Friday, September 4, 2015

More with Michael Kuzma, a Memoir of A Bygone Era and A Happy & Healthy New Year

Happy Labor Day and Happy New Year to all!

Things are fairly slow here and I am doing everything I can to avoid cleaning up my office this morning, so my attention turned back to an interview I did at the end of July with Trenton native and former Trenton resident Michael Kuzma.  As I mentioned previously, Mickey is not Jewish, but you would never know that from talking with him.   Over the course of two days, I listened to Mickey regale me with stories about what Old Trenton was like.  His stories ranged from touching to funny, from heartfelt to slightly embellished.  His love of the city in which he grew up was never in doubt and his honesty about what Trenton was and what it means to be from Trenton was apparent.   A few weeks ago I posted a short story he told about another former Trentonian, Gussie Siet, who left here and become world famous opera singer Gloria Lane.  Today, I pick a short excerpt of our conversation about the old neighborhood and about the company that employed his father, Sokalner Brothers and how the Sokalner family took care of his father and family after a devastating loss.

(double-click video for full screen)

Also, this morning I received an e-mail from Bernice Schwartz (nee Nitzberg), who had written a memoir of her days in Trenton for a writing assignment a few years ago.   I share it with you today, hoping that with the long weekend ahead, you have some extra reading time.  I publish this without editing.  Political comments at the bottom do not necessarily reflect the opinions of this blog.


Bernice Schwartz(nee Nitzberg)

I was relieved that I did not live in Jew Town. As a child, my home was on the top of the Market Street hill, just above Jew Town in Trenton, New Jersey during the 1930’s and ‘40’s. We lived above and behind my parents’ wallpaper store. The boundary between Jew Town and the rest of the city was the four corners where Broad St. crossed Market St. A large bank, the county courthouse, a red brick church, and Stover’s anti-Semitic drug store occupied the corners. As Market St. descended, the character of the hill changed, from a quiet lower middle class community to a bustling noisy market place.

I was often sent there by my mother on errands. Every Friday I bought horseradish for Shabbos. It was ground in front of me on an old wooden, not too clean, grater at Shulman’s store. 


I picked up the halvah at Palats deli and also lox (from the belly per my mother’s instructions). Siegel’s deli served me wonderful milk shakes which my parents hoped would fatten me up. 

Kunis’ was a thriving vegetable market, run by recently arrived Ashkenazi Jews who, (in my eyes) were dirty and unattractive. The store would have been a joy to today’s subscribers of the organic food movement.
Kunis' and Ben's Del (right)  

 All offerings were unwashed and unsprayed. Consequently, I did not like eating such items as apples or peaches because I never knew what I would find inside. Jake’s deli served delicious hot pastrami sandwiches which I became allergic to in my thirties. (a Jewish woman!) The fish market had live fish swimming in large tanks which were killed and cleaned in front of me when I bought them. Cohen’s (sic) bakery sold the traditional breads: rye, corn, pumpernickel – never (G-D forbid) white. Kosher meat markets abounded. There was even a Kosher restaurant, Benny Hocks. My father felt that one of the perks of being married was not having to eat there. Jew Town was full of people buying and selling. The streets were unkempt. I can still see the paper and offal lying in the gutter. Most of us knew each other. I was called the Nitzberg girl.
As I grew older, I made friends with other white Jewish girls living in Jew Town or its perimeters. I was hardly aware of the African American community at the bottom of the hill. One street, Parker Street was mostly unpaved with shacks on each side. However, in high school I befriended Juanita Turner, a brilliant, sweet black girl. One evening I visited her home in the area. It was heated by a large coal stove and lit by kerosene lamps and candles. The family was diligently doing homework. Juanita later received a full scholarship to Howard University and later became a professor at Columbia.

The Jewish community’s second generation also produced talented people. Siegel’s deli’s son, Alex, was a famous theater director. Ernie Kovacs was our neighbor. The Fuch boys became psychiatrists. A friend, denied a secretarial job at Roeblings Steel Company because she would not work on Jewish holidays, opened an insurance company and became wealthy. Skippy Rauch, who became a respected mathematician, was on the faculty of Yeshiva University and a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton. Other professionals, too many to name.

