was once a Jewish neighborhood.
There were Kosher butchers, bakeries, grocery stores, a barber shop where men gathered to gossip and bet on horse races; and a restaurant where the owner charged different prices to each customer depending on how much he liked them. The neighborhood had its own hotel, furniture stores and other shops. It was a city-within-a-city, making up about 5 percent of Trenton’s population in its heyday.
Of that community of 6,000, almost nothing remains. The buildings were all bulldozed in the late 1960s or converted to other uses over the years. The only physical traces of Trenton’s Jewish community are the graveyards. The Jews of Trenton moved, but usually not far, settling in Ewing, Hopewell, Princeton and other prosperous suburbs, as they integrated fully into the larger American culture.
But the neighborhood still exists in the memories of those who lived there, and a local man is working to make sure those memories are preserved forever.
Pennington resident Ed Alpern started the Trenton Jewish Project blog in 2011 to interview those residents and preserve memories of a time when the Jews of Mercer County formed a tight-knit community. Alpern said his blog, at trentonjewishproject.blogspot.com, attracts visitors with an average age of 75.
The blog includes photos, maps, documents, old newspaper articles, interviews and anything else that sheds light on Trenton’s long-lost Jewish neighborhood. He profiles celebrities like world-famous basketball player Tal Brody, who grew up in Trenton and went on to become the Michael Jordan of Israel; and Sol Weinstein, the Trenton-born humor writer who penned jokes for Bob Hope and George Burns, and who wrote spy novels about “Israel Bond,” code-name “Oy-Oy-7.
Weinstein was 83 in May 2011 when he found the Trenton Jewish Project blog and contacted Alpern from his home in New Zealand. Before long, Alpern said, the two were talking on Skype and trading one-liners over the phone, with Weinstein always getting the upper hand. Weisntein died Nov. 25.
Alpern believes he is in a race against time to capture the memories of the place.
“There’s so much fun history. It’s really interesting stuff,” he said. “And unfortunately, people are dying every day, who I’d love to talk to. Two weeks ago, somebody who was on my list of people to talk to passed away.”
Fortunately, he collected enough information from Weinstein to write a biography of him on his blog.
Weinstein, a second-generation resident of the neighborhood, was just one of many kinds of people Alpern has discovered in the process of researching the neighborhood known as “Jewtown” to its residents. (The monicker was embraced by the Jews who lived there, but was considered offensive if used by outsiders.)
“There were all kinds of characters. You had finaglers, scam artists and good business people,” Alpern said.
One of Alpern’s richest sources of material is an archive collected by Orvill “Ozzie” Zuckerman, a Ewing resident who died last year. Zuckerman had published a newsletter about Trenton for the New Jersey Jewish News newspaper. As his health declined, he donated a huge archive of photos and documents to the Trentoniana Room at the Trenton Library. Alpern has been sifting through the data, finding stories and posting photos on his blog so that residents can identify the people in them.
In the course of his research, Alpern found the history of the town going back to the 1800s, when Jewish immigrants arrived in America, escaping persecution in Russia. They set up a self-sustaining neighborhood within Trenton. Merchants lived in modest quarters above or behind their shops. More waves of immigration came in subsequent decades, with new arrivals from Eastern Europe settling with their coreligionists. The last wave came in the 1930s and ’40s and was made up of Holocaust refugees.
Others settled elsewhere in Trenton, not sticking to the neighborhood. But everywhere, they followed the same pattern: the immigrants did whatever they could to make a living, and to give their children the best chance of success.
“They worked really hard to make money and send their kids to school,” Alpern said. “They all bought stores and lived over or behind their stores and they worked like crazy. Their goal was to get their kids into colleges. Their goal was that their kids wouldn’t have to do this.”
The Trenton Jewish community split apart because they succeeded.
“Their success led to the end of this way of life,” Alpern said. “It was a moment in time.”
The bittersweet nature of the story of the Trenton Jews runs through the blog. Many remember the neighborhood with nostalgia, but many aren’t too sad that it came to an end. That sentiment is shared by Ewing resident Bertha Ropeik, wife of former Trentonian managing editor Arnold Ropeik and one of Alpern’s interview subjects.
“All of us went to college, pretty much,” she said. “As we became more sophisticated and more worldly-wise, it wasn’t necessary for us to cling to those who were the same as we were. We belong to a synagogue. We are involved with our synagogue, and our Jewishness is still important to us, but geographic location does not make any difference now.”
