Blog posts about the Rabbi Aviva Cohen Mysteries and their author Rabbi Ilene Schneider

Archive for the ‘NEW JERSEY’ Category


I am not a politician. I am not a scientist. I am not a botanist nor a biologist nor an ornithologist. I am not an expert in history, neither natural nor human. I am not an ecologist nor a professional conservationist.  I drive a hybrid, but I also travel by air. I try not to use chemical fertilizers or pesticides or weed killers in my garden, but I also have no intention of pulling out poison ivy by hand. I compost and recycle, but I use my garbage disposal. In other words, I am a regular citizen, with all the contradictions that entails.

When I first moved to South Jersey in 1981, I had never heard of the Pine Barrens. I knew nothing about Elizabeth White and her cultivation of the first commercially viable blueberries. I had never heard tales of the Jersey Devil. I had never visited Atsion Lake or Batsto or driven on a sugar sand road or seen the Caranza Memorial or climbed the fire tower on top Apple Pie Hill. Wharton to me was the name of a graduate school of business in West Philadelphia.

I then read John McPhee’s The  Pine Barrens and so began my fascination with this incredible treasure in our backyards.

I am not naïve enough to think the Pine Barrens we know and enjoy are the same ones that existed when the Leni Lenape were the only human inhabitants of the area. Forests were clear cut to provide timber to fire the forges that produced cannon balls for Washington’s army and decorative fireplace surrounds for the industrialists who owned those forges. Rivers were dammed to create the lakes that provided the water power for mills. Cranberry bogs were dug and houses were built – small cabins for the workers in company towns and huge mansions for their bosses.

But in November, 1978, the US Congress through the National Parks and Recreation Act, created the Pinelands National Reserve.  Only three months later, in February, 1979, the Pinelands Commission was established, followed in June by Governor Brendan Byrne’s signing of the Pinelands Protection Act. By January, 1981, both Governor Byrne and the US Secretary of the Interior approved the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan. In 1988, the United Nations formally recognized the uniqueness of the Pine Barrens by designating the area a Biosphere Reserve.

Because of the vision and the political will of Governor Byrne and others like him, we are able to enjoy the natural beauty of the Pine Barrens. If not for those actions almost forty years ago, we would now be sitting in the midst of a sprawling urban enclave, complete with a supersonic airport, shopping malls, a city, and miles of concrete and asphalt.

We cannot undo the mistakes of the past centuries – the destruction of the original old-growth forests, the damming of the rivers, the creation of factories and farms – whether they were done through ignorance or greed or even the need to survive. But you, as the officially appointed stewards of the Pinelands National Reserve, can prevent the repeat of these errors. You have within your power the ability to prevent the degradation of the land and the dismantling of the intentions of the Pinelands Comprehensive Management Plan by voting NO to the installment of a natural gas pipeline through the Pinelands. Please vote your conscience, not expediency.


The other day, I finally got around to watching the first episode of the new HBO series “Boardwalk Empire.” There’s a shot of a sign that says “Hammonton, Blueberry Capital of the World.”

While it’s true that Hammonton does accurately call itself the Blueberry Capital of the World, was it true in 1920? I had my doubts. After all, it wasn’t until 1916 that Elizabeth White, after working for five years with Frederick Coville, of the US Department of Agriculture, to develop a commercially viable blueberry, succeeded in hybridizing one that was large enough, durable enough, and tasty enough to be marketed. Four years later, when “Boardwalk Empire” takes place, it wasn’t Hammonton that was the blueberry capital of anywhere, it was Whitesbog, the cranberry operation begun by White’s grandfather and still (to this day) owned by his descendants.

But maybe I was wrong. Strange as it may seem, and as much as I hate to admit it, I have on occasion been mistaken. So, I did what I am best at, and researched the topic. I already knew that Hammonton, in Atlantic County near its border with Camden County, was nowhere close to Whitesbog, at the border of Burlington and Ocean Counties. What I didn’t realize was how far apart they are – thirty-seven miles and, at today’s speeds, a fifty-two minute drive. In 1920, what was the likelihood that Elizabeth White had traveled to Hammonton to transplant their high bush blueberries? Consider, too, that in 1920 the roads in the Pine Barrens were not paved, and the predominance of congestion and traffic lights today are not enough to make the trip longer than it was then.

