Of related interest: Kibbee, Community, and Culture: Lebanese Food and Identity in Waterville, by Miles de Klerk ’13 (April 2013)
Food and Jewish Identity in Waterville
by Madeline Kurtz ’14 (January 2011)
Ask any Jew from Waterville, Maine, what comes to mind when he or she hears the phrase “Jewish food,” and chances are that you will hear at least one of the following: brisket, chicken, latkes, tsimmis, or matzo ball soup. But ask that same Waterville Jew about his or her favorite food to eat with family and it is highly probable that the answer will be lobster. Even though it is not kosher, lobster is an integral part of Maine culture, even for the Jews. But why is it that lobster is acceptable while pork chops are not? It stems from a strong sense of identity. Maine’s Jews used food to express a single identity, an identity that was created by fusing strong ties to both Judaism and Maine.
Food and Family
Food was a way to bring families together, especially on holidays. Julie Miller-Soros recalled the importance of holiday meals in her family. “I think of the high holidays… and being together with family and friends and just everybody.” When asked what food meant to her as far as expressing a Jewish identity, she said,
It’s shaped how I believe families communicate. It’s not really the food that has shaped it. It is and it isn’t—it’s sitting around the dinner table or sitting around the kitchen table. That’s an important spot. So of course if you’re sitting at the table, you end up with food on the table. But it’s more sitting at the table, together and talking, and the food is secondary.
Julie also explained that even when it was not a holiday, her family always ate together. If she was going to miss dinner (which almost never happened), she had to have a very good excuse, such as a sport that got out late.
Robert Hains recalled that Passover was the big family holiday when “everybody came home.” Similarly, Glenyce Miller Kaplan remembered the importance of family during the holidays. “They came for Pesach. They all came from New York and from Boston. They all stayed at the big house. Don’t ask me, must have slept ten in a bed.”
Although Robert did not recall any special family dynamics at the table, he did remember the importance of tradition that came with the holiday. This sense of family traditions dates back to immigration times. According to Hasia R. Diner, “Eastern European Jewish foodways grew out of a particular context which connected food, sanctity, community, class, and the gendered nature of everyday responsibilities Jews bore to each other” (Diner 176). Jews felt an important connection to one another, which was strengthened by food in general and holiday food in particular.
The synagogue was the center of Jewish life in Waterville. It’s where the holidays were observed, but more importantly, it was where many holiday meals were prepared. Every holiday, Gisele Miller, Julie’s mother, would take over the kitchen in the synagogue order to guarantee that all of the food was perfectly prepared. In fact, the synagogue kitchen was better known as “Gisele’s Kitchen.” An important holiday was Hanukkah, when Gisele would lead the latke brigade. As Julie recalled, “I do remember her and other women getting all the ingredients together, getting everything, and all of them being in the kitchen in the synagogue making the potato pancakes so that we kids would have a fun, good, Hanukkah party.”
Another widely observed holiday is Passover. Even though the Millers didn’t keep a kosher home during the year, they cleaned out their house for Passover, making sure that every inch was free of chametz, or forbidden bread products. They also had a separate set of dishes for Passover. Even the bubblegum was kosher for Passover, according to Wendy Miller. The importance of observing Passover is a common trend in Jewish communities across the United States. In the study of a 1950s Chicago suburb, “Lakeville,” it was discovered that although many families didn’t ritually clean out their houses for Passover, sixty percent had a Seder (Sklare 52). The Passover Seder revolves around food and is an integral part of the holiday, as well as the Jewish religion.
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is another widely observed holiday. Like all holidays, there are certain foods that are unique to this one. Sara Miller Arnon recalled one of her favorite foods to eat on Rosh Hashanah:
Tsimmis… a long-cooking dish that has some meat in it but is mostly carrots, some squash, and some dried fruits, a lot of honey, and it cooks for a very long time so it is kind of mushy but very sweet, and we loved it. It was one of those things that you didn’t get all year long, so that was part of the Rosh Hashanah meal.
