In mid-20th-century Atlantic City, there was nothing like Teplitzky’s for the Jewish tourist. Mostly, those tourists came from Philadelphia, Baltimore or New York, maybe for a week, maybe for a weekend, maybe only for Cousin Sammy’s wedding.
“Teplitzky’s started as nothing but a little guest house at Pacific and Chelsea Avenues, but then they made it kosher, and all the people who kept kosher wanted a place to do weddings and bar mitzvahs, so it became bigger and bigger,” said Allen “Boo” Pergament, 77, who grew up in Atlantic City and is now the New Jersey resort’s unofficial historian. “There were certainly other places, big and small, but after World War II and at least through the 1960s, Teplitzky’s was busy constantly.”
Today, the Jewish population in the Atlantic City area has declined to about 5,000 year-round residents, but the Teplitzky name has been revived as an homage at the first casino-era boutique hotel, the Chelsea, which was built two years ago. Teplitzky’s is the name of the main restaurant at the Chelsea, which occupies the same corner that once housed the old hotel. Ironically, Curtis Bashaw, the Chelsea’s owner, is the grandson of Carl McIntire, who during the Teplitzky’s heyday was one of the most prominent evangelical radio preachers of the age.
Despite Bashaw’s bow to history, there is no Jewish renaissance going on in Atlantic City, but its past is full of highlights. From the Depression through at least the 1950s, perhaps 20% of Atlantic City’s 55,000 residents were Jewish, and other Jews lived in Ventnor and Margate, the small towns immediately south on Absecon Island, which they all shared with the decidedly Protestant town of Longport.
“The Jews came to Atlantic City initially, especially as tourists, because Atlantic City was all about the train,” said Leo B. Schoffer, 57, a lawyer and real estate developer who grew up in Atlantic City and Margate and has collected the memories of people who owned businesses in the city in the early- and mid-20th century
in his book,“A Dream, a Journey, a Community: A Nostalgic Look at Jewish Businesses in and Around Atlantic City,” published last year by ComteQ Publishing. People from the teeming inner cities — whether they were Jews or Italians or Irish or African Americans — could get on the train and escape, so Atlantic City became a prime vacation spot, with each ethnic group claiming its area of beach or town. “It wasn’t really exclusive in that sense, but you just would naturally gravitate to where people of your kind were,” he said.
Schoffer’s parents, Holocaust survivors, originally went to New York, but when offered some land and the opportunity to start a chicken-and-egg business in Egg Harbor Township, just inland from Atlantic City, they grabbed it. By the time Schoffer was growing up in the 1950s and ’60s, the business was thriving, and he would often go along on his dad’s route of delis and restaurants and grocery stores.
“Even in the Jewish community, there was differentiation,” he said. “There would be a Romanian Jewish restaurant and a Hungarian Jewish deli, something for everyone.”
As the soldiers came home from World War II in 1945, the Jewish businesses up and down Atlantic, Pacific and Arctic Avenues, the main north-south thoroughfares in the city, were ready for a postwar boom. Tourists had already started coming after V-E Day in May to the original “biggest little city in America.”
As usual, the town heavily promoted the Miss America Pageant, which since the 1920s had expanded the summer season a couple of weeks past Labor Day. For the first, and so far only, time there was a Jewish Miss America, a statuesque, dark-haired 21-year-old from the Bronx, Bess Myerson.
“I was the only Jewish page for the only Jewish Miss America. I was 5 years old, and it was oh, so wonderful,” said Vicki Gold Levi, whose father Al, the longtime official photographer for the city, helped her get the job. Levi was just starting kindergarten at Yavneh Academy, a Jewish day school, but to be involved with Miss America was a dream.
“The judges, though, were told not to vote for her because she was Jewish, but she was so beautiful, it would have been ridiculous if she didn’t win,” Levi said of Myerson. “People did end up quitting rather than work with her, and she ended up quitting, at least for a while, to sell Israel Bonds.
“But normally, we were never anything but proud to be Jewish in Atlantic City,” said Levi, who has written several books and set up several museum shows about Atlantic City’s history, while having a lengthy publishing and editing career in New York. “There might have been prejudice, but I think it was really limited. Permanent residents, at least, always got along.”
Schoffer said that a lot of his friends came from families who visited Atlantic City on vacation and then decided to move there. There was some anti-Semitism, he said, but that was mostly in certain primarily high-end hotels that excluded Jewish customers. Among most full-time residents, as well as working-class tourists, he found little prejudice and lots of opportunity.
Pergament said that the tourist business was tailor-made for the Jewish community in the city. The hotel, restaurant and other food businesses were never verboten, and in some cases they required little money to get into. The ultimate Jewish hotel was The Breakers, a rambling 450-room hotel near Garden Pier, just off the boardwalk.
Even Schoffer’s chicken-farmer father wanted in on the tourist trade, and in mid-century he opened the Lafayette Motel also a kosher establishment.
But by the 1970s, much of Jewish Atlantic City had disappeared. Pergament and his brother came home from the Korean conflict with GI benefits for buying new housing, and bought a bungalow in Margate with their parents.
“People didn’t want to be crammed into apartments above stores anymore, not when they could have a little lawn just up the road in Margate, or even more space off-shore in Linwood and Egg Harbor,” Pergament said.
The tourist business, too, had withered in Atlantic City, with planes to take tourists places that trains never could, and the opening of the Garden State Parkway, which spread the beach trade up and down the New Jersey coast. By the time casino gambling came in 1978, the Jewish-oriented businesses, from food to clothing, had either moved to nearby towns or closed up. Casinos and related businesses were corporate, not family based, and little today resembles the small merchants who dotted the main shopping avenues and the boardwalk.
“I wrote the book because I realized that was a time that was fading from memory, when you would get your first suit at a Jewish-owned clothing store, go every weekend to a Jewish-owned bakery and be a pool boy in the summer at a Jewish-owned little motel,” Schoffer said.
“But that is the history of Atlantic City, changes and trying something new,” Levi said. “My best friends are still those I went to school with there or met there in the summer. I still love Atlantic City now, because there is always a surprise, just like when we were growing up. Just like my great aunt, who used to come down just to ride a rolling chair, I go there, too, for the ocean — and the memories.”
Contact Robert Strauss at email@example.com