Revisiting the Old High Street "Y": Newark's Jewish Social and Cultural Oasis

by Nat Bodian

The YM-YWHA of Newark, known by one and all as "the Y," at 652 High Street on the corner of West Kinney Street, on the borderline of Newark's old heavily-Jewish Third Ward, was opened in May 1924 and served as a social, intellectual, cultural, and recreational center for Metropolitan Newark Jewish life until 1954 when the building was sold to a black Masonic society.

I lived on Montgomery Street, just one block off High Street and one block over from the Y at 652 High Street, but I did not approach the building until I was about nine years old around 1930.

The Y subsequently played an important part in my life until my early teens and later had an influence on my working life and on my professional career.

My introduction to the Y came one summer day about 1930 when, as a sandy-haired chubby kid in knickers, I wandered into the Y lobby. I was curious to see what was inside the impressive three-story Georgian brick building and what it had that might be of interest to me.

The palatial marble-floored lobby had a polished darkwood reception counter on the right side of the lobby, and to the left of the lobby a pair of double glass-paneled doors on top of which was a sign "Library."

I wandered into the brightly-lighted library and was fascinated by the wide array of books and periodicals on hand, in a room with lots of chairs and reading tables.

As there was no public library branch in this part of Newark, the Y library would become a frequent visiting spot for me. As my presence became familiar to the librarian, Rae Harris, she would bring me books and other literature she thought might appeal to my reading interest.

I became hooked on books here.

One hot summer day around 1930, as I was seated in the library, a man approached me--apparently a Y official--and asked me why I was not downstairs in the Y swimming pool.

I told him I couldn't use the pool because I WAS NOT A MEMBER. I told him I could not afford the $4.00 junior membership dues. He whisked me over to the lobby reception desk and in minutes had me signed up for a complimentary junior membership.

I did swim in the Y pool many times over the coming years, and I did manage, one way or another, to renew with paid memberships in the High Street Y through World War 2.

But back to that first membership at the High Street Y. At home, where there were four children to feed, there was never money for toys. But at the Y there was a Game Room full of toys and games and you could play with them to your heart's content, with other same-age playmates who also came to the game room, most of them from impoverished families in the adjacent Third Ward.

Just next to the Game Room was the Y Hobby Shop, a fully-equipped woodworking shop, which was open to youngsters during the school year weekdays after school and into the early evening, except on Fridays. It was run by Leonard Skolnick, who was also employed by the Newark Board of Education during school hours as a shop teacher at Walnut Street School.

I was drawn to the Y Hobby Shop and made all sorts of wooden items there. One I particularly remember was a bellhop ashtray stand. As a reward for my steady attendance, Mr. Skolnick made me the shop monitor, which meant that I was allowed to sweep the shop floor after the shop closed for the day, and to put all the woodworking tools back in their appointed racks.

Later on, I briefly joined the Y Boy Scout Troop, Troop 52, which met in the Y Scout Room, adjacent to the downstairs soda fountain/luncheon counter.

On the opposite side of the refreshment counter was the entrance to the Y Bowling Alleys. At the age of 14, when I had learned to use a wood lathe, I picked up split bowling pins at the Y Bowling Alleys and turned them into usable objects on the Y Hobby Shop wood lathe. As best as I can recall, I was the only one permitted to use it.

I still have a wooden darning ball that I turned out from a split bowling pin. It had been my mother's until her death and was inherited subsequently by my wife.

Over my growing-up years as a High Street Y member, I also attended numerous concerts and lectures in the Y auditorium (Fuld Hall). Although there were numerous speakers of national renown, the only two I can recall were Eleanor Roosevelt and Norman Thomas.

The big event for the year for Y junior members was the annual Purim Carnival in Fuld Hall. For weeks before each Purim Carnival, I recall helping in the Y Hobby Shop while they constructed booths for the Carnival games of chance. You bought a strip of tickets at the carnival for one penny each, and each ticket was good for one game or event.

In those years from about the age of nine to fifteen, the Y was like a second home to me. Nights when the Hobby Shop had closed, I'd often sit in the darkened auditorium (Fuld Hall) and watch the various dramatic and variety show rehearsals, directed by George Kahn, the Y Cultural Activities Director.

One of his protégés in those years was a young local named Dore Schary, who later went on to direct and produce many Hollywood films.

Watching the rehearsals, I picked up a lot of show lines and would anticipate them when attending the free dress rehearsals. One of the lines in a variety show that come to memory was "Did you know that George Kahn went to school with Jerome Kern?"

As a social center, the Y held many social events that brought young Newark men and women together and ultimately resulted in marriages. A weekly highlight, during the winter basketball season was the Sunday night basketball game and dance with the Hebrew Club basketball team as the host team, playing other top fives from around the metropolitan area.

By the late 1930s into the start of World War 2, I was writing sports for the Star-Ledger, and one of my regular Sunday night assignments after working at the Ledger was to leave for the Hebrew Club basketball game in the "Y" gym1 and phone in the final results.

During World War 2, the Y maintained contact with close to 2,000 former members then in uniform, myself included, through a newsletter titled "Friendly Letters" or "Efels".

They were edited by Fritzi Satz, the Y Physical Education Director (and the nation's only female in that capacity), and helped keep former Y members in touch with what other former Y members were doing in the war, and also what was happening back at the Y on High Street. I was a frequent contributor to the Efels.

After World War 2 had ended, most of the High Street Y's constituency had departed to distant neighborhoods and to the suburbs. The High Street Y was now in a neighborhood whose residents were almost entirely African-American.

The Y struggled to continue its social and cultural activities from its High Street base with an ever diminishing attendance. It did, however, manage to fill Fuld Hall for the High Holy Days religious services. However the building finally closed in 1954 with the sale of the building.

As I now recall that building in my 80th year, I can reflect with great warmth on the role it played in my early life.

My greatest debt of gratitude to the old High Street Y is for introducing me to books and helping to instill in me, through its Library, a love of learning and of knowledge.

That introduction to books paid off years later when I enjoyed a fulfilling 30-year career in the book publishing industry and wrote a number of guides , handbooks, and dictionaries, which became major reference tools in the book publishing industry.


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