All interviews were taped and documented.  They are available through the Reference Department of the Teaneck Public Library.  The Library is not responsible for the accuracy of the statements nor does it necessarily endorse the opinions expressed.

NARRATOR: Paul Lerman
INTERVIEWER: June Kapell
DATE OF INTERVIEW:    June 11, 1985
TRANSCRIBER: Jackie Kinney (10/1985)

 

This is an interview with Paul Lerman on June 11, 1985 for the Teaneck Oral History Project.

(I) Paul, the first thing we always ask people is why did you choose Teaneck?

(N) Well actually we didn't so much choose Teaneck as a town, we sort of stumbled into it because we had one child and we were expecting a second and we were looking for a larger place and happened to answer an ad about a house for rent on Oakdene Avenue, 232, and we answered the ad, looked at the house, saw that it was sizable enough certainly for our needs and just at the of our income limit and we decided that night to move to Teaneck without knowing very much about the town or town politics. It was only after we moved here that we found out that it was different from all the other towns and just in a few years, before the kids were even ready for school, got involved in the school board struggle because we knew that our kids would be benefiting from any efforts made in that direction.

(I) Where did you come from?

{N) Well we came from Englewood but then before that, in Fort Lee. We had gotten married in Chicago in '56 and then lived in Fort Lee a couple of years and then lived in Englewood and we had our first, we moved in Fort Lee in '58/59 when 1 came to work on my doctorate in Columbia and then moved progressively from Englewood to Teaneck and Teaneck we moved to in the winter of '62.

(I) And once you got to Teaneck, then you

(N) When we got to Teaneck, then on that street, the Oakdene Avenue is what we call District I and after I got involved in Teaneck, I would see all the areas of Teaneck in terms of districts and in terms of their voting pattern and District I was considered one of the more conservative areas of Teaneck because it had a higher concentration of blue collar and lower middle class kinds of voters and on the street, as a matter of fact, we had represented persons from those kind of backgrounds who were very lovely neighbors but when you get into a discussion with them, they would think quite differently from ourselves and other areas of Teaneck. I remember one time we lived there several years, one neighbor decided they would like a togetherness so they organized an Oakdene Day and we went to the picnic at Oakdene Day and then in the middle of the picnic, it was an all day affair, somebody decided it had to be all day, I remember in the middle of the picnic, somebody who had been there a number of years was talking about the old days in Teaneck and they said, well Teaneck was fine until they built the bridge and then they came over the bridge and the they he was referring to in the context were the Jews and the other non-WASP ethnics and it was kind of illuminating because that meant that at one period of time, Jews and other ethnics were not as welcome whereas later, it was over the black issue. That was the first and last Oakdene Day and I must say I didn't miss it after that remark. It sort of soured the day. Because I am of Jewish background and it sort of soured it.

(I) Well you've moved several times in Teaneck, from Oakdene you went to

(N) Well we lived in the 232 Oakdene for five years we rented and then when we decided that I had finished graduate school, had my doctorate, and could earn a living, that we wanted to buy a house and then after that time, there was no question of what town to live in. We wanted it for the school system, we wanted it for the ambiance of life, for the kind of people, the kind of progressive forward-looking kind of town that it was so that even though in choosing Teaneck at that time I started out working at Columbia after my doctorate but by the time we moved to Maitland Avenue, and lived there, I was getting ready to perhaps move from Columbia. As a matter of fact, in '69 I moved to Rutgers for my job but I stayed in Teaneck since we thought it was worth for the family to have a different kind of life and it was OK for me to travel an hour to my work door to door so it was in our second move that we chose Teaneck. The first move, we sort of blundered into it.

(I) And your third move you stayed here too.

(N) The third move we did because we wanted a larger house. Carla went back to work, the kids were adolescents, and then too the obvious place was to look in Teaneck and then we looked for a larger place and we happened to find one just a few blocks away. So the second and third move, we deliberately chose Teaneck and it was for a whole style in community life.

(I) What were your first, beyond Oakdene Day, what were your first civic activities in Teaneck?

(N) Well the first civic activity is probably when, getting involved I think in the 65 or 66 board, the key election on integration of the schools. Was it 65 or 66? 

(I) Integration was in 65.

