Ken was born in 1944 and grew up in Gardiner, Maine. He went to Hebrew school and Sunday school in Augusta. Ken was interviewed by Nicole Mitchell.
Nicole Mitchell: Ken, I was hoping that we could start off by having you tell me a little bit about how you feel that you learned your Jewish identity and traditions growing up.
Ken Slosberg: Yeah, well, all through my family basically, and my grandparents who were Orthodox—these were my father’s parents. They were part of a large family that had been in the Gardiner area since the late 19th century. My grandparents were Orthodox and, as I told you earlier, my grandfather laid tefillin and davened twice a day every day. We did all the Jewish holidays around the table, all the home holidays such as Passover and High Holiday meals, and the non-Jewish holidays as well like thanksgiving. So that was it in terms of from my family.
And in terms of the community, my family was very involved with the shul and my father was on the Board of Shul Elders. It was a very small community and we didn’t have a rabbi. But I was bar mitzvahed. I studied with a rabbi from Lewiston for about a year, and I went to Augusta for Hebrew lessons. That’s what all the kids did when I was growing up. We also sometimes had Sunday school some of those years. And when I talked to my cousin Bernard, who I saw at this family bar mitzvah this past Saturday, he told me that he had actually taught Sunday school in Augusta. When he was in high school, so that would’ve been in the late ’50’s, early 1960’s. And I didn’t know that. I’d forgotten that. I suppose I attended those too. What I remembered was back in grade school, I think it was usually women in the community would do Sunday school or some high school kid would teach the younger kids. It was very exciting. It wasn’t a regular thing. It was only once in a while when it would get organized to do that. It didn’t last that many years. It was kind of an attempt to keep something going during the year that wasn’t high holidays. I don’t know if that answered the original question of where my Jewish identity came from, but it was through family and whatever Jewish holidays we celebrated with the community.
NM: I am actually really interested in the Hebrew school that was in Augusta. Could you tell me a little more about that?
KS: Well, I wish I could, but I don’t remember much about it! I was kind of surprised when he told me that! So I don’t know. I assume it was kind of a very small-scale thing, and I assume it was at the shul, which would’ve been built by then in Augusta.
KS: And I thought, you know, that whole question of Jewish identity and assimilation is kind of interesting. I think that was a fear among my parents’ generation that kids who married outside the faith, that their children would have less Jewish identity. And I think it’s a valid fear. I think that actually happens in a lot of cases, probably including my own family. My kids don’t have the same Jewish identity that I do and their kids, my grandchildren, will have even less. … It’s really hard if you don’t have it in your household. And certainly even my parents didn’t have the same kind of Jewish household that my grandparents did. I think that’s maybe why; they had more of an influence on me and my Jewish identity. My parents weren’t Orthodox, so we didn’t have a kosher house; that was quite different. My father didn’t daven twice a day; that was different. My grandparents and my aunt and uncle and cousins didn’t ride on Shabbos and kept kosher. So that’s how it started. It was a different kind of Jewish identity in my family and then my marrying a non-Jew—even though we do some of the holidays—it’s not the same, and we don’t attend synagogue. So, it is starting to dissipate
KS: What would happen is, and maybe there was a smattering of Hebrew school before, but basically real Hebrew training got serious when you were twelve. So, if you were going to have a bar mitzvah when you were thirteen, you started serious lessons, one on one with the rabbi a year before that. And maybe a year or two before that there were some Hebrew lessons. We had some Hebrew lessons when I was in high school and they were in Augusta. And the rabbi was from Lewiston, Rabbi Norman Zedanowitz [sp?]. He would come from Lewiston to Augusta and we would come from Gardiner, and he probably had other students from Augusta, I’m not sure. But then when I started studying for my bar mitzvah, either we met in Augusta or I met at his house in Lewiston.
NM: So, did you enjoy that? What did you think of that?
KS: (Laughing) I can’t say that I enjoyed it… but I didn’t hate it either. I mean it was like school at that age, something to endure I suppose. But I was excited about having a bar mitzvah. That seemed like a big deal. I liked the idea of being the center of attention for a while.
KS: I’m trying to think, I guess there were no other Jewish boys in my class. And the year ahead maybe there were three. I’m assuming they all also had bar mitzvahs in Gardiner and did the same sort of thing. My cousin Bernard who had been two years before, he said in his class there were no other class. But he had gone to Portland for sixth, seventh and eighth grade, because his mother had wanted him to have a real Jewish education and a real Orthodox Jewish education. So because of that, he went to live with her family in Portland for three years and was probably bar mitzvahed in Portland. So he was the real deal, he really knew all of that stuff. The rest of us, I thought, were sort of faking it, you know? (laughing)
NM: (laughing) Yeah, well I guess he must have learned a lot if he was able to teach Hebrew school later on.
KS: Well, I don’t know if he taught Hebrew school, he taught Sunday school.
NM: Oh, right.
KS: Sunday school was different, it was like reading about Moses and the Ten Commandments and filling in coloring books and burning bushes and stuff. A less academic approach to that, I think.