Ropeik didn’t live in the Jewish neighborhood of Trenton, but contributed many stories to the project, including one her husband told her about the early days of the Trentonian. The paper was formed by workers striking from the Times of Trenton in 1946, and there was a fierce rivalry between the two dailies. At one point, an editor at the Trentonian got drunk, pulled a gun from his desk and started shooting at the Times building, to no effect. Ropeik said FBI agents approached Arnold and warned him to stay away from the paper since it was about to be investigated and raided, and they didn’t want a nice young kid like him to be mixed up in it. He took their advice, left Trenton for his native Albany and didn’t return for a decade.
Arnold Ropeik died earlier this year at age 90.
Bertha told that story, and others, to Alpern.
“I think his project is nifty,” she said. “I’m a big history buff, and I think it’s a heck of a great idea wherever you can do it.”
Something about the now-obsolete way of life in the neighborhood captured Alpern’s imagination when he first heard about it in the late 90s. Alpern grew up in Long Island and has lived in Pennington since 1996. His children attended activities at the JCC in Ewing and it was there that he saw some fading yellowed photos on the walls showing people who belonged to the YMHA, the predecessor of the JCC that existed in Trenton in the 20th century.
Alpern, a former CBS News producer who has a media production company, scanned the photos for the JCC and kept them in electronic form so they would be preserved. As he looked over the photos, Alpern became curious about the faces in them. The same people shoewed up over and over. One of them was Ben Olinsky, a prolific athlete, and it turned out he was still alive. One day, Alpern met Olinsky, and Olinsky shared his stories of growing up in Trenton. Alpern taped the interview.
“He told me he had met his wife at the YMHA. He joked that she beat him at a freethrow contest so he had to marry her … I started to understand these little stories about Trenton and how close the people of Trenton were,” Alpern said.
When Olinsky died, he edited the video and gave it to his wife, Muriel.
After hearing more about the neighborhood Alpern decided to devote himself to uncovering the history of Trenton’s Jews and interviewing more residents. He has taped 12 interviews since he began in 2009.
“This all goes back to being a storyteller,” Alpern said. “You find a story that you can own. You look for something that nobody’s really done too much on that’s got a lot of fresh ground that can be tilled … Since 2009, this has probably taken up more of my time than my wife would like, but I guess you reach the point where you want to leave something behind. This is kind of paying respects to the people that came before my time.”
The neighborhood proved to be fertile ground for storytelling. As visitors to the project’s blog and Facebook page saw what he had found, they chimed in with new tidbits of information. Alpern said one of the most talked-about institutions was the Morton Hotel, a supposed house of ill repute. Former Trenton resident Herb Spiegel wrote to Alpern to tell him what he had learned about the cathouse. Spiegel’s grandfather, Harry Alexander, owned a furniture store next to the hotel. As Spiegel told the story, one day, he ran into a waiter at a restaurant who used to work at the hotel. The waiter told him the Morton Hotel sold liquor during prohibition and was also used as a brothel. Spiegel then realized that some of the rooms used by the ladies at the hotel doubled as model rooms for the furniture store.
The project has snowballed. People constantly come to Alpern with information and interesting people to interview. Alpern said that when he was a younger man, Jewish women would often try to introduce him to their daughters. Now, they want to introduce him to their mothers, so he can interview them for the project.
The blog has reached across generational lines to young people who are interested in their family heritage, or history in general.
“I got an email from a kid who was in 9th grade over at Timberlane [Middle School] doing research on the Jews and anti-semitism in this area, ” Alpern said. “He had a folder full of information. Stuff about Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee … he had done all this research and he was a 9th grader.”
Alpern hopes to reach even more people by extending his project beyond the blog. He has created a computerized multimedia map of Trenton showing the locations of Jewish-owned stores that once existed. Users of the map can click on a building and bring up photos, information and video interviews relating to it. The map is not on the Web, and Alpern hopes to put it in a museum kiosk someday. He also is working with the JCC being built in West Windsor to put up some kind of a display there.
His long-term goal is to have Trenton take its proper place in Jewish history, maybe even at the American Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia.
“The story of the Jews of Trenton is the same as the story of the Jews of Patterson and Passaic and Camden,” he said. ” Maybe all over the country.”