Recently I rode through Market Street.  Jew Town had disappeared. In its wake were steel and glass government buildings. The streets were empty. My father’s store at the top of the hill was a bodega. The tidy home of the school teacher next door to us was abandoned and boarded up. I remember Miss Clayton  sitting on a chair at the top of her stone steps waving and gossiping with those who stopped. My mother would sit outside, in front of our store, and gossip too. Now the neighborhood was in ruins.

I mourn the vibrancy of the streets of my youth. I deeply hope these new immigrants can recapture the spirit of the old town. I wish that they can obtain the skills needed to succeed, as we Jews did. But currently I am saddened by the paralysis that Republicans have visited on the government’s ability to help poor people. Perhaps the USA will wake up.

Finally, for those of you who have asked, if you are trying to find the burial location of a loved one at one of the old Trenton cemeteries--the ones no longer with affiliated institutions--you might have luck by sending an e-mail with specific information to:  No phone calls, please.  They do have maps of some the old cemeteries.   If a loved one is buried in a cemetery where the institution is still in existence, start there.  Synagogues should still have those records.  Again, please respect the no phone calls request.
Our best wishes for a Happy and Healthy New Year.


Monday, August 17, 2015

"I didn't realize I was Catholic until my first communion"

A conversation with Michael Kuzma

You were probably wondering if I was ever coming back, right?

Well, thank goodness, I've been extremely busy at work and in life, and I haven't had much time to write.  That said, the Trenton Jewish Project has never been too far from my mind.

In every day encounters, I run into people from Trenton and they are all passionate about their hometown and the old neighborhood.   Probably the most bizarre moment came when we were having pizza with the family of a friend of my college-aged son in Morrisville.  My son's friend's father mentioned that he had family form Trenton and that he didn't know much about them.   In about a minute, I was able to produce the picture below that showed a relative of his, standing in front of Stern's Meat Market that I had been given along the way.

While I haven't been writing, I have been doing an occasional interview or two.   When the Trenton Jewish Project first started, I got a couple of phone calls (which I don't encourage--please e-mail me instead) and one of them was from a guy who said he grew up in Trenton, but didn't realize he "was Catholic until he took his first Communion.  So, why would the Trenton Jewish Project talk to a "goy"?  Turns out he was a Shabbos goy and most of his friends were Jewish.  His Dad worked for the Sokalner family (who treated his family like their own family).   We spoke for what seemed to be hours (much to my wife's chagrin).   He had moved to Newport News, Virginia, but came back up north every once in a while.   Well, Mike (Mickey) Kuzma came back to town a couple of weeks ago and longtime reader, Herb Spiegel posted a picture of he and Mickey at lunch.  I contacted Herb, who put me in touch with Mickey and over the course of two days, he sat down for a couple of hours and told me some wonderful stories about Trenton and growing up in South Trenton.   

There is so much material in that interview that I wasn't sure where to start, but here's a little setup to this story.

We were talking about how the boys used to play ball in a lot not far from his house.  It also happened to be near the house of a budding opera star.  (The clip runs almost 6 minutes, so sit back and enjoy.)

Mickey Kuzma's brother, Robert, was killed in an automobile accident a few weeks after returning from WWII at an intersection off of Rte. 31 North of Pennington.   Our interview took place less than 5 miles from that spot.


A couple of notes.   Wendy Nardi, curator extraordinaire of the Trentoniana room at the Trenton Free Library has retired.   Wendy was a great friend and resource, who really knew as much as anyone about the archives of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Trenton that Ozzie Zuckerman gave to the library.   Congratulations on your retirement Wendy.   Your gain is our loss.     Robert Most Clark had been working as an interim curator, but apparently he was not offered the full-time job.   According to the library website, a new curator has been hired and while Trentoniana has been closed this summer, it is supposed to reopen next month.   Keeping our fingers crossed.

Beverly Rubman is working on a project about the Jewish Free Loan society.   Anyone with stories about that institution can send them on to me and I will get them to Beverly.

Art Finkle has been working diligently on his book about the Jews of Trenton.  We look forward to seeing the fruits of his labor soon.

I will continue to update this site when I can.   I am trying to come up with a way to make this venture sustainable and find a way to continue to collect interviews with those of you who have stories to tell.   Send your suggestions to  Please don't call, but include your phone number in your email.  Also, don't send me any materials by snail mail  I really have no place to store things.   If there is something that you want to donate to the archives section at Trentoniana, once it re-opens, I'll let you know about procedures for doing that.