But I could find nothing about when Hammonton began to call itself the Blueberry Capital of the world. Nothing, that is, until I came across a posting on with the obituary of former Hammonton mayor George A. Mortellite. The relevant passage: “During his tenure as Mayor he signed a proclamation on March 28, 1987, proclaiming the town of Hammonton as the Blueberry Capital of the World.”

Talk about anachronisms. It was sixty-seven years after the events portrayed in “Boardwalk Empire” that the first “Hammonton, Blueberry Capital of the World” was erected.

Anachronisms bug me. I’m not sure why, as I’m generally able to suspend my disbelief and enjoy even the most absurd premises. (I am a huge fan of British science fiction TV series.) And so I try to avoid anachronisms in my own writing.

CHANUKAH GUILT takes place the end of November-beginning of December, 2002. UNLEAVENED DEAD, the next book in the series takes place the end of March-beginning of April, 2004. Trying to keep track of movies, weather, TV shows, is easy – I have bookmarked several sites which give me the information. More difficult is trying to remember what technology was in common usage.

Facebook, I know from the release of the recent movie “The Social Network,” was just getting started. But what about texting? I’ve been trying to remember when my husband and I first started. I know it was after our older son had been doing it for a while, and he got a detention his senior year of high school (2006) when he had forgotten to turn off his phone and my husband sent him a text. But how much earlier were we texting? I decided to take the easy way out and not mention texting.

Generic MP3 players and DVRs? Brand specific IPods and TiVo? Safer not to mention them.

I did find references to Internet cafés by then, but not to free wifi. I have my protagonist Aviva and her niece, the computer whiz, in such a café, but avoid the issue of how Trudy connected to the ‘net.

I checked on the status of same sex marriage in 2004 and what the current regulations were then. Some have changed since then, but at least it is accurate (I hope) for the time. The same is true of local laws about carbon monoxide detectors in private homes.

I’ve tried my best to avoid anachronisms in my books. I just wish HBO had done the same. I know – it’s called fiction because the writer can make things up. But it still bugs me


NJ is the punchline of many mean-spirited jokes. Find out what residents of South Jersey know and why they disagree with the rest of the US – and North Jersey.  Check out my guest blog on Annette Snyder’s site “Fifty Authors from Fifty States” at

And if any of what I wrote sounds familiar, it’s because I cribbed from my own previous blogs on the topic!


Here’s a blog I wrote last September for Jerseywise Fiction.

Why do I set my mystery series (one book published*, one making the rounds** qualifies as a series, right?) in New Jersey? Well, for one thing, I live here. In fact, I’ve lived here for 30 years, after my first 21 years in Boston, followed by 9 years in Philadelphia and 2 years in Jerusalem. In other words, almost half my life has been in the Garden State, a place I denigrated as much as anyone else who knew of New Jersey as this dirty, crowded, crime-ridden, polluted hyphen plunked between New York and Philadelphia. Then I moved here and discovered how great it is to live in a place where I am within 40 minutes of five large malls (15 minutes from three of them – too bad I hate shopping in general and malls in particular); 15 minutes of fresh produce you can buy from the back of a farm truck; 60 minutes of the Shore; 30 minutes of Philadelphia; two hours of Manhattan; 90 minutes of Cape May; twenty minutes of several 24-hour diners; a few minutes of some of the cheapest gas prices in the country (and no self-service allowed);  and no minutes of terrific bird watching (I just look out the windows into my backyard).

Free associate the words “New Jersey.” What comes to mind? In no particular order:

The Sopranos

Real Housewives of NJ

Jersey Shore (the show, not the real thing)

Big hair

Garden State Parkway, where you do feel as though you are parked

Newark Airport




Janet Evanovich (who lives in NH)

Bruce Springsteen

Asbury Park

Atlantic City casinos

The highest density population in the US


Traffic jams


Discount stores

Jimmy Hoffa’s grave under the end zone in the Meadowlands

(Okay, I admit this last item is an urban myth, but it gained popularity because it’s so plausible.)

