Change Over Time: Jewish-Gentile Relations in Waterville
by Miles de Klerk ’13 (January 2011)
When I went to public school in Waterville, the elementary years, there was no distinctions. You didn’t even think about stuff like that, you just went to school, you had friends and you were all young. High school started… you realized there were different groups in Waterville, different nationalities. The Franco-Americans, the Lebanese, and the Jews, the three groups were not competitive when I went.
This was the experience of Peter Beckerman, a Waterville native, as he moved through the community’s schools during the ’50s and ’60s. His story is similar to those of others who grew up or raised children in Waterville during that time period. One who looks further back into Waterville’s Jewish history, however, will find that things were not always that way. For Jews growing up in Waterville during the ’20s, ’30s and into the ’40s, things were worse. The Talberth sisters, Ethel and Sue, recall their experiences growing up in Waterville as “nasty” and “very difficult.” This gives you an idea of just how different things were for these earlier generations of Jews. There is a distinct pattern of decreasing intensity in antisemitic interactions from the 1920s to the 1960s; this cannot be denied. What I have found is that while this pattern can be traced throughout the general experience of Jews living in Waterville during this time period, the experiences of children are especially telling. For this reason, I have chosen to focus on the nature of Jewish-gentile interactions in the schools and on the sports fields, the two places where Jewish children had the most contact with their gentile neighbors.
“Nasty” and “Very Difficult”: The 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s
Now, let’s move back in time to 1920s Waterville, in order to take a look at the “nasty” and “very difficult” experiences of the Talberth sisters. As one might assume from their comments about the nature of their experience growing up in Waterville, many of the interactions that these girls had with their gentile classmates and teachers were quite unpleasant. Ethel recalls how, going to Waterville high school in the late 1920s, she was excluded from participating in sports because she was Jewish.
I loved sports. And, in order to engage in them, I had to bow down to the Catholic people. One would say, “If you want me to vote for you, you have to scrub coals—you’re Jewish.”
When Sue was asked to talk about her experiences in the schools her immediate answer was simply, “bad, very bad.” When asked to elaborate, she goes on to say that because of her Jewish identity she was completely excluded by her classmates. “Well, we weren’t considered anything, never given any honors or any positions or anything. Very bad.” More striking than either of these stories is another of Ethel’s, one where she had particularly nasty interaction not only with a student, but a teacher as well.
One of the Catholic boys came down and said, “I want to ride your bicycle.” And I said, “You can’t, it’s my brother’s.” He said, “You dirty Jew! You Christ-killer!” And I said, “I don’t know who Christ is, but I know you can’t take the bike.” The following day I went to my history teacher in school and said that this boy said that I was a dirty Jew and I killed Christ. “The history book says Christ was killed by the Romans, I don’t know what he was talking about!” She said, “There was a misprint: he was right.”
This is the single most striking story that I found in my research. Not only do we see intense name-calling, including “dirty Jew” and “Christ killer,” the two nastiest names I encountered, we see a gentile teacher, an adult, taking advantage of the ignorance of a child to make her feel bad about her Jewish identity. The stories of the Talberth sisters paint a rather bleak picture for the nature of Jewish-gentile interactions in Waterville. Fortunately, things seem to improve for Waterville’s Jews, but not significantly, before Burt Shiro moved through the schools.
When prompted to talk about his experiences with gentile teachers starting in the late 1930s, Burt Shiro has this to say: “There were the most people, most people I had in school, they were very good, but there were a few who were actually prejudiced against the Jews. And that’s too bad, but that’s the way it was.” Following this, Burt goes on to talk extensively about is experiences with gentiles as a child in Waterville, and it seems that every one includes some type of physical altercation. Burt was also very involved in sports, something that the Shiros claim was wrought with antisemitism. Burt’s experiences with antisemitism on the sports fields and courts was not uncommon. Peter Beckerman, a nephew of Burt’s who grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, recalls the experiences of his uncles when they played high school basketball.
When my uncles went, even though they all played on the same teams, you’ll hear stories about the Lebanese who would pass the ball mostly to Lebanese or spoke some Lebanese on the basketball court. When I grew up I didn’t see any of that, the distinctions were there and we had fun with them.