(N) 65, so that board fight was the first one and we got contacted somehow. They found us in District I which was not a very strong district for the pro school forces as they were called and so Carla who was home with the children full time at that time, only doing some part time work, and we had moved in 62 so I guess it was within three years we were involved. But we had gotten involved I think outside of local politics, I think 64 was the Goldwater/Johnson election. Kennedy 60 and Johnson/Goldwater 64 and there was Citizens for Johnson which was sort of a non-partisan group which cut across Republicans, Democrats, Independents working for Johnson and so we got involved in that and met then politically people who were at least afraid of what Goldwater represented in terms of the threat of using atomic bomb as well as some of his talk about Social Security so that we then were able to come in contact with different facets of Teaneck at least in terms of the political spectrum and so that actually preceded the board election.

(I) So you worked on the Good Guys.

(N) Yeah, we were sort of involved in Good Guys.

(I) The Good Guys were Coffee, Greenstone and Sather in that famous election.

(N) We both did telephone calls and house to house distributing leaflets and as I say, it was strictly on the basis of the broader issues even though our kids weren't directly involved at that time but we sort of felt we were working for the future.

(I) Well once they did start school, you were involved in the P.T.A.

(N) Oh yes, from the first day the kids went, well it was our first child so you get involved and it was all very new and very exciting and it was a new experience. We looked forward to it and we were active participants. When there would be twelve or fifteen at P.T.A. meetings, well we were one of the twelve or fifteen that would be there.

(I) From the P.T.A. at Longfellow, you then soon after moved to the other end of town so your children would have been in the Whittier School.

(N) We must have moved from 232 Oakdene to 375 Maitland Avenue which interestingly enough was the house owned by Coffee of Coffee, Greenstone, Sather. We didn't know Coffee but a mutual friend of ours had a daughter who was friends of the Coffees and so she knew when they were talking of leaving and he was going up to Eisenhower College or something like that and so before he even had an idea of putting it on the market, he received a phone call from us and whatever they wanted for the house, we were willing to meet that price because what they didn't know was that we had been looking at houses for six months in all sections of Teaneck so we were not particularly looking in Whittier, we were looking in it could have been Longfellow, it could have been Lowell, it could have been Field, it could have been Whittier, we were looking all over town for the kind of house, it was our first purchased house.

(I) So you found the Coffee house and how many children do you have?

(N) We only, have two. But they each started in the Teaneck school system. Nina started kindergarten at Longfellow, first grade Longfellow and then in 66 or so we moved to Whittier and then she was in the, in Whittier and then I guess the, I think she missed the central kindergarten but then the junior high high school and both of our kids essentially have gone through the Teaneck school system from kindergarten all the way through high school.

(I) Do you find that the Teaneck schools served them well?

(N) Yes, we felt that the, at the elementary school grades, it depended enormously on who the particular teacher was. Particularly until they began to specialize and we found out, and Carla was most active in this, that if you were an activist and found out about the teachers that were strongest and pushed to have your kids with those teachers, that the parents who were the most vocal and advocates on their kids behalf were the ones who were able to get the most out of the school system. I don't think that was unique to Teaneck from what my reading on literature and other experiences with parents in other parts of the metropolitan area, that seems to be sort of a fact of life. But as they moved out into the where they departmentalized and specialized, and as teachers knew their subject matters more, then the Teaneck school system I think came into its fore.

In the junior high particularly there was some really outstanding teachers as teachers. I sat in when they had the Education Day. I personally sat in on some classes and Carla did and I was fortunate because of my academic job that I could rearrange my schedule on days I didn't teach that I could in fact go during the day whereas many fathers might not be able to do that. And so I sat in and I remember one French school teacher in the junior high who I thought was one of the outstanding, as a teacher because I had done some teaching by then and I really appreciated it, as a teacher, I thought she was just an outstanding kind of person. And at the ,high school, again, when the choices proliferated and the specialization went on, particularly with the honors programs which our kids were able to partake of in English, Science, History just to name some of the subjects, I felt what they got was top notch and their scores and advanced standing and what they found out in college, there was just no question about it that the Teaneck school system has cumulative impact and I think the junior high and the high school certainly prepare them for college for doing term papers and study and just being a student. So yes, we were very, we always felt very rewarded by the overall impact of the school system regardless of the particular complaints about teachers from time to time.

(I) Besides your P.T.A. activities, what did you do in the town itself? You were active in political ways also.

