“Waterville, Maine, of All Places”: Population Patterns in Waterville’s Fledgling Jewish Community
by Spencer Kasko, ’12 (January 2010)
The Jewish community in Waterville has always been small. However, small does not mean insignificant, and the Jews in Waterville in the first half of the 20th century were anything but insignificant. They were a varied lot, with families arriving and departing and occupations shifting, who nevertheless maintained a somewhat steady Jewish community. The migration patterns of this community were comparable to many small-town Jewish communities of the early 20th century.
“Maine has always seemed reassuringly different,” notes the historian Judith Goldstein (13). But what seems is not always what is, and small-town Jewish communities in Maine were for the most part similar to those found throughout New England, which were in turn similar to those spread across America. Nevertheless, Waterville tells its own story, sharing a broad context but at the same time abundant with unique details.
“How did you ever end up in Waterville, Maine?”
Without exception, Jewish immigrants to small towns in New England arrived seeking an opportunity for employment. Family and friends often provided information about of job prospects and the ability to acquire a job. “If you didn’t have relatives,” Lester Jolovitz said, speaking about his father, Barnet Jolovitz, “[then] you’d go to the people that you had some knowledge of and were friendly to you, and it was generally accepted that they would take people in and get them started.”
Barnet Jolovitz arrived in the Waterville area looking for a job and a place in this small-town Jewish community. The size of this community, as was typical of small Jewish communities throughout the country, was about 1-2% of the total population. It was also common in small towns at this time for this tiny percentage itself to remain in a constant state of flux. The Waterville community does not break this trend: the U.S. census indicates that almost 50% of the heads of households leave between 1910 and 1920, and once again between 1920 and 1930. This data suggests that the Jewish community in Waterville is in many respects identical demographically to other small-town Jewish communities throughout America.
In the decade from 1900 to 1910, 8 of 12 families remain, and these families for the most part became the mainstays of the Waterville Jewish community for decades. Three heads of households in 1930 are directly descended from Lewis Wolman, a member of the community in 1900. The Levine family also begins to take root at this time.
“Work was dirty, but the money was clean”
The breadwinners of these prominent households all began life in Waterville as peddlers or traveling junk dealers, transition businesses which suited small-town life at this time. As Jacob Hains said of his rubbish removal business, “Work was dirty, but the money was clean.” This “clean” money went a long way.
Annie Wolman, widowed in 1899, lived with her four children in Waterville. She baked bread and in all likelihood had help from her relatives in Waterville in order to get by during these tough years. In 1905 she married James Cook, who moved to Waterville. He began as a retail merchant, but, as Sumner Fanger said warmly, he was too nice for retail. “He would take sympathy on people and lower his prices.” And so he moved into the antique business, traveling around in his old car with young Sumner Fanger buying antiques and selling them to stores. Families like the Cooks remained and prospered in Waterville, despite times of instability.
By 1910 these Jews were on their way to a more stable and profitable business. As salesmen and merchants, the work had become less dirty, and the families prospered. The Levines had opened up their retail clothing store on Main Street, which remained active and in the family until 1996. (“An Era Ends,” Colby Magazine)
Not all Jewish households, however, formed such lasting connections to Waterville. Eight of twelve households remained from 1900 to 1910, but during this decade 32 new households also arrived, leading to a radically different community. These new families didn’t necessarily stay in Waterville either. Indeed, 15 of these households — nearly half — up and left again by 1920.
The always-shifting demographics depicted in these statistics are not at all uncommon, as Lee Shai Weissbach notes:
Individuals were constantly coming into these communities, and because small towns were too insular to provide unlimited economic and cultural opportunities, individuals were constantly departing as well. There were always families settling down and families being uprooted. Thus, even though there were Jews who spent their entire lives in small communities and Jewish kin networks that remained integral to those communities over long periods, the Jewish enclaves in America’s small towns were in a perpetual state of flux. (71)
“There was a big world outside”
This state of flux applied within families also, as children often left even as their parents remained. For instance, census data from the early 1900s reveals that John Paikowsky, a resident of Waterville since 1910, had four sons and two daughters. By 1930, John was living in his son-in-law’s household; none of his sons started their own families in Waterville. Jacob Brisk had five children, three sons and two daughters, all of whom were present in 1920 and all of whom disappeared by 1930, leaving Jacob, now 60 years old, and his wife Rachel alone in Waterville.
Lester Jolovitz said that it was when he went off to college that he realized “there was a big world outside.” As Weissbach writes, “It was not uncommon for children who had grown up in [small communities] to seek greener pastures elsewhere. Indeed, much of the migration of Jews out of small towns took the form of the departure of children as they matured” (84). Nevertheless, many individuals did stay in the area (including Jolovitz).
If anything is to be said of Waterville’s Jewish community at this time, it is that statistics are only the bare bones, and that it is the personal words of those involved which give a community its substance.
Goldstein, Judith. Crossing Lines: Histories of Jews and Gentiles in Three Communities. New York: Morrow, 1992.
Weissbach, Lee Shai. Jewish Life in Small Town America: a history. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2005.
Fanger, Sumner. Interviewed by Spencer Kasko, January 21, 2010.
Hains, Robert. Interviewed by Jena Hershkowitz, January 7, 2010.
Jolovitz, Lester. Interviewed by Sam Levine, January 10, 2010.
Shiro, Burt and Phyllis. Interviewed by Sam Levine, January 17, 2010.