Driving out of Wynnefield to escape the summer heat, we found ourselves cruising down the Black Horse Pike, heading toward Atlantic City. In the 1960s of my youth, both of these towns were enclaves for Jewish immigrants of Eastern European descent.
Back then, Atlantic City — with its beach and boardwalk — teemed with year-round and vacationing Jews, but only really came alive in summertime, when the population swarmed. Family-style restaurants, hotels, guesthouses with cooking privileges (like the room my bubbe rented each summer), and a myriad of boardwalk piers and amusement outlets catered to a vibrant Yiddish-speaking community and their offspring.
Storybook Land and the popular restaurant Zaberer's heralded our approach; soon after, the scent of bubbe's famous salmon croquettes blanketed the salt air as we unloaded the car. Standing beside a large, wraparound front porch, we peered at the array of bikes underneath, contemplating who would get to ride each one,
We scuttled off to the beach, breathless with excitement, running first to the ocean, then away from the incoming waves, eventually pulling off our shoes and socks to bravely stand in a line by the water's edge. Hands tightly clasped, we tested the water. Startled by the sudden coldness, we grew bolder by the minute, and soon immersed our feet until the waves licked our calves and inched up to our knees.
We built sand castles with elaborate tunnels and moats. Salty and hot, we'd return to the ocean once more, to wash off after our hard work was done. All day, we heard people speak Yiddish at the beach, and again at night, when they dressed up to walk the boards.
A New Tradition
As the aging Jews of that era retired to southern Florida and other warm climates — and the town fell into tough times in the late 1970s — its decline left little behind to hint at Atlantic City's previous grandeur. It also explains why my children could not visualize what I constantly described to them.
But a decade later, the area picked up, in part to a throng of casino hotels that stood sentry at the beachline. New memories began as we discovered a next-best vacation spot: nearby Ventnor. The quiet residences and streets, magnificent beaches and end of the boardwalk allowed the city — and nearby Margate — to retain a small-town feel.
Exposing our children to the pleasurable things we enjoyed as youngsters led to adventure and exploration when, leaving daily responsibilities and distractions behind, we focused on our kids' curious but cautious stance at the ocean's edge, their quizzical expressions relaying uncertainty about the force of the oncoming waves or riding their bikes on the boardwalk before the coffee-and-bagel crowd got started.
We passed the mantle to our children, sharing the family legacy of Skeeball and bumper cars, and scoping out the latest pizza places and ice-cream stands.
I think of Ventnor as an anchor between the ocean and the bay. The summer season, especially, is packed with family activities and a very full schedule that both secular and religious Jews can access. Several rabbis and congregations offer weekly services (some on the beach itself), challah-baking, classes, Torah study, Jewish day camp and even annual events, such as the Chabad Kosher Cruise and Jewish Summer Fest.
I still look forward to summer, counting down the days beforehand and relishing the time now, much like I did as a child. We leave our footprints in the sand: me, as I catch up on my reading while my kids play football, always alert to the seagulls whose presence nearby must not be underestimated. (Without fail, we recall the stealth gull that carried off my daughter's sandwich decades ago.)
I can think of a million other things I should be doing, but nothing is better than this. I get the gift of time here. I ignore all of the related expenses — calculating the cost of gas, tolls, lodging, amusements and food — and conclude that it's impossible to put a price tag on the value of family memories.
I'm reluctant to eliminate these trips to the beach, even with a smaller budget or window of time. More than ever, we all need an escape. And the truth is, I still get excited when we pass Storybook Land — however much it is showing its age these days — and realize that we're almost there.
Lori Samlin Miller, a volunteer, teacher and freelance writer, lives in Cherry Hill, N.J.