(N) Well I, well Carla and I both were involved. We were involved in virtually every school board election I think from '65 until we went to England on my sabbatical year in '74. Then we came back in '75 and I think Carla ran for the school board, it was either '75 or '76 and I guess until maybe towards the end of the 70s when our interests began to diminish as the kids got older and were in the high school and Carla then went back to work full time and so then our involvement became less but I'd say for a period from like' 65 to '80 except for the hiatus in '74, one or both of us were quite active in school board elections at the minimum and then we also got involved in town elections during that period of time. .

(I) Would you care to tell us how particularly you were involved with the town elections?

(N) Well I first got involved, let's see, Mel Hausner decided to run for the board of elections, no the board of education and that must have been, we were living on Oakdene Avenue so that would be and I was at Rutgers already so it must have been maybe 1970 or thereabouts. I'd have to check out the record and maybe somebody could find out. But it was also a council year election, the councils are in even years, 70, 74, 78, 82, the next one will be 86? So I think it must have been 70 because the Hausner campaign which I was the campaign director and at that time I'd been involved in helping in campaigns in local and congressional and presidential but I never organized and ran a campaign on a local level but I got involved in the Hausner campaign and Mel then asked me to be the campaign chairperson, or what you called chairman in those days.

(I) How did you go about setting up this campaign?

(N) Well we had a , he had an unusual ray of support. This is in the 70s and you got to remember the 60s was a very strong peace movement. I think it is hard to divorce sometimes the local politics and some of the political struggles that were going on that had national contacts. Just like I mentioned Goldwater campaign which put me in contact with other persons in Teaneck. But the peace movement which was very active in Teaneck, Teaneck was one of the few towns that had a Peace Center and so through that we would meet many people and many of the people in Hausner's campaign were in fact active in the Peace campaign and it just so happens that they were younger, I mean younger in terms of their own parental sociology let's say, stages of their ,life cycle or family cycle. So they had kids that were younger, about our age, and they also happened to get involved actively in the Peace movement and so when he decided to run for the board and run a campaign, in retrospect if you look at the particular specific educational issues and the stances, the differences between Hausner and Dorothy Belle Pollack and there was a minister, I forget his name, who died a very few years after that election, I forget his name, at any rate

(I) McKenna.

(N) And McKenna and Pollack  were incumbents and Hausner ran in retrospect it probably wasn't that much different but it seemed that in the generation and the style and the approach and the language that there was a greater difference than actually existed or so we thought at that time. This is all in retrospect. At any rate, the core that supported Hausner were so large that we had a campaign since I was new and I was given sort of Carte Blanche even though there were some more experienced people like Rick Lapidus and a few others because Rick had run for district assembly and had been active in democratic politics but I thought it should be a more democratic open participatory type of organization particularly since I soon found out that everybody had the best idea of how to run the campaign.

And since I was a relative novice in that particular campaign although I had been active politically not only in this town but I had been active as a student at the University of Chicago going back to the 1940s I wasn't actually a novice but I got a sense that there were so many chiefs that if you tried to run it in an authoritative manner, it wouldn't work. We had a weekly Saturday meeting at which we would discuss policy thrusts, major issues of the campaign and events so everybody got their two cents in even though we knew that there had to be some central direction of the campaign and so we had these Saturday meetings in Mel Hausner's basement and by golly, we'd maybe get forty to fifty people with chairs participating and everybody wanted their two cents in.

There was a real sense of activism. Well with that kind of core of activism, it meant that when we created a district organization, we would parallel in fairly equal fashion one of the existing organizations, the Teaneck Political Assembly which had come into being I think around the time of the fight for the integration of the schools or maybe a year or two before. It was somehow around there and so then we found that we created a parallel organization and because Pollack and McKenna were being supported by the T.P.A. and we were running Hausner as an independent, we found out that not only were we running for Hausner even though we didn't think we were running against Belle Pollack because Hausner wasn't endorsed, we were implicitly in tension and conflict with the other parts of the liberal establishment which then gave me my first taste of what the one piece of the establishment in Teaneck that established themselves in terms of being victorious around the Good Guys campaign. And so I got (inaudible) in the local board of education politics not only around the issues and the candidates but also of operating on behalf of the Hausner campaign, being campaign director and we even got involved in  negotiations with the Teaneck Political Assembly within the last two weeks of the campaign where we met at the, I as a representative of the Hausner campaign, met like at eleven or midnight meetings with the whole board of the Teaneck Political Assembly at what's her house, she went on to do work at Goddard College and now she has a private practice, one of the reasonable people you could talk to, some of the people from the Teaneck Political Assembly you could talk to in a reasonable way and others were very difficult. The same was true of our side. We had people you couldn't talk to either. I can see her face and I can't. .

