Remembering Jerry Nathans

Remembering Jerry Nathans

The founder of the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey died in April at 91

Jerry Nathans held frequent openings in his art gallery; here he’s at one in around 1978.
Jerry Nathans held frequent openings in his art gallery; here he’s at one in around 1978.

History is an abstract thing. It’s the study of issues and responses, of battles and armies and ideas and treaties, of tribes interacting with other tribes, with geography, with meteorology, with biology, with economy, with sociology, with disease, with death. It’s about forced change and the refusal to change. It’s about demographics and linguistics.

It’s a story told in so very many words, so many of them written down in indecipherable script, others never written, irretrievably lost to time.

But there’s also the history embodied in physical objects, in farm implements and photographs and lintels and mantels and cookware and crockery. Those objects tell homier, smaller-scale stories, and it’s only when you put them together with the abstractions, when you try to imagine the sensation of buttoning those buttons on that dress, that you can get some sense of what life — which is after all at history’s heart — might possibly have felt like.

Jerry Nathans, who died, just short of his 92nd birthday, on April 21, understood that.

Mr. Nathans was a man of many passionate interests. He was a historian, thwarted in his desire to become a professor of history by the need to go into his family business. That business began as a framing shop, but later also included an art gallery; although he was not an artist, his eye for the right setting for a piece of art came right up to the line that separates art from craft, and that eye allowed him to recognize the artists whose work he sold.

He had a passion for Jewish life and history, and for local life and history.

So Mr. Nathans — Jerome Nathans, to be formal, or Jerry, to be real — was not only the owner of Nathans Picture Framing and Art Supply, later Nathans Picture Framing and Art Gallery, which moved from Paterson to West Paterson, and remained open until Mr. Nathans retired in 2008, but also became the founding president of the Jewish Historical Society of North Jersey.

Jerry and Rita Nathans in 1984.

Mr. Nathans’ penchant for looking at things — photos, books, objects — and seeing the stories they hide and tell, and the history of his own life, made that an entirely natural move for him.

Mr. Nathans was born in Paterson in 1927. It was a center of Jewish life then; he was born at Barnert Hospital, named after the philanthropist Nathan Barnert, as was Barnert Temple. (The synagogue later moved to Franklin Lakes.) Paterson was a textile center, and many of those textile workers included Jews.

The Jewish community of Paterson eventually left the city; like so many others, Mr. Nathan’s family moved to Fair Lawn, where he lived when he was drafted into the army at the war’s end, after just a year of college. In 1954, Mr. Nathans moved to Wayne, where he lived for the rest of his life.

The strands of his life continued to plait together there.

Rita Kitzis Nathans, his wife, was a sculptor; they had four children, David, Robert, William, and Sari.

For the last two years, Sari — whose full name now is Sari Nathans McIntyre — has lived with her father; she moved up from Georgia to do that, and she’s still here. Her father left many objects, many of great historical interest, behind. “I was the youngest, and I can remember going to Lambert Castle and the Dey Mansion and the Van Riper Hooper House with him,” she said; those are all places of local historical interest. “We’d go to those places where he did his volunteer work, organizing, and later on I was responsible for helping him cart all the boxes from one place to another, because the historical society didn’t have a permanent home yet,” she said.

“Everybody always knew him.

The family in 1968. Clockwise from left, it’s Rob, Rita, Jerry, David, Sari, and Bill.

“He would always be doing things like going to the cemetery to trace headstones; if people said they couldn’t find relatives, he’d go to the cemetery to try to find them.”

The Nathans family was defined not only by art and deep love, but also by tragedy.

“My brother David was a screenwriter and an off-Broadway director,” Ms. McIntyre said. “He would have gone places. But he was only 27 when he died. He was one of the first to be claimed by AIDS.” That was in 1988.

Her brother Robert died only three years ago; he and David were diagnosed with AIDS at the same time, but Robert lived with it for 30 years, Ms. McIntyre said. Robert was an artist. “He was fantastic. He was very famous in the Fort Lauderdale Broward County area; he also was a teacher, and instrumental in the art world there.”

Until David died, and then Jerry’s mother, Bertha Siegel Nathans, died just the next year — his father, Theodore Nathans, had died a long time before — her father’s interest in history was generally local, Ms. McIntyre said. “But then he became more religious, and that’s when he began his work with the Jewish Historical Society.”

He also was a founding member and the second president of Temple Bnai Tikvah in Wayne.

Rita Nathans, Mr. Nathans’ wife, died in 1999; after that, Mr. Nathans joined Temple Emanuel of North Jersey in Franklin Lakes, a synagogue that, like Mr. Nathans, had begun its life in Paterson. That became his permanent Jewish home, and his beloved Historical Society also found a permanent home in Fair Lawn.

Robert Nathans was a well-known artist; these are two of his many works.

His survivors include his son Bill, a Brooklyn-based architect; Bill and his wife, Claudia Opel, have two children, David and Joanna, as well as his daughter Sari, whose husband, Norman McIntyre, has died. All his children were artists, his daughter points out; she had started her career “as a computer geek, but now I am teaching sugar arts — I teach how to make things out of sugar.”

So performing arts, baking arts, visual arts, building arts, places where fine art meets applied art, all are the pursuits in which this family finds meaning and joy. They got it from Jerry. “My father was not an artist, but his eye for color and simplicity and design was very good,” Ms. McIntyre said. “He had such a good eye. He could picture things and imagine things.” Just as he could imagine the community.

Rabbi Joseph Prouser, who leads Emanuel of North Jersey, found Jerry Nathans to be a wonderful man. He gave the eulogy at Mr. Nathans’ funeral.

“Jerry was, as long as health permitted, a faithful, weekly worshipper at Temple Emanuel of North Jersey, where he was much loved and revered,” he said, before the funeral. “However, he steadfastly refused to accept an aliyah or any liturgical honor. He embodied the statement of the Rabbis (Taanit 29B): “The place does not bestow honor on the man; the man does honor to the place.”

And then he added the final, perfect note to his eulogy.

“It is somehow fitting that Jerry departed this life on Passover, the festival on which Jews devote ourselves to recalling, telling, and transmitting our history,” Rabbi Prouser said.

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