Paterson’s past still present
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Paterson’s past still present

History hidden in plain sight in a hospital basement

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Jerry Nathans is the historical society’s president and its animating force Jerry Szubin

It’s not so easy finding the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey.

You find the address, 680 Broadway in Paterson. It comes with a
suite number. You don’t really need the GPS, but you’re so hopelessly
addicted to its always forgiving
calm route recalculating that you
use it nonetheless.

You end up at Barnert Hospital.

You try again. You check the address against your email – you had an appointment, after all. Every single time, you end up at Barnert Hospital.

You go to a side entrance, finally, take the elevator to the basement, and open a door. You are faced with what looks like a museum of filing cabinets and industrial shelving – battered metal racks holding untidy piles, drawers that can’t quite close.

Then you look at the things that are on the shelves and in the drawers, and you realize that you have stumbled into a trove, a jumbled history of a very real and vibrant place, and that the faces staring or smiling out at you or gazing past you at something you can’t see look like the faces you grew up with.

Along with the pictures and the books are objects – banners and hats and pins and posters and seltzer bottles, chanukiot and candlesticks, newspapers, occasional bright swatches of red, and glints of gold that catch your eye.

There are so many stories in those small packed rooms, the history of a community that centered in Paterson until that once thriving city, a center of the silk trade, began to fade. Most of the city’s Jews have moved out, as have its Jewish institutions, but the museum hangs on.

The society got its start in 1978, through an oral history project at the library at the Wayne YM-YWHA, according to Jerry Nathans, who will be its president for another month or two. The community itself dates to about 1840; about 40 years later, B’nai Jeshurun, the synagogue that later became Barnert Temple, was formed.

Nathan Barnert, who began in real estate and amassed a fortune, dispensed it generously. He started the Daughters of Miriam, Barnert Temple (its formal name, then, was the Miriam and Nathan Barnert Temple), and the hospital that now houses the historical society. He also was active in civic life and was elected mayor of Paterson.

The town thrived on textiles. The Jewish community was made of German immigrants until the 1880s, when they were joined by an influx of eastern Europeans. Many of them were weavers; many came from the eastern Polish cities of Lodj and Bialystock.

“They settled first on the west side of the Passaic River, in downtown Paterson,” Nathans said. “Years later, they moved to the east side of the city, as they became acclimated and richer. And then, in the 1940s, they started moving into Fair Lawn, which was a farming community. Next, in the early ’50s and ’60s, people started moving to Wayne.

“Now they’re moving to Florida.”

The shuls also moved. Barnert Temple is now in Franklin Lakes. So is Temple Emanuel, once of Paterson, now, at least nominally, of North Jersey. Emanuel’s huge and imposing stone building was at the heart of the community.

Nathans’ life is paradigmatic. He was born in Paterson – in fact, at Barnert Hospital – moved to Fair Lawn in 1941, and then to Wayne in 1954, where he and his family have lived ever since. He was the second president of the Wayne Jewish Community Center, which eventually became Temple Beth Tikvah. He is retired – he was a picture framer and owned an art gallery – and has devoted himself to local history.

The items in the archive arrived there in all sorts of ways. Most were donated by people who were downsizing their homes, or by children who discovered treasures among their parents’ effects. Some of it came from organizations as they prepared to relocate or disband. Some things have been lost irrevocably – “There was a Jewish photographer who went out of business and put all his negatives out on the curb,” Nathans said. “We heard about it, but we were too late.

“It hurt so much.

“People have been sending us stuff from all over the country,” he said. “We received a box from Marietta, Georgia, full of photographs. We’ve gotten memorabilia from New York, and inquiries from all over the world – from Switzerland, from Spain. A lot of it is people looking for information about gravesites. I’ve been in and out of cemeteries, photographing gravestones.”

The society sends out an email every Friday with some of the most intriguing photos the volunteers have stumbled across. Sometimes, the people in the pictures are identified, and that information goes in the email; often they are not, and a plea for names to put to the faces goes along with the email. (To learn more, email Jerry Nathans at jhsnnj@gmail.com.)

The collection over which he and a team of dedicated volunteers preside is not as well organized as he would like it to be, but within the last year the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey has given the society funds to hire a part-time archivist. Still, it is in shaky financial shape, and could use an influx of funding to be able to organize and catalogue its holdings thoroughly, and eventually to move out of the hospital. The space in the hospital saved the society in 2009, when it was virtually homeless, but it is not ideal for an archive that would welcome visitors should any of them find it.

It also needs new leadership; this is Nathans’ baby and his life’s work, but he is in his mid-80s and ready to hand it off. He is planning to step down from the presidency, although not from the work. It is living history.

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