The significance of tsimmis, as Sara explained, is that it is sweet and thus symbolized the start to a sweet New Year.
Following Rosh Hashanah is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. For Lester Jolovitz, spending all day in synagogue on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur was a part of growing up. The Lakeville study echoes this, in that 46% of respondents agreed that it is “desirable” to attend services on the high holidays in order to be considered a good Jew (Sklare 326). Traditionally, Jews fast on Yom Kippur, regardless of whether or not they normally observe Jewish dietary laws. Robert Hains began to observe this practice at age 12. He encountered the ultimate “internal battle” when on Yom Kippur, his mother gave him a bowl of chopped chicken to bring to his grandmother’s cat. But he had to decide would get the food, him or the cat? He let the cat win and has fasted ever since. So although his family had stopped keeping kosher around this time, Robert still fasted, which was similar to many American Jews.
But some holidays were not observed in Waterville. For example, the Jewish Sabbath, known as Shabbat, begins Friday night at sundown, and religious families will often welcome Shabbat with a festive meal. But for many who instead consider themselves to be culturally Jewish, as opposed to religious, like most American Jews, Friday night was not that important. Of the participants in the Lakeville study, 68% say that they light candles for Hanukkah, but when it comes to Shabbat, only 30% have a special Friday night dinner (Sklare 52). Similarly, in the case of Waterville, sisters Wendy Miller, Julie Miller-Soros, and Sara Miller Arnon all recall a lack of Shabbat dinner in their home. Their father worked late at the Levine store on Friday nights, so they would usually just eat without him. Aside from not having a full family dinner, the Millers did not eat a traditional Shabbat meal. Julie said it was as if they were Catholic because they always had fish on Friday nights, as opposed to the traditional chicken. The reason for Friday fish was that Howard Miller hated fish and wasn’t home, so Gisele took advantage of the opportunity to prepare it. Another member of the community, Susan Alfond, recalled the non-traditional Shabbat practice in her days up at camp: “Every Friday night we would have a lobster dinner, every Friday night a big lobster dinner.”
When it comes to keeping kosher, Robert Hains recalled that up until his grandfather, who was the town’s rabbi, passed away in 1953, the majority of the community did in fact keep kosher. He mentioned that most people had four separate sets of dishes: one for meat, and one for dairy, as well as both meat and dairy sets for Passover. In the 1950s and ’60s, the majority of Waterville’s Jews did not keep kosher. Many chose to follow what would be considered “kosher style,” like the Millers who never ate pork in their house. In their home, they would eat non-kosher foods that could be kosher. For instance, they could eat non-kosher chicken because chicken was a traditionally Jewish food. However, their family’s decision to keep a kosher home during Passover was quite uncommon.
The food practices of Waterville’s Jews mirror national trends. Throughout the twentieth century, American Jews often chose to eat a diet that would be considered “kosher style.” Even though this may completely disregard kashrut, the Jews still maintained their Jewish identity by sticking together and keeping with tradition in a modified form (Kraemer 139). In the Lakeville study, it was found that only one percent of respondents felt it was essential to observe Jewish dietary laws in order to be considered a “good Jew” (Sklare 322).
The synagogue in Waterville was one place that was completely kosher. Julie Miller-Soros recalls that the only people in the community who kept kosher when she was growing up in the ’60s were Judy Brody and her mother, Celia Levine. Their kitchens were the only two in which food for the synagogue could be cooked.
During Passover, many students bring lunch to school in order to keep kosher for the holiday. Julie recalled how her classmates reacted to matzo:
Curiosity from some kids, of, you know, “what’s that?” or being made fun of by other kids, “Oh, that’s that Jewish bread,” or “I told you she was Jewish.” … And other people were like, “Oh good, it’s the time they get matzo, can I taste it? Is it really like a cracker? What is it?”
In addition to holiday foods, there are certain everyday foods that are highly popular in Jewish homes, like bagels. Wendy Miller recalled, “The food my non Jewish friends loved to have at my house was bagels…and cream cheese and lox and whitefish and herring—that was the food that friends remember in our home and not in others.”
