Jews in Vacationland
by Amy Eklund ’11 (January 2011)
It is no coincidence that Maine is known as “Vacationland” throughout the United States. For years, people have flocked to Maine to relax and soak in nature’s beauty. The Jews who settled in the Greater Waterville area were no exception to this phenomenon as they skied at Sugarloaf in the winters and spent their summers at lake houses in the Belgrade Lakes region. This vacationing pattern and winter recreational habit that developed post-World War II can be directly attributed to Waterville’s Jews becoming middle-class, white Mainers. This evolution did not come without its difficulties, however, as many members of Maine’s white middle-class refused to accept that Jews had joined their ranks. Regardless, with their improving economic status and strong personal identification with the state of Maine, Kennebec County’s Jews began to take advantage of nature’s magnificence by owning summer camps and skiing.
Jewish Vacationing Patterns
A vacation is not just a luxury, but also “a necessity for those who aim to do a large amount of high-grade work.” (Joselit, 818, citing Melvil Dewey)
In the 1870s as Eastern European Jews began to attain middle-class status, they began to clear out of the Lower East Side and other cities during the summer and they relocated to resort towns such as Saratoga Springs, New York. In these areas, wealthy Jews would reside in luxury hotels for the entire summer where they would gamble, dance, and take leisurely walks on the boardwalks. This vacationing pattern that emerged during the late 19th century was due to the common belief that the heat, pollution and overcrowding of the cities was an unhealthy environment to live in during the summer months. Everyone wanted to get some fresh air and have a chance to interact with Mother Nature.
In Maine, the creation of the central railways in 1895 greatly promoted travel to the state. Furthermore, Maine’s Publicity Bureau attracted Jews and non-Jews alike to travel to the north and “become, once more, eager children of nature” (Maine Central Railroad, 6). Not only did people from Boston and beyond begin to vacation in Maine, but throughout the twentieth century, Jews who inhabited the cities of Portland, Bangor and Lewiston, too, began to retreat to their summer homes in the country to enjoy the fresh air.
The Jews of Waterville followed this trend, and began to escape during the summer months to their camps located on lakes in the surrounding area. Julie Miller, a great-granddaughter of Sarah and William Levine of Levine’s Store, says:
My great-grandfather purchased our summer home. He actually bought it because one of his sons, Pacy…had stomach issues…The doctors told him that Pacy should spend some time out in the country.
Upon purchasing a group of three cottages on Snow Pond, the Levine family’s lake house became their permanent residence for the entire summer. Sara Miller Arnon, Julie’s sister, recalls:
It’s so ridiculous now that you think about it, because, you know, here we moved fifteen, twenty minutes from our house and I thought I was going away; we could’ve been going to California the way that we packed. You’d think that we were never going to get home again, and in the meantime we didn’t have a washing machine or dryer out there in those years, so my mother was going back and forth doing laundry all the time, [and] my father went to work everyday.
Sara brings up the notion that the summering pattern of Jewish families became a gendered affair. Throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries, it was commonplace that women and children remained at their summer homes and resorts for the entirety of the summer months, whereas the men only joined their families on the weekends. In order to afford the summering lifestyle that middle-class Jews participated in, the men had to continue to work during the week in order to support his family (Joselit, 824). Susan Alfond, the daughter of Dexter Shoe Company’s owner, Harold Alfond, recalls that her father continued to work very hard in the summer while also finding time to enjoy their summer camp located on Great Pond in the Belgrade Lakes.
Discrimination at Resorts
The Jewish vacation pattern that developed over time did not come without its difficulties, as antisemitism was a widespread sentiment throughout the United States. During the late 19th century, Jews from the New York area were greatly surprised when hotelier Henry Hilton refused to allow leading Jewish financier Joseph Seligman and his family to stay in his world famous Grand Union Hotel. Hilton believed that Seligman’s presence might attract “colonies of Jewish people,” which would devalue his hotel; many believed that a Jewish presence in vacationing areas made the experience less elite and exclusive (Joselit, 818). As a result of such antisemitic attitudes in resort areas, Jews begin flocking to places such as the Catskills in upstate New York, where they established their own Jewish summering communities. In these bungalow and resort towns, Jews could vacation like all other Americans yet they could keep kosher, worship, or speak Yiddish if they so desired.
A similar phenomenon was occurring throughout Maine, as many coastal towns and areas on the Belgrade Lakes outwardly discriminated against Jews by disallowing them to stay in their hotels and inns. According to a study published by the Anti-Defamation League, Maine was one of the New England states that did not have laws banning discriminatory practices in places of public accommodation. The ADL found that well over half of Maine’s hotels barred Jews as guests during the 1950s (Belth, 38).
