What Philip Roth did for Newark in words – capturing the essence of a community and putting it on a page, where it will stay alive forever – David Wilson says he would like to do for Paterson in photographs.
Not, he hastened to say, that he is comparing himself to Roth. It is the power of the pictures in his new book, “Jews of Paterson.” The book showcases photos from the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, on whose board Wilson sits.
Wilson, like the society’s president, Jerry Nathans, is from Paterson, although he is a generation younger. The city’s close-knit community formed him.
He offers a brief run-through of Paterson’s history. Most of its earliest Jewish residents were Germans; after the Russian pogroms of 1905, when eastern European Jews fled wholesale, many experienced textile workers found their way to Paterson.
In 1913, the silk strike, which lasted for more than half a year, and brought in such International Workers of the World luminaries as Big Bill Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, bonded the community even further. (It also connected Jews to Italians – Jews and Italians worked together in the mills, lived side by side in the city, and walked the picket lines as one community.)
“They had all these common bonds, and over time one relationship got built on top of another on top of another on top of another,” Wilson said
The town also had extraordinary Jewish philanthropists, not only Nathan Barnert but Jacob Fabian as well. “Barnert was behind the development of every Jewish communal institution,” Wilson said. “He donated land, he donated money. Basically he gave his fortune back.”
Fabian, Wilson said, was “an early partner of the Warner Brothers.” Before an anti-trust law that forbade the practice, studios owned theaters; they were the storied movie palaces where people would escape depression and the Depression and the un-air-conditioned summer heat. “Fabian built theaters in northern New Jersey; the Fabian and the Rivoli and a few others in Paterson,” Wilson said. The Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Jersey City is the only one still standing.
It was Fabian who commissioned Fred Wesley Wentworth, the architect most responsible for the city’s look, to build Temple Emanuel, instructing him to have it resemble a movie theater. “I went to Hebrew school there, and when I walked in it was like walking into Radio City,” Wilson said. “That was a huge congregation. It started out as Austro-Hungarian, then it got Litvaks, and then Galitzianers. Everybody got together. Everybody.”
He was able to put together this book because the photographs still exist, and that, he said, is a direct result of Jerry Nathans’ talent as a collector, and his 30 years of work on the project.
“When we look at these pictures, and remember the many stranded-bonds that connect us, we have Jerry Nathans to thank,” Wilson said.