End of an Enduring Newark Jewish Establishment

by Nat Bodian


By late spring of 2008, the curtain will fall on a Newark Establishment that was founded more than a century ago at 152 Prince Street in the heart of Newark's old Third Ward -- a Hebrew book store.

The store was established in 1904 by Rabbi Moses Mendelson, and began operations as Mendelson Hebrew Book Store.

It was the single central source in Newark and Essex County for everything in the world of Judaica, from prayer books for a newly-formed synagogue to textbooks for Hebrew schools, prayer shawls, menorahs, and mezussahs.

The Hebrew book store catered to every imaginable Jewish need. It remained in its Prince Street premises until 1952.

Move to Weequahic Section

In 1952, following the upwardly-mobile Newark Jewish population to the Weequahic section, the Hebrew establishment relocated to 382 Chancellor Avenue, just off the corner of Leslie Street.

It was a greatly-enlarged double store with a basement storage area.

By that time, Rabbi Mendelson had withdrawn from the business, and its ownership was taken over by his wife's brother, Rabbi Louis Sky. Before the take-over, Rabbi Sky had been the rabbi of the Talmud Torah Synagogue on Osborn Terrace, Newark.

Rabbi Sky's Operation

Rabbi Sky operated the business at the 382 Chancellor Avenue location with his wife, Ida, and his son, David. His son had begun working in the store at the age of 12.

Rabbi Sky's wife, Ida -- everyone called her "Mrs. Sky" -- was a constant presence with her husband in the business establishment.

When she was not busy helping with the stock, or with customers, she would sit and crochet yarmulkas in attractive designs, which would become part of the store's offerings.

Rabbi Louis Sky put his heart and soul into the business and it became more of an institution than just a bookstore.

Religious Meeting Place

Because of the proprietor's respected rabbinical background, his establishment on Chancellor Avenue became the place where rabbis, cantors, religious school principals, and Jewish lay leaders could drop in at any time and just schmooze with the rabbi, or discuss their concerns with him, and later, after his passing, with his son David, who had also studied for the rabbinate.

Up until Rabbi Sky's passing in 1965, his son David worked at his side and had become a partner in the business.

With his father's passing in 1965, the son became the full owner, and, like his father before him, the L. Sky Hebrew Book Store occupied his full life.

Store Environment

A former Sky Book Store customer confided to me, "When you walked into the store on Chancellor Avenue, you felt like you were in a totally Jewish environment.

"Everything around you was Jewish and holy, and the atmosphere was warm and inviting. You could browse at your leisure, and gossip with the owner or his wife if you felt so inclined. There was never any sales pressure."

I recall the Sky Book Store as a place where Jews from near and far could wander in just to browse, never knowing in advance what they might discover-- possibly a gift, a housewarming present, a religious item, or just a religious-themed greeting card. 1

Meeting Special Needs

Synagogues used the Sky Hebrew Book Store for their special needs, such as repairs and replacement for a damaged Torah, engraving, or a ceremonial cup or Judaic silver piece, or a religious jewelry item,
or bar mitzvah specialties, such as imprinted yarmulkahs traditional at bar mitzvahs, and various religious holiday novelties such as Chanukah dreydels and Chanukah gelt.2

After the 1967 Riots

Although untouched by the 1967 Newark riots, most of the Weequahic Jewish population had already left the area by the time of the riots, and the few that remained behind were gone soon thereafter.

By 1970, the Sky Hebrew Book Store operation had left Newark and moved to a smaller location at 1923 Springfield Avenue in nearby Maplewood.

Passing of David Sky

David Sky died in 2005, and in the years following up to its ending, his widow Fiegie (Phyllis) was somewhat overwhelmed by the responsibility. Her late husband, David, had kept most of his inventory locations in his head. His widow had not been prepared for
what befell her after his passing.

Finally, after a valiant struggle to continue operations, she decided she must close the business down. She told me in a visit that she will continue- operations with an inventory reduction sale that will probably continue into the spring of 2008.



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