Louis Bamberger: Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist, written by Linda B. Forgosh. Brandeis University Press, 2016, 296 pp.
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What got you interested in the life and work of Louis Bamberger?
Linda Forgosh (LF): The idea to write the biography of Louis Bamberger came from a Jewish Historical Society board member, Oscar Lax, who suggested that our historical society pay attention to the life and times of Louis Bamberger.
TWM: What challenges did you face in writing this book?
LF: Bamberger left no business records, no personal diaries, and in general kept his private life to himself. So a researcher really had to be resourceful in finding the facts about his life, family, and overall philanthropic legacy. But the more you learned the more you wanted to keep up with the research.
TWM: Did anything surprise you from the research?
LF: What surprised me about Bamberger was his refusal to have his name on any of the institutions he founded and funded. Despite being dubbed “Newark’s first citizen” whose “record of benefactions” changed the quality of life for Newark’s citizens and beyond, no one thought to honor him with so much as a street sign. Truth was he denied any efforts to put his name “lights.” It wasn’t his style.
TWM: What was your greatest satisfaction with this book?
LF: My greatest satisfaction came from Jonathan Sarna, who is recognized nationwide as today’s most influential Jewish historian, who got behind the proposal that UPNE University Press of New England, which includes Brandeis University Press, (Sarna teaches at Brandeis) to publish my Bamberger biography.
TWM: What led you to a university press for publication?
LF: I did research into publishers who would likely be interested in Bamberger’s career and accomplishments.
TWM: How do you think your “day job” as executive director of the Jewish Historical Society of NJ (archives) helped you with this book?
LF: I have “theee” best job in the world. As executive director and curator of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey, a beneficiary agency of the Federation of Greater MetroWest New Jersey, I am surrounded by the history of the community. In that capacity I am given the opportunity to find and acquire and preserve documents about Jewish life in northern New Jersey that will never come again. I even get the chance to prepare traveling exhibits thereby promoting the importance of history and continuity in all of our lives.
TWM: Do you think being Jewish made any difference in researching or writing this book? Please explain.
LF: Actually, Louis Bamberger was the “least” Jewish of subjects. He was born to a Jewish family who were founders of Baltimore’s first reform synagogue but he, himself, had little interest in formal observance. Instead he was a member of the Ethical Culture Society.
TWM: What advice would you offer to emerging biographers?
LF: Pick a subject that you are willing to “live with” for as long as it takes to get the job done. I, for one, have lived with Louis Bamberger for seven years in order to feel that I had done justice to his importance to American history.
TWM: What’s next for you?
LF: I haven’t had a chance to think about what comes next. But when I do, you will be among the first to know.
About Linda B. Forgosh
Linda B. Forgosh, the Executive Director and Curator of the Jewish Historical Society of New Jersey since 1999, is the author of Jews of Morris County, Jews of Weequahic, The Jews of Morris and Sussex: A Brief History and Source Guide, and Louis Bamberger Department Store Innovator and Philanthropist. She has also curated numerous exhibits, including “Who’s Minding the Store?”, “Born at the Beth,” “ One More Night at Elving’s Metropolitan Yiddish Theater,” the blockbuster “Weequahic Memoirs: Celebrating Newark’s Jewish Neighborhood,” and the most recent “Meet Me under Bamberger’s Clock” that opens at the New Jersey Historical Society in Newark on December 1, 2016 and runs until the end of 2017. Forgosh is the former head of the Millburn-Short Hills Historic Preservation Committee and past president of the Essex County Section of the National Council of Jewish Women.