Sara Miller Arnon recalls that her mother, Gisele Miller, was very active in volunteering with the ADL to help expose hotels that discriminated against Jews in Maine:
One of the things that she [Gisele Miller] did in those days is she made reservations at places on the coast as Mrs. Howard Miller, which was her name, then she showed up and gave her name as Mrs. Howard Levine, and they never had her reservation for her.
Julie Miller Soros recalls going to the coast of Maine and seeing signs that said, “No Dogs, No Niggers, No Jews Allowed!” Similarly, Julie reminisces on trying to get a job as a teenager in one of the resort towns for the summer:
I do also remember, my senior year of high school—in fact it may have been my junior year of high school—that summer, many of my non-Jewish friends were going to get summer jobs in Bar Harbor. It had changed by then, I thought—the signs weren’t there, at least. My blond, blue-eyed friends that would fit in beautifully in Wilton, Connecticut, [laughs] were going to get jobs in Bar Harbor. Whether they were chambermaids, waitresses, whatever, they wanted to be at the coast for the summer. I remember telling my mother, though, “I’m going with Robyn. We’re going to Bar Harbor, and we’re going to find a place to live. We’re going to get a waitress job, or a bus-girl job, or whatever for the summer. It’ll be really fun!” And she looked at me and said—and I’ll never forget this because I thought she was nuts—she looked at me and said, “Robyn will get a job; Nancy will get a job; Sherry will get a job; you will not get a job.” I was like, “What are you talking about?” And she goes, “They won’t ask you if you’re Jewish, but you will not get a job.” And I thought, “She’s crazy. That doesn’t happen.” She was one hundred percent right. All three of my friends got jobs, and I did not.
According to Sara Miller Arnon, “you went to the coast for a lobster, but you didn’t really hang out at the coast.” She further explains that if a Jewish family wanted to vacation in Maine during the 20th century, they had to buy property or rent from Jewish owners. This is exactly what the Jews of Kennebec County did during this period of time. Indeed, the Levines rented their extra camp houses to Jews from out of state.
Maine Jews and Summer Camps
The idea of having a summer home on a lake in Maine has been a popular trend for Mainers for many years. The Jews of Waterville followed suit during the post-World War II years as they emerged into the middle class, which provided the opportunity to take advantage of the natural beauty of Vacationland. Peter Beckerman, who grew up in the Waterville area, says,
Whether you worked in the mill or you’re a professional, you had a camp on the lake…Camp life was part of Maine life in this area. We have the Belgrade Lakes, we have so many lakes around here, it was just part of your life it seemed in the summer.
The summers spent at camp were a time for the Waterville Jews to take a break from their busy lives back in town; they went waterskiing, socialized, played board games, and ate cheesecake. Susan Alfond remembers that her father, Harold Alfond, used to design a camp-like program for his four children; he would hire a “counselor” and Susan and her brothers would play sports and have swim lessons. They even had a rest period.
One of the traditions that evolved in some of the summer camps was a typical Friday night dinner consisting of lobster. At the Alfond house on Great Pond, every Friday night Harold was responsible for fetching lobster for their traditional weekly family dinner. The prominence of lobster at the camps of Waterville’s Jews reveals that these lake homes did not directly embody the Jewish culture that was often present in the normal home place back in town. Sara Miller Arnon recalls that there were no traditions that directly reflected their Jewish identity at Snow Pond; there was no keeping kosher, no Jewish learning, and no Shabbat dinners that were typical of the Levine family during the winters in Waterville. Glenyce Miller Kaplan, Sarah and William Levine’s granddaughter, describes the increasing secularization of the Levine summer camp over time as the Shabbat candles and the typical Friday night dinner at Snow Pond only occurred when Rabbi Epstein from Boston and Rabbi Ginsberg from New York City rented the two camps next door; this was the Levine’s method of getting them to rent their extra homes in subsequent summers. The summer camp phenomenon among Waterville’s Jews reflected the ways in which they embraced being Mainers. Their behavior at the camps also reflects their waning commitment to keeping kosher and Shabbat; their Jewish identity was changing in regards to traditional patterns of observance. No longer was rabbinical law defining how they led their lives. Rather, they were becoming assimilated into the Maine way of life by eating lobster, enjoying nature, and vacationing at their summer camps.
Jews at Sugarloaf
“Everyone went to Sugarloaf.” –Phyllis Shiro
While summer camps were largely a summer occurrence, skiing first emerged as a popular winter activity in Maine at the turn of the 20th century when the Paris Manufacturing Company became the state’s largest ski maker. In total, Maine had 10 ski-making firms between 1900-1965, including G.H. Bass and Company of Wilton as well as Hussey Manufacturing Company of North Berwick (First Tracks). Although none of these ski manufacturers exist in the present day, the ski culture of the state of Maine has greatly flourished.
