Occupational Trends of Jews in Kennebec County
by Sam Levine ’11 (January 2010)
Like most of the Jews who relocated to small towns throughout the United States around the turn of the twentieth century and into the interwar years, the Jews who came to Waterville, Maine, desired economic independence. This meant going into business for themselves where they were not subject to the potentially anti-Semitic sentiments of employers. In this way, the Jewish immigrants in Waterville were different from immigrants of other ethnic backgrounds who, for the most part, came to Waterville to work in the mills.
Although early on a few Jews in Waterville did work in the mills, most, including Barnet Jolovitz, who was living in Waterville as early as 1914, began their working lives as peddlers. Peddling, Barnet’s son Lester says, “was then the generally accepted way of making a living.” Jewish peddlers would go out to the countryside on their own with a horse and wagon and buy and sell junk or dry goods. They enjoyed a level of economic independence that was inherent in the trade, and they were generally successful, as they “were providing services that the rural families would otherwise have had great difficulty achieving or reaching out and gaining on their own,” explained Bob August, whose uncles peddled in western Massachusetts in an economic environment similar to the one in Maine (Hoberman 104).
Although peddling was an economic activity in which many Jews felt comfortable, it was viewed simply as a way for Jews to get started and to gain “the necessary capital and experience to open their own stores or launch other kinds of business ventures” (Weissbach 96). According to census data, 16 of the 18 employed Jewish men living in Waterville in 1900 made their living as peddlers of one kind or another. Six Jewish men who were listed as peddlers in 1900 were still living in Waterville in 1910, and four of them had transitioned from the peddling phase into retail. Among them was William Levine, who established the distinguished Levine’s Store for Men and Boys on Main Street.
As peddling was intended to be a temporary occupation, it was not uncommon for Jews to receive assistance from more well-established family members or friends until they were independent enough to set off on their own. Sam Levine was peddling in Waterville in 1900 while living with his brother, William, but had apparently moved on by 1910. Abraham Dvilisky, a Waterville junk dealer, was accommodating his brother, Henry, who also left by 1910 after a stint of peddling. Another Waterville Jew, Samuel Barron, sold rags and mittens from a cart in 1910, but census data indicates that he gradually improved his economic standing over the course of two decades, first opening a confectionary store and then becoming a furniture merchant with some dealings in real estate.
Census records show that in 1910 there were more Jews dealing junk from carts than there were Jews involved in any other occupation, but only about half of those junk dealers were still living in Waterville in 1920. Most of those who stayed established some kind of retail store or their own junk businesses from their homes. Prominent among the Waterville Jews who got their start in the junk business are Hyman Rosenthal and his son Louis. Louis had a diverse and successful business career that culminated in commercial real estate projects including the construction of Elm Plaza on upper Main Street in Waterville (Bob Rosenthal interview).
However Jews in Waterville began their working lives, the ones who stayed and established themselves as enduring members of the community were those like William Levine who were able to engage in more stable endeavors, such as opening a storefront. Barnet Jolovitz, like Sam Levine, Henry Dvilisky and Philip Baron, got started peddling with the help of a family in Waterville who he had known from Ivia, the shtetl where he grew up and which is in what is now Belarus. This family, the Rosenthals (not the same as Harry Rosenthal), provided Barnet Jolovitz with a place to stay and enough money to rent a horse and wagon to go out and peddle. Barnet was also fortunate to have had a religious education at a yeshiva in the Old Country and to have come to a small Jewish community with no former means to educate its youth, and he made money on the side teaching Hebrew lessons. Peddling and teaching Hebrew for a few years, Barnet was able to save enough money to go into partnership with a man named Jacob Shenson with whom he opened a small grocery store in Winslow (Lester Jolovitz interview).
Not all Jews in Waterville followed the same economic trajectory as Barnet Jolovitz or Louis Rosenthal. Morrie Silver was listed as a peddler in the 1900 census, but a decade later his livelihood was trading cattle. Once Morrie’s son, Harry, was old enough for employment, he worked as a butcher, most likely in his father’s slaughterhouse, and by 1920 he had taken over the family cattle trading business. Morris Cohen owned a cobbler shop in 1910, but he transitioned to the junk business by 1920, maybe because dealing in junk allowed him the flexibility of scheduling his own hours.
Perhaps least traditional of all were the career paths of Morris Seltzer and Samuel Rosenthal. Most small towns were essentially devoid of a Jewish working class (Weissbach 95), and Waterville followed suit despite its reputation as a mill town. Nonetheless, there were still several Jews who, much like those who got their start in peddling, began their careers working as weavers in the Wyandotte Worsted woolen mill. Of the five Waterville Jews listed in the 1910 census as working in the mills, only Morris Seltzer remained in 1920, by which time he had established his own grocery store. Samuel Rosenthal did not work in the mills; in fact, he started out peddling junk like many other Jews in Waterville. However, by 1920 and at least through 1930, he was working as a machinist for the railroad, a job that certainly offered economic stability, as Waterville was a bustling transportation center and home to the Maine Central Railroad car and locomotive repair shops (Plocher 11).