(I) Judy Ellman.

(N) Right, Judy Ellman. Judy Ellman's house and as I say, there was like fifteen of the' people from the T. P .'A. -there and I was there representing the Hausner campaign and they wanted at the last two weeks that we would work together because they were afraid of the victory of the Conservative candidates and we were interested in maintaining Hausner's independent position and it was left up in the air but it was my exposure that we could in fact, if you tried, negotiate and cut a deal in the back room or somebody's nice house if you were so willing.

It just so happened that the various interests and consolation of the person were interested in maintaining a presence and I think there were many agendas going on in that campaign in retrospect and I think some of them got played out in a later campaign. In the campaign against Glenpointe against the high-rise when there was an election in which the anti-high rise forces won and many of those forces were in fact people associated with the Peace movement and the kinds of persons who were either directly or indirectly who would have been involved in the Hausner campaign so that in the Hausner campaign I think you saw the seeds of a split within the coalition particularly on the liberal progressive side that had warmed the Good Guys fight and that split lasted for well maybe throughout the 70s and through that high rise fight and I guess you can end it and in fact it maybe ended when they were defeated in that anti-high rise when they lasted only four years and then it tapered off so I think for maybe a decade there was a split within the "liberal progressive forces" and I think part of that split was a generational split which many people didn't perceive at that time but now in retrospect the fact of the Teaneck Political Assembly was fathered by persons who had been active in the fight with the junior high school and I gather somebody's got that kind of fight and I think it is useful to get that because there was opposition to the town paying for another junior high school and I got that running back and forth with some of the people who were active in the Jewish Community who were some of the leaders in getting junior high schools built and I think that some of the leadership for the Teaneck Political Assembly was garnered out of that fight which in turn then was ready and able to be utilized a segment of that for the Good Guys fight.

And I think one can work back in terms of the kind of fights and always the fights were all, as I see in retrospect, were in terms of some of the old timers and some of the newcomers who in fact wanted to change according to the times, the interests and the agenda so that a new junior high school from what I understand was on the agenda of keeping up with the modern education and so those persons I found that the Teaneck Political Assembly when I negotiated in that room and then as I met them in town, in fact had kids let's say about high school and maybe the end of the junior high school whereas the Hausner people tended to have kids who were just starting out in school similar to myself so the part of the "liberal split" and everybody perceived that there was a division in the liberal progressive camp was in fact a generational one and if you looked at the Peace movement, you would find that while many members of the T.P.A. would probably have come to oppose the Viet Nam War, there would be more of a split within that group on the View Nam War.

So that you might have had a 60/40 or even a 55/35 whereas in the Hausner campaign, there was no question there would be like a 90/10 or 95/5, It was that strong a split. And we know that the Peace movement both on a national and a local level was in fact staffed and fueled by not only the younger generation in college but also those who just were a few years older. So I think you had an inter-generational fight going on around that Hausner campaign. So that's the way the campaign looked and we ran a very good fight and Hausner came in second but he lost and it was, given the consolation of votes, it probably would have been very difficult for the contacts for anybody probably to win because the issue became whether we should add to our school system and add more space which seems ironic and ludicrous now given the shift in the birth rate but at that time, there was actually should there be a new high school, should there be an addition to the high school, should there be a capital improvement campaign and those who were more conservative again, the older generation were able to mobilize those who weren't interested in spending plus then those from the older generation in Teaneck so that there was a sufficient number of votes so that neither Pollack or McKenna or Hausner won the campaign. But then I moved directly from that campaign which was in February to the council race of that spring and I was called directly by I guess it was either Frank Hall or Burr or maybe both, I forget who called me, I think it was Burr who asked me would I get involved in that race since that too was a tight for a more progressive Teaneck wanting to do something about its future. And so I got involved in that race but that proved to be a different consolation of political forces and there was a different kind of haptism.

 

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