Sugarloaf, which opened its slopes in 1951, became the main attraction for Waterville’s Jews during the winter months. According to Phyllis Shiro, “everyone went to Sugarloaf.” Sara Miller Arnon, who grew up being a volunteer teacher in Beth Israel’s Sunday school, said that so many of Waterville’s Jewish families went to Sugarloaf in the winter that the enrollment of children plummeted on the weekends during those months. Consequently, the synagogue shifted Sunday morning classes to Tuesday evenings in order to accommodate the skiing culture that was so prominent throughout the Jewish population.
Unlike the summer resorts in Maine, which banned Jews as guests, Sugarloaf did not discriminate against Jewish skiers. The reason discrimination did not exist on the mountain’s slopes was probably because Sugarloaf was a very new attraction for Mainers in the mid-20th century. Peter Beckerman began skiing in the late 1950s when he was ten years old; as he describes it,
Sugarloaf was in its infancy. Sugarloaf had a rope tow and a T-bar, and if you didn’t climb up and go through the trees it was only one quarter of what it is now as far as vertical skiing goes.
Since Sugarloaf was so young during this period of time, the same degree of prejudice was not ingrained within the mountain’s culture.
Since Waterville’s Jews identified strongly with Maine culture, it is no surprise that many of them adopted skiing as a major form of winter recreation. Susan Alfond recalls learning to ski at a young age. As a child, Sugarloaf became a social time for her because her friends from prep school also spent their vacations skiing.
A lot of them went: there was the Miller children (Howard Miller was part of the Levine store), there was the Shiro children that went, there was the Beckermans… The Wolman family was in that age group, they used to go to Sugarloaf quite a bit. –Alice Emery, who worked for the Alfond family
The participation of Maine’s Jewry in the skiing phenomena illustrates both their assimilation into Maine popular culture and their emergence into the middle class, because skiing is commonly regarded as an expensive, predominantly white sport (Coleman, 586). For example, Sara Miller Arnon attributes her dislike of skiing (on top of not being very athletic) to the fact that her parents simply did not have the money for her to participate in the sport at a young age. However, her sisters, who are five and ten years younger, were introduced to skiing much earlier due to an increase in family wealth over time; Judy and Wendy Miller love to ski. Julie Miller Soros describes:
We were out skiing all day. Where Mountain Farm Road is, off of upper Main Street in Waterville, past the Starbucks and all of that, Colby College owned a piece of land that was Colby Ski Slope. It was one little hill, two sides. There was a T-bar lift on one side, and in later years, a rope tow on the other side.
During the post-World War II period, Waterville’s Jews began owning summer camps and skiing at Sugarloaf. This vacationing and recreational pattern developed because of their emergence as middle-class Mainers. Waterville’s Jews were becoming more economically sound, which allowed them to buy lake houses in the area and permitted them to ski. Furthermore, their strong ties to the state promoted their desire to take advantage of what Maine had to offer. Although Waterville’s Jews faced resistance to their emerging status, they found ways to overcome the discrimination, which eventually faded in years after World War II. These values are still cherished by descendants of Waterville’s Jewish population, and their summer camp and skiing traditions will continue to live on for years to come.
Belth, N. C. 1958. Barriers: patterns of discrimination against Jews. New York: Friendly House Publishers.
Coleman, Annie. 1996. “The Unbearable Whiteness of Skiing”. Pacific Historical Review. 65(4): 583-614.
Joselit, Jenna Weissman. 1998. “Leisure and Recreation.” Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, 818-827.
Maine Central Railroad. Maine Central 8.48 (1894).
“Maine Ski Museum Locates Sponsor for ‘Fireside Chats,’” First Tracks Online Ski Magazine. May 26, 2009. Accessed January 16, 2011. <http://www.glynn.k12.ga.us/BHS/mediacenter/bibliobraphy.html>
Plotnicov, Leonard. 1968. “An American Jewish Vacation Pattern: The Accommodation Of Conjugal Tensions.” Kroeber Anthropological Society Papers 38: 54-62.
Alfond, Susan. Interviewed by Amy Eklund. January 16 and 19, 2011.
Arnon, Sara Miller. Interviewed by Amy Eklund. January 8 and 17, 2011.
Beckerman, Peter. Interviewed by Isadora Alteon. January 10, 2011.
Emery, Alice. Interviewed by Miles de Klerk. January 7, 2011.
Kaplan, Glenyce Miller. Interviewed by David Freidenreich. August 4, 2010.
Miller-Soros, Julie. Interviewed by Hannah Dhonau and Maddie Kurtz. January 10 and 12, 2011.