Author’s Note: The new historical book profiled here is the subject of a Peekskill Museum program at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 14, at 124 Union Ave., Peekskill. Speakers include past Peekskill historian John Curran, Robin Goldsand, Charles Newman, and Ted Ruback. Admission is free. Books will be available for purchase at $20, or can be ordered by sending a check for $25 (including postal handling) to First Hebrew Congregation, 1821 Main St., Peekskill, N.Y. 10566.
Have you ever gone back to your hometown after a prolonged absence, only to find a dramatically different landscape? A public school campus where farmland used to be. Condos where mom-and-pop shops once thrived. Businesses leasing office space in the elementary school you attended. A paved road where a dirt trail used to course through the woods.
These days, reliving the past is as easy as visiting one of those “You know you’re from…” social media pages.
Lifetime Yorktowners talk about the movie theater they frequented as kids where a supermarket now sits. Katonah nostalgia buffs can watch priceless 16mm movies of the town, its shopkeepers, and its townspeople at KatonahVIS.org, courtesy of the Village Improvement Society. In Lewisboro, before you know it, there’ll come a time when today’s young parents will be reminiscing about “that DeCicco’s in Cross River where we used to shop.”
The businesses that comprise a community are intrinsic to its cultural character and to its sense of self. Their central role in both the day-to-day and long-term vitality of Anytown, U.S.A. clearly has not been lost on a core group of Peekskillians, who, in a new book, have paid lasting tribute to their families’ and their city’s storied past.
Bound by their heritage as descendants of pioneering business owners from the mid-20th Century, they have published what is both an homage and a meticuluously researched historical document: a paperback, edited by John Curran, titled “Peekskill’s Jewish Community in the 1900s.”
It is a collaboration of Peekskill Museum, First Hebrew Congregation, and community contributors whose family photos of businesses vividly stitch together an impressively thorough origin story of Peekskill’s downtown business district. The book is a lasting tribute to the late Dr. Bernard Yudowitz, a philanthropist whose request to beneficiary First Hebrew was to create a permanent record of the community’s history.
While copiously illustrated with pristine, archival photos of now-defunct Peekskill shops and businesses—such as Fleischmann’s Distillery at Charles Point (now the Factoria dining and entertainment center)—this project ventures considerably beyond the ususal realm of pictorial volumes.
Within its 100-plus pages are diagrams of downtown Peekskill’s primary shopping hubs, Main Street and North Division Street. Each storefront is identified by its address and the trade name, with Jewish-owned businesses (marked by an asterisk) accounting for 70 percent of the almost 80 retailers. There are myriad other sections in the book, providing valuable purviews of multi-generation businesses and professions, such as familiar family names synonymous with the practice of law (Hersh) and dentistry (Poritzky).
So, what’s the point of issuing a published work that shines a light on businesses owned and operated by a specific ethnic group in a specific era? The same point that is made in the book about the enriching contributions made by any group of immigrants—including Irish in the mid-19th Century and Italians at the turn of the 20th Century—who escaped oppression or impoverishment in their own lands to find freedom and opportunity on our shores.
The uniquely American opportunity that flourished into prosperity for immigrants from Europe benefited not only the business founders but future generations, namely the children and grandchildren who have lovingly poured their pride and pedigree onto these pages.
Those descendants include Robin Goldsand, who wrote the book’s introduction, and epitomizes Peekskill’s penchant for hosting multi-generation business owners. She runs the RG insurance agency that her father, Ronald, started in the 1950s. Robin’s grandfather, Izzy, also was in insurance, and her great grandfather, Sam, who came to the U.S. from Austria in 1899, operated a shoe store and a saloon, and helped found the original synagogue in Peekskill.
Another prominent family in the Peekskill business genealogy is represented by Charles “Chuck” Newman, one of the architects of the book. He and wife Carol live in Yorktown, but Chuck grew up in Peekskill, and remains one of its staunchest champions as a well-connected business owner (insurance) and a “favorite son” of the city.
His grandfather Charles Newman was a Russian émigré in the 1930s who formed the Paramount Glass, Shade and Awning Company. It was located inside the building owned by the theater of the same name, a name that was further echoed in a subsequent company started by Charles Newman, Paraco Gas.
If there were a lineage trophy, there’d be no contest who gets it: in the book, Ted Ruback notes that his wife Carolyn traces her family roots 11 generations, to the literal founding father (and businessman) from whom Peekskill gets its name—Jan Peeck.
Bruce “The Blog” Apar promotes local businesses, organizations, events and people through public relations agency APAR PR. He also is an actor, a community volunteer, and a contributor to several periodicals. Follow him as Bruce The Blog on social media. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 914-275-6887.