Bagels are a classically Jewish food that became Americanized. They are such a typical American food that at first, Wendy didn’t even think of them as an important Jewish food. Peter Beckerman also had an experience with bagels when he was growing up. His friends would jokingly call him “bagel eater” because he was Jewish. He didn’t find this offensive. Instead, it was a funny joke that pertained to his identity.
My mother loved lobster and seafood, and of course that’s just forbidden in terms of kosher. So when my grandparents came over she didn’t serve that kind of thing. But she was always interested in food and what we ate, so we’d talk about those things and we always kind of laughed. It always gave her the creeps to talk about shellfish. –Kenneth Slosberg
A food practice that separates Maine’s Jews from other American Jews is the importance of lobster. As Julie Miller-Soros put it, “Lobster is not kosher, but it’s a food of Maine and because we all come to Maine and everybody wanted it, we got it. It didn’t start out because ‘Oh, we’re having the forbidden food,’ that wasn’t it. It was just, as generations went on and as people came, it was all the stories, you know, ‘You go to Maine, did you have lobster?’ So, we had lobster.”
In Robert Hains’ house, even when they did keep kosher, they would sometimes bring in lobster. They would always eat it on paper plates and it was never served when the grandparents were over. Robert told the following story about a lobster incident.
We had company, some of my mother’s family from New York and they of course came to Maine and wanted lobster. We lived a block and a half away from the local lobster pound and got lobster, probably cooked, and then were going to eat off paper plates, et cetera, when my grandparents called to ask if the company was there, yes, and “Okay, we’ll be over in five minutes to visit.” And they were less than a five-minute walk away, so at that point all the windows, it was warm weather in the summer, got opened. And I don’t know what happened but everything disappeared and we ate later, whatever it was.
Robert also noted that if his grandparents had known that the family was eating lobster, it would have been quite scandalous. So what is it that makes lobster so special? It goes back to being a Mainer and maintaining a Maine identity. Since pork is not a part of Maine culture, some Jews choose to follow kashrut and not eat it. However, since lobster is such an important aspect of life in Maine, they eat it. Even many Jews who visit Maine feel the need to eat lobster in order to fully experience the Maine lifestyle.
Jewish Mainers have chosen to hold onto their Jewish roots by maintaining traditional food practices while still expressing their Maine pride through non-Jewish practices, like eating lobster. This allows them to express a single identity that encompasses both Jewish and Maine culture. Both aspects of their identity are equally important. The Jewish holidays are central to their lives, but so are the summers up at camp. For this reason, they have drawn pieces of each culture in order to create a single identity. To the Jews in Maine, a lobster bake for a special occasion is just as exciting and important as a Rosh Hashanah brisket.
Diner, Hasia R. Hungering for America: Italian, Irish, and Jewish Foodways in the Age of Migration. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001.
Kraemer, David C. Jewish Eating and Identity Through the Ages. New York: Routledge, 2007.
Sklare, Marshall, and Joseph Greenblum. Jewish Identity on the Suburban Frontier: A Study of Group Survival in the Open Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Alfond, Susan. Interviewed by Amy Eklund, 10 January 2011.
Arnon, Sara. Interviewed by Amy Eklund, 8 January 2011.
Beckerman, Peter. Interviewed by Isadora Alteon, 14 January 2011.
Hains, Robert. Interviewed by Madeline Kurtz, 20 January 2011.
Jolovitz, Lester. Interviewed by Isadora Alteon, 18 January 2011.
Kaplan, Glenyce Miller. Interviewed by David Freidenreich, 4 August 2010.
Miller, Wendy. Interviewed by Madeline Kurtz, 9 January, 2011.
Miller-Soros, Julie. Interviewed by Madeline Kurtz and Hannah Dhonau, 10 and 12 January 2011.
Slosberg, Kenneth. Interviewed by Nicole Mitchell, 19 January 2010.