You know how the things we’re used to seeing are just, well, part of what we see every day?
We often don’t notice them, not really, although if they’re removed we often have some vague sense that something used to be there, even if we’re not exactly sure what.
We also rarely think of how things got to where we see them. It’s as if they were just dropped there, or grew there somehow.
There is a very large menorah on the roof of the Jewish Center of Teaneck. It’s always been there, right? Except that it wasn’t. It was built by one man — Bertram Unger — in his Teaneck basement.
Mr. Unger “was an electrician by trade, and he was pretty atypical for a Jewish guy,” his daughter Robin Unger Weber said. “He could do anything, build anything, create anything. Except plumbing — if you told him that the kitchen sink was leaking, he’d say, ‘So go call a plumber…’
“My father was the only Jewish guy you’d find on a Sunday morning with his head under a car,” she continued. “He could do anything under a car. Whenever anything went wrong anywhere, someone would call him. I remember that one hot summer night, my parents were having dinner at a Chinese restaurant and all the power went out.
“Everyone else was freaking out, but my father just went downstairs and fixed it.”
Ms. Weber lives in West Orange now, but she grew up in Teaneck as the Jewish community first began to root itself there, and her family’s story is to some extent the story of those beginnings.
Her mother’s family’s local roots go back three generations; Freda Druskin, Ms. Weber’s mother, was born in Englewood. “My grandparents, Hyman and Esther Druskin, were among the founders of Ahavath Torah there,” Ms. Weber said.
And her parents’ nicknames were so very much of their time — happy postwar America — and their place — the growing green suburbs. Their official names were Freda and Bertram, “but everyone knew them always as Booboo and Buddy,” Ms. Weber said.
Buddy Unger was in the U.S. Navy during World War II, stationed in Hawaii. Even then, he was talented at making and fixing things. “He worked on airplane engines,” his daughter said.
Booboo and Buddy Unger moved to Bergenfield after their wedding — at Ahavath Torah — and then, in 1954, they moved to Teaneck, where they would stay for about a quarter of a century before downsizing to Hackensack and then decamping to Florida for another 30 years.
The Ungers had three children — Barry, Carol, and then Robin. The family joined the Jewish Center of Teaneck. “My brother had his bar mitzvah there — my sister and I didn’t have bat mitzvahs — and we all went to Sunday school there,” Ms. Weber said. “We all went to youth group there. It was a big part of our life.”
True to form, her father’s skills were in demand at the family’s new shul. “They’d call him all the time. He could repair anything, and he was more than happy to do it,” Ms. Weber said. And his work there was not confined to appliance repair or electrical intervention. “My father was always the one on the entertainment committees for the dinner dances, creating decorations and coming up with themes,” she added. “He was probably the first person in the world to have a theme party.
“The one I remember the most was a Hollywood theme party. It was a dinner dance, a fundraiser, and he got himself a gorilla costume. At some time during the event, he got behind the big drapes in front of the huge windows in the social hall, and he leaped out from behind the drapes as King Kong.”
Given his proprietorial interest in the Teaneck Jewish Center, as well as his talents, what happened next seems logical.
“Some time in the mid ’70s — probably before 1976 — around this time of year, holiday time, he was driving home from work and looking at all the Christmas lights. We all thought they were so pretty. And something came over him that one day, and he thought, ‘Why aren’t there any Chanukah lights?’
“I was away at college, and unbeknownst to me, he went down to the basement and built that menorah, and then he placed it on the roof.”
She’s not even sure if he made the menorah as one piece, made a few pieces and assembled them in the basement, or combined them on the roof. She’s not sure what it’s made of — “although I know it’s not copper because it hasn’t turned green.” She knows that her parents didn’t talk about it much — “my first cousin and my aunt, who were at the house all the time then, didn’t even really know about it,” she said. “A lot of my other relatives said they didn’t know much either. It was just something that my dad did, and didn’t make a big deal about.
“My parents were sort of private people. They had a lot of friends, but they didn’t brag.”
On December 14, 1983, a handwritten, xeroxed letter invited the congregation to dedicate a plaque to Buddy Unger; Ms. Weber still has a copy of the letter, and the plaque still hangs underneath the menorah, facing out to the shul’s parking lot, today.
Her mother, Booboo Unger, died in 1986, Ms. Weber reported, and Buddy Unger died this year, on July 4. The menorah he installed on the roof of the Jewish Center of Teaneck still stands.