During the 1930s and ’40s, Waterville’s ethnic groups were still quite divided, even when playing on the same teams. Also supplied in this quote is the idea that things are getting better for Wateville’s Jews, something that cannot be ignored as we move out of the 1940s and into the ’50s and ’60s.
A Time of Improvement: The 1950s and ’60s
Peter Beckerman’s experience is strikingly different from that of the Talberth sisters and Burt Shiro. It is, howver, fairly similar to the experiences of other children growing up in Waterville during the postwar years. Phyllis Shiro describes the nature of antisemitism when she moved to Waterville with Burt shortly after World War II.
I’m sure many people have subtle incidences of antisemitism. It was never flagrant, it was ignorant people who make stupid remarks. My children can tell you many incidences where comments were made, something about being Jewish. Like a basketball coach saying to my son, “I though Jews were smart.” You know, comments like that, sort of an undercurrent.
This idea of an undercurrent of discrimination against Jews is common among stories from this era. Phyllis notes that her sons, who were very involved with sports, experienced much more of this undercurrent while playing on sports teams, while their daughter managed to avoid much of it by staying off the fields. But even though they had some troubles, the Shiros note that their children had an excellent experience growing up in Waterville.
Judy Brody, who claimed to have felt fully assimilated with her gentile classmates in the Waterville schools, was able to participate in theater and other extracurricular activities without fear of discrimination by her classmates. She even rose to leadership positions in some of the clubs. Gordon and Myrtle Wolman recall that they had no problems with antisemitism when they raised their children in Waterville during the postwar years, something that struck them as odd, given the contrast of their own childhood experiences in Waterville and elsewhere.
Going back to the vicious name-calling that went on during the Talberth sisters’ time in the schools, we see another significant contrast from the experience of Peter Beckerman in a continuation of his earlier quote regarding his uncles’ experiences on the basketball court.
When I grew up I didn’t see any of that. The distinctions were there and we had fun with them. They weren’t ignored or unknown like they were in elementary school. We actually, as I said, had fun… totally politically incorrect. I mean… I might be called by my good friends, just joking around, “bagel eater.” We might call a Lebanese a “camel jockey.” They didn’t even know what a bagel was or if I ever ate a bagel, and certainly they’ve never been on a camel and, you know, didn’t associate themselves back in Lebanon with the desert, but we had fun with it. You know, fake foolish French accents with foolish phraseologies, we’re not really kind, but we all laughed, we had a good time with the differences… It was almost flattering that they recognized you were a part of a tribe you were proud of, if it was jokey or not.
Here we see name-calling taking on a different form, a more benign and friendly form, from what it was for the Talberth sisters and Pat Hillson Goldman, who recalls her brother being called a “Christ killer” as a very young child in the 1930s. For Peter, “bagel eater” is a term of endearment: it marks him as a member of a special community, not an inferior one.
While some things went from terrible to great for the Jews between the ’20s and the ’60s, others simply went from awful to annoying. A specific example of this type of smaller improvement comes from Paula Lunder, whose children faced punishment in school for missing class due to religious holidays. Paula attempted to have the school add several Jewish holidays to their calendar. Her request, however, was denied by multiple people, including the school secretary, a friend of hers.
I always wanted the Jewish holidays to be put on the school calendar. So I went to the high school, this was when my kids were in high school, so I went to their school, and I spoke to the person who was in charge of the scheduling and the calendar. I said, “I would like to enter these dates as important Jewish dates.” It was Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Not allowed at all. Not allowed. And she was a friend of mine. She said, “No, we don’t do that; those dates do not belong on our calendar.” I said, “I want my children’s religion to be respected. I want my children to be understood, and their beliefs respected.” She said, “that’s not our problem.”
Obviously, this story doesn’t paint a picture of tolerance on the part of the administration of Waterville’s public schools, but these interactions are far more benign than those that Ethel Talberth and Burt Shiro recounted. In their cases we saw gentile adults targeting Jewish children with unadulterated discrimination. In the ’60s we simply see a refusal to accept the Jewish religion in schools—still bad, still insensitive, but this simply isn’t the flagrant antisemitism that Ethel experienced in the ’20s. Finally, while the Shiro boys may have had some problems with antisemitic undercurrents on the sports fields, their nephew Peter Beckerman again shares a more positive story, this time about the football league that he ran as a child.