And what do I think of?

Pine Barrens

Best birding spots anywhere

Cape May

Cape May-Lewes Ferry

Delaware Bay Shore

Jewish chicken farmers

Sugar sand roads

Salt water taffy

A major bridge named for poet Walt Whitman (who is buried in Camden)


Cranberries right from the bogs

Corn right from the fields

Pick-your-own blueberries

The pre-casino Atlantic City

And what is the major feature that defines each list? The first one describes North Jersey, while the second one describes South Jersey.

Ten years ago, on June 25, 2001 to be precise, a column I wrote about the differences between North and South Jersey was published in the Burlington County Times. If it’s possible to plagiarize from one’s self, I’ve just done so. But so much of what I wrote then still applies.

Poor New Jersey. It’s bad enough that we have the reputation of being a dweeb, that we’re the butt of jokes not just in this country, but internationally, that we have the ugliest Turnpike in the Boston-D.C. corridor, but we have a split personality, too.

Whenever someone asks me where I live, I explain that there are two New Jerseys-Philadelphia, NJ, and New York, NJ-and that I live in the former. I don’t want to be associated with the part of the state that has inspired such “quips” as “Dump the garbage in New Jersey. No one will notice the smell.”

Yes, they are two different states, with the dividing line somewhere around Trenton. Or maybe Princeton. Those two towns are in a sort of limbo state (so to speak). Forget about demographics. Forget about political affiliations. Forget about the cost of living and real estate values. The defining characteristic is sports. In Trenton and Princeton, some residents are fans of New York sports teams and some root for Philadelphia teams. As you go further north or south of the center section of the state, the team loyalties become more solidified.

Before I discovered how much easier it is to fly into Providence, RI, and rent a car to go to Boston, I used to drive the 500 miles myself. It was during those drives that I discovered just how unattractive the New Jersey Turnpike is, especially north of Exit 7. The road side is lined with factories, oil refineries, airports, megastores. New York City shimmers and wavers in the distance, the outlines of its buildings blurred by pollution. Yet after I would finally cross the George Washington Bridge and maneuver through the maze of highway connections into Connecticut, all I would see until I reached Boston were trees on both sides of the road. (Not that Connecticut is perfect – there were plenty of trees, but no rest stops. And every time I drove through that state, no matter what route I took, there was road construction.)

Several years ago, the weekend after I returned from a trip to Boston, I went to Cape May for the annual Spring Birding Weekend from the New Jersey State Audubon Society. There’s no Turnpike down there, but there is the Garden State Parkway. What a difference from the GSP in North Jersey, which I had taken on my way home from Boston. I much prefer looking at trees instead of concrete.

One exception is the Tappan Zee Bridge area, which I often took on the way back from Boston, mainly because I could never find the entrance ramp to the GW Bridge back into NJ. The view across the Hudson River is breath-taking. (Of course, it may just be that I was holding my breath while trying to dodge the huge semis and maniacal New York drivers.) And there are some areas of northwest New Jersey, in the mountains it shares with New York and Pennsylvania, as well as the corridor along the Delaware River from Washington Crossing north that rival South Jersey for rural calm and beautiful scenery.

I remember that years ago there was a movement to encourage South Jersey to secede from North Jersey. I don’t know what happened, but the idea seems to have lost momentum. It may be time to revive the concept.

Instead of drawing a line across the state to separate north from south, though, I would carve out a semicircle surrounding New York City. It’s that part of the state which gives New Jersey its negative image. With one swipe of a pen, we could get rid of the area which makes New Jersey the most densely populated state in the country. We wouldn’t have to take it personally when sitcoms make jokes about big hair mall rats and Mafia strongholds. We wouldn’t become defensive when people would say disdainfully, “You live in New Jersey – voluntarily?” We’d could proudly point to the gardens that give New Jersey its motto. We’d no longer have to explain that we come from Philadelphia, New Jersey, but could proudly say, “New Jersey.”