There aren’t that many of us Jews — there’s some controversy over exactly how many, but it seems that there are more or less 15 million in the world now — but we’ve been around for an awfully long time, and we’ve wandered quite a bit.
That means that whenever any of us tries to trace his or her history, we find ourselves researching a great many countries.
There also have been a proportionately huge number of Jews who now live or whose parents or grandparents or great grandparents have lived right here, in the metropolitan New York area, in general, and in northern New Jersey in particular. So when anyone from here tries to trace his or her history, much of it has a very local focus.
When the researcher is a historian, that focus can be tight and accurate, and then it can spread out, broad but still accurate.
So it is with Daniel Walkowitz, a professor emeritus of history from NYU and a third-generation son of Paterson, whose soon-to-be-published book, “The Remembered and Forgotten Jewish World: Jewish Heritage in Europe and the United States,” looks at his family’s history, and through it tells much of the Jewish community’s story.
Dr. Walkowitz will talk about his book, and most specifically about Paterson, in that city on Sunday, March 11. (See box.)
The book is Dr. Walkowitz’s quest for a deeper understanding of his grandmother, Chaya Lubertofsky Walkowitz. “I always imagined myself as walking in her footsteps,” he said. “My grandfather died when I was only a year old, but I knew my grandmother.” But he only sort of knew her —- she spoke Yiddish, and he, despite, some attempts at Yiddish school, did not. “I always imagined myself as walking in her footsteps, but those were imaginary footsteps, because I couldn’t speak to her.”
As he traces his grandmother’s life, not only through documents but through travel, Dr. Walkowitz, who already knew a great deal about Jewish life both here and there, learned even more.
Daniel Walkowitz was born in Paterson in 1942 as a red-diaper baby. His grandparents, fervent Bundists, were forced out of Lodz. They arrived in Paterson in 1921, from Poland via Denmark, where some of their large families stayed; Dr. Walkowitz still has relatives in Copenhagen, and also in London, another frequent stop on the exodus from eastern to western Europe and so on to the New World. “Many Jews who got to London actually thought it was New York, and stayed,” he said, only partly joking. Another branch of the family went to Buenos Aires.
When his paternal grandparents landed in New York, they did not go to the Lower East Side, and from there to Brooklyn or the Bronx. Instead, they went straight to Paterson, which developed its own strong and discrete Jewish community. Like many of the immigrants who flourished in Paterson — both Jews and non-Jews — the Walkowitzes were textile workers. “My grandfather, Zisha, was a tailor, and my grandmother did some weaving,” Dr. Walkowitz said. “In the 1930s, my aunts worked in the department stores, and my father and my uncle worked in the textile mills.” Eventually, his father and his uncle opened a floor-covering store, logically enough called Walkowitz Brothers.
They all continued to be very political.
“Some of my family became socialists, and some became communists, and they all were labor organizers,” Dr. Walkowitz said.
His parents’ grandparents were Orthodox, but once they became Bundists, that all ended. “I was raised in a secular tradition, and that is what I continue to be,” Dr. Walkowitz said. “But I am very Jewish. I grew up with a very strong sense of being Jewish, and my Jewish tradition informed my sense of justice, and also informed who I am.”
“My father was the head of the Young Pioneers, the communist youth group, and he spoke at the famous silk strike in 1926. He was 11 years old then.”
As he grew older, his father’s political views moderated somewhat, but his commitment did not. “When he died, in 1976, he had just been elected head of the Democratic party in Bergen County,” Dr. Walkowitz said.
Daniel Walkowitz was born in 1942, grew up in Fair Lawn, and then, as soon as he was old enough to start school, in Cedar Grove, where “I basically led a secret life,” he said. “I was the only Jew in my high school class of 300, and I was also the only kid with a left-wing background.”
When he graduated from high school, his parents moved back to Fair Lawn, where there was more of a Jewish community.
So there was Daniel Walkowitz, who lived through much of the history of the second half of the 20th century — he was a Freedom Rider, among many other things — and who became a labor and urban historian.
Starting in 2010, he began tracing his family — not only his father’s family, but his mother’s as well. Zelda Margel Walkowitz’s family did start in this country on the Lower East Side — in fact, Dr. Walkowitz said, he learned that her family had lived just a few blocks from his NYU office — and later moved to Clifton; “In his later years, my grandfather lived in Paterson, and in those later years he played a lot of pinochle there,” his grandson reported.
“In my book, I go to 11 cities in eight countries,” he said. “I try to find stories of people like my grandmother, hoping that if I could learn more about her life, I’d learn more about my own.”
He took Jewish heritage tours and walking tours, went to museums and memorials and monuments. “I saw the remembered and the forgotten Jewish worlds,” he said.
He learned that Jewish heritage tours in New York, which once had been enormously popular, “had languished after the 1990s, and the break-up of the Soviet Union,” because it became much easier for people to go to eastern Europe. “In New York, Jewish heritage tourism has mostly been absorbed by immigration tourism,” he said. “So in the second part of my book I go to Berlin, Bucharest, Belgrade, and Budapest. I wasn’t sure if any of my family had lived there, but then I discovered, much to my surprise that one quarter of my ancestry wasn’t Ashkenazi — I had assumed it was all Ashkenazi — but Sephardi.” Those Sephardi ancestors had made their way up to northeastern Europe through the Mediterranean ports, he said.
“I end the book in Krakow and Warsaw, which have the strongest Jewish heritage tours,” he said; of course, the political currents now possibly causing sea changes in the relationship between Poland and world Jewry might change that, but it hasn’t yet, he said.
The new Jewish museum that opened in 2014, curated by his good friend Dr. Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, has “changed the paradigm of Jewish heritage,” Dr. Walkowitz said. Until now, it’s been concentrated almost entirely on the Holocaust; although certainly the Shoah will not lose its central place in the history of European Jews, now more people also are paying more attention to what happened there before and after that cataclysm. “There are some indications that the story of Jewish socialism, the story of Jewish feminism, the story of Jewish women, will come through.” Just as the study of history shifted from being almost exclusively the story of great men in the West in the 1970s and 80s, so will the study of Jewish history stop being only the stories of great rabbis now, he suggested.
“And I am helping that by writing the story of a woman — of my Bubba Chaya,” Dr. Walkowitz said.
“In my research, my understanding of my own Jewish history in Paterson has been transformed in ways that have to do with Jewish family and Jewish culture,” he concluded. What are those ways? That’s what he’ll talk about in Paterson next week, he said.
Who: Dr. Daniel Walkowitz
What: Will talk about “Paterson Roots Remembered and Forgotten in Heritage Tourism Abroad.”
Where: At 17-10 River Road, Fair Lawn,
When: On Sunday, March 11, at 11:45 a.m.
Why: For the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey
For more information: (201) 300-6590 or JHSNNJ@gmail.com.