Whether the relative success of Jews in America should be attributed to Jewish cultural traditions that promote upward economic mobility (Weissbach), which essentially is Sumner Lipman’s philosophy of “99% commitment and 1% intelligence,” or whether Jews were given opportunities for progress that were not extended to other minorities (Brodkin) is a question that has raised much controversy. That Jews made the right decisions at the right times is an explanation that is far more difficult to refute, particularly in the case of the Waterville Jews. The story of Louis Rosenthal, who was forced to run his father Hyman’s junk business for several months at age 9, epitomizes good decision making on the part of Jewish entrepreneurs. Bob Rosenthal recounts his father’s early introduction to the business world:
When my dad was in the third grade, which would have put him about 9 years old, his father got very sick. Hyman had to go to New York for treatment where his brother lived, and my dad took over the business when he was 9 for several months while Hyman was recuperating, and when Hyman got back, my dad went back to school. They wanted him to repeat the third grade and he wouldn’t so he became an entrepreneur at that point.
Louis Rosenthal remained in the junk business for some time before “he gradually drifted into the wool waste business” where “he thought there was a better market…and it turns out there was for him.”
When he couldn’t sell the wool waste during the Depression, he would hire someone to make wool blankets and sell the blankets and he eventually bought the mills…He always had a great feeling towards land and the value of land, and when he came back [from France after World War I], he began buying land and building homes, and…that continued until after the Second World War.
Louis built 300 homes in Waterville, most during the Depression, and when his son, Bob, joined him after graduating Harvard Business School, the two became involved in developing commercial real estate.
Louis and Celia Shiro demonstrated similar adaptability in establishing and expanding the Jefferson Hotel in Waterville. They had no prior experience in the hotel business, but what began as just a ten-room outfit with a small restaurant that served primarily a rowdy bunch of lumberjacks became one of the top hotels in New England with one of the finest restaurants. The major transition occurred when the man in the store next to the Jefferson decided to give up his lease and Burt Shiro suggested to his father and mother that they convert the vacant building into a Chinese restaurant because he enjoyed the Chinese food he was exposed to in Boston while at law school. The Shiros recruited chefs from Boston and the restaurant, says Burt, “was a success immediately.”
Sumner Lipman cites having a truck as an initiating factor in his father and uncles’ transition from the junk business into the live chicken business, which eventually evolved into a 3,000-person operation:
If you have a truck to go pick up junk, you can also use the same truck to bring live chickens to Boston. If you didn’t have live chickens to take to Boston, you could go buy scrap metal and bring it to the places where you sell scrap metal.
Louis Rosenthal, the Shiros and the Lipmans exemplify the Jewish immigrants who, according to Judith Goldstein, “knew how to move their human capital and activate mechanics of adaptation” (43).
In accordance with the tendency of small-town Jewish merchants to cater to “working-class patrons from other immigrant ethnic groups” (Weissbach 100), certain Waterville Jews had a substantial immigrant customer base. Lester Jolovitz recalls that at his father’s grocery store, the children knew enough French to talk with French-Canadian customers and his parents, fluent in Polish and Russian from the Old Country, transacted all business with Polish and Russian customers in their respective languages. There was also Wein’s, a women’s clothing store on Main Street in Waterville where all of the Lebanese women shopped, and the Lebanese did all of their catering through the Jefferson because of the friendships the Shiro boys had made with their Lebanese teammates on the high school basketball team (Eric Hooglund presentation).
The final piece of the story about Waterville Jews’ quest for economic well-being has to do with the immigrants’ children and the opportunities made available to them by their parents’ hard work. Colby offered an education that an established Jewish man in Waterville such as Barnet Jolovitz, a “simple grocer,” could afford for his children. A Colby education also allowed Jewish children to continue to live at home and remain involved in the family business. The goal of Jewish parents in providing their children with a higher education was “to ensure that their American-born children would have…a way to earn money that would rely less on market conditions and more on the qualifications formal education afforded” (Hoberman 133). However, the children seemed to have a relative amount of freedom in choosing a career.
Although it was generally understood that he would go to college, Lester Jolovitz says his family “had no idea about him being a lawyer.” “Once I got in college and realized there was a big world outside because of the friends I made from away, I was determined to improve myself.” Although a professional degree presented the option of leaving Waterville to find work, some Jewish professionals chose to stay in Waterville. Lester set up his law practice in Waterville because he says “it was a natural progression to stay where you’re known.” Burt Shiro was considering moving to Washington to practice law, but chose to stay in Waterville so he could still be available to help his parents at the Jefferson. Even after he was married, Burt was at the Jefferson every morning before going to work.
In the corporate economy that now has a stranglehold on our country, immigrants today cannot climb the economic ladder to prosperity like the Jews of small-town America could a century ago. Highly visible Jewish-owned Main Street department stores like Sterns in Waterville are only a flickering memory. Although the Waterville Jewish community is in decline, the testimonies of the Jews who endured small-town life have revived the spirit of the community when it was in its prime during the interwar years.
Brodkin, Karen, How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1998).
Goldstein, Judith, Crossing Lines: Histories of Jews and Gentiles in Three Communities (New York: Morrow 1992).
Hoberman, Michael, How Strange It Seems: The Cultural Life of Jews in Small-Town New England (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2008).
Plocher, Stephen, “A Short History of Waterville, Maine” (Colby College honors thesis, 2007).
Weissbach, Lee Shai Jewish Life in Small-Town America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
Interviews and Presentations
Jolovitz, Lester. Interviewed by Sam Levine, January 10 and 21, 2010.
Hooglund, Eric. In-class presentation, January 10, 2010.
Lipman, Sumner. Interviewed by Spencer Kasko, January 9, 2010.
Rosenthal, Bob. Interviewed by Becky Muller, January 22, 2010.
Shiro, Burt and Phyllis. Interviewed by Sam Levine, January 17, 2010.