I found it the other day again: a list of pick-up football, sand lot football… That list had absolutely no distinctions for anyone who was around to play; it was a list of everybody in the entire area of Waterville that would walk or bicycle. Looking at that list, there was everybody on it from White Anglo Protestants to the French. It made no distinctions, it went right down, whoever was able to come and play was on that list.
No discrimination, no distinctions, if you can get to the games, you can play. That’s the message Peter Beckerman was sending as he organized sports during the ’60s, and it’s the same message he sends today, still organizing pick-up sporting events in Waterville. When contrasted with Ethel’s story of exclusion from sports by her Catholic classmates simply for being Jewish, this story shows us how much the nature of Jewish-gentile interactions shifted between the interwar years to the postwar era.
What Accounts for the Improvement in Jewish-Gentile Relations?
So what accounts for this pattern? Why did antisemitism get less intense as time went on? In her study of the city of Bangor, Maine, Judith Goldstein notes a similar type of pattern. She discusses the rise in antisemitism in the 1920s that grew throughout the Depression, a time when Americans by and large were feeling the stress of financial decline and acted accordingly. She goes on to describe how this growing antisemitism was represented nationally by the restrictions on Jewish immigrants, quotas for Jewish students at colleges and universities and groups like the Klu Klux Klan that aimed to keep the Jews down (Goldstein 101). Goldstein notes that this racism continues throughout the interwar years, culminating at the dawn of World War II in more flagrant demonstrations against Jews (Goldstein 119), something that was also felt in Waterville by Burt Shiro. He recalls an incident where a man walked down the street after the United States’ announcement of entrance into World War II, yelling, “Kill the Jews! Kill the Jews!”
Goldstein goes on to talk about the effects of World War II and the improvements that Jews saw in Bangor during this time, and in some cases even earlier. Goldstein notes that in the late 1930s, general antisemitism had declined to the point that many women were able to take up leadership positions in non-Jewish clubs, something that was completely unheard of before this time (Goldstein 100). A similar phenomenon is noted by the Wolmans, who claim that there was much less sentiment for antisemitism among gentiles in the early to mid ’40s, especially after World War II.
However, while there are similarities between the histories of Jewish-gentile interactions in these towns, they cannot be labeled as the same. Even if they could be, Goldstein offers no overarching explanation for the changes that occurred, attributing them to social changes that occurred nationwide, if to anything at all. I too am unable to supply an overarching explanation for the nature of these Jewish-gentile interactions. They seem to follow national trends at some times, and ones specific to small towns at others, and sometimes don’t seem to follow any trend at all. What I have gleaned from this realization is that we’re missing part of the picture. I strongly suspect that the answers that we are seeking do not lie in a more in-depth look at the stories of Waterville’s Jews, but of the experiences of the people on other side of these interactions, namely the gentile community of Waterville. Without their side of the story, their experiences with Jews and information about how their preconceptions about this ethnic minority were formed and shaped these interactions, I fear that we will never have the entire picture that we seek. For this reason, what you have read here is very much a work in progress: one side of the story has been presented, and I hope to explore the others in order to explain the interesting nature of Jewish-gentile relations in Waterville, Maine.
Goldstein, Judith S. Crossing lines : Histories of jews and gentiles in three communities. New York: Morrow, 1992.
Beckerman, Peter. Interview by Isadora Alteon. 14 January 2011.
Brody, Judy. Interview by Jena Hershkowitz. 19 January 2010.
Goldman, Pat Hillson. Interview by Tendai M’ndange-Pfupfu. 9 January 2011.
Lunder, Paula. Interview by Yichen Jiang. 9 January 2011.
Shiro, Burton and Phyllis. Interview by Samuel Levine. 17 January 2010.
Shiro, Burton and Phyllis. Interview by Miles de Klerk. 18 January 2011.
Talberth, Ethel and Sue. Interview by David Freidenreich. 21 December 2010.
Wolman, Gordon and Myrtle. Interview by Hasan Bhatti. 21 January 2010.