Religious Life

Update: Jan 12th, 2012

“We Did the Short Kiddush…”: Patterns and Practices of Jewish Religious Life

by Jena Hershkowitz ’12 (January 2010)

A few trends become apparent in studies of the religious lives and practices of Jews in small town America. In Insecure Prosperity, Ewa Morawska theorizes that an inherent difference between Jewish communities in small towns and big cities is the significance invested in Judaism as a religion, rather than as an ethnic or cultural identity. According to Morawska, this difference between Judaism and Yiddishkeyt is apparent in studies of Jews in smaller towns because small towns host small Jewish communities, within which there is a need to maintain a synagogue as both a religious and cultural center for the community. Because of this, membership to the synagogue in smaller communities is “not quite voluntary” (137). In big cities with both more sizable and more visible Jewish populations, Jews were more likely to form a cultural identity separate from their religious identities. This cultural identity, which Morawska calls Yiddishkeyt, can be felt in larger cities, even without membership to any Jewish religious organization. Through evidence from oral-history interviews with members of Kennebec County’s Jewish community, one can begin to understand the existence of this complicated relationship between Judaism and Yiddishkeyt among residents of Waterville, Augusta, and smaller areas of Kennebec County, Maine. Additionally, understanding this relationship sheds light on ways these communities both adhere to and differ from patterns commonly observed in small-town Jewish religious life.

Congregational development and early observance

New Jewish immigrants in Waterville, as around the country, formed a congregation rapidly when a large enough number of Jews settled in the area.  By 1904 the original Congregation Beth Israel formed, leading to a period of informal worship.  Like small Jewish communities elsewhere around the country, the early Congregation Beth Israel gathered for lay-led services primarily on the High Holidays (Weissbach 158).  In Waterville, this period of lay-led religious life proved lucrative for Lester Jolovitz’s father, who earned extra money because he could travel on his junk cart and give

…Hebrew lessons to the youngsters who lived in Waterville, because, apparently, they didn’t have a Hebrew school.  Most of the young children would be taught by their parents, and in my father’s case, where he was well-educated, he provided some education, or prepared some of the students [for the Bar Mitzvah ceremony].

Small-town Jewish communities also often form the burial society, or Chevra Kadisha (Weissbach 164), but Waterville seems to have differed from the pattern in early Jewish religious life in this way.  Sumner Fanger, the only person interviewed to note the presence of a mikveh in Waterville (though its location is as yet unkown), also remembers that, “There was never Chevra Kadisha in Waterville.  There was one in Portland.  That’s the one that was mostly used.”

photo courtesy of Peter and Joan Beckerman

The original building of Waterville's Congregation Beth Israel; photo courtesy of Peter and Joan Beckerman

In the early years of congregational organization, Jewish religious life in Waterville happened mostly in people’s homes.  As the community grew, they set up more permanent quarters on Ticonic Street, where they built a small Talmud Torah, and Kelsey Street, home to a slightly larger synagogue building.  This intermediate stage also appears in Augusta’s Jewish community, as Irene Friedman remembers. “My grandfather’s first cousin owned a shoe store, in fact he owned the whole block.  Up over the shoe store on Main Street in Augusta and Bridge Street, we had one room and it was our synagogue.”

As these congregations continued their expansion, they moved toward the third phase common to small town congregational development: the congregation’s acquisition of their own, separate synagogue building (Weissbach 164, 179).  In the case of Waterville, Beth Israel needed a larger building; in the case of Augusta, Beth El needed a building of its own.  According to Sumner Lipman, when most of the Lipman family moved to Augusta and the congregation there doubled in size, the synagogue over the shoe store wouldn’t suffice anymore.  “That’s why when my father and my uncle were here they went and built a synagogue. A separate building, which still exists today.”

While some rabbinical schools had been established in the United States, rabbis were both expensive and in short supply during the early 20th century throughout America.  This meant that even if a small town congregation could afford to hire a rabbi, he was likely to pursue greater opportunities with congregations in larger cities and would not stay long in a small town (Weissbach 207).  This problem of leadership was solved with the employment of rabbi-surrogates, whom communities usually found through word-of-mouth (Weissbach 203-204).  Rabbi-surrogates were often people who, despite having no formal training in Jewish higher education, had a greater knowledge of Hebrew and Judaism than their counterparts, and who often had training in some other important skill.  In 1921, Sam Wein, on behalf of Beth Israel in Waterville, called Abraham Hains down from St. Johns, New Brunswick, to serve as shochet, mohel, and rabbi-surrogate for the community.  Hains, like many other rabbi-surrogates, was given the honorific “Reverend.”

Waterville’s Jewish community often remembers Abraham Hains’ early years at Beth Israel romantically, believing they were some of the stronger years of Jewish practice in Waterville.  Still, the congregation faced challenges common to congregations everywhere.  Gathering and maintaining the ten men in a minyan for prayer was often a difficult task.  Once Gordon Wollman received his driver’s license in the mid-1930s, the responsibility of minyan gathering often fell on him.

I used to, if somebody needed a minyan when I was a teenager and had my license, I used to drive my grandfather around to pick up other Jews to make a minyan. Did that for a number of years. It was very difficult. The only time that you got a minyan was when you got on the phone and called those who had transportation and those who didn’t. We used to go ’round and pick them up.

Also a teen at the time, Kenneth Jacobson remembers the process of gathering a minyan with a slightly different tone.

…when I was thirteen, they had to get ten men together Friday night services at the small one, it was called the Talmud Torah, on Ticonic Street. In fact, it was just a room, that’s all it was. Because I lived right near there, someone would always come to me and say: “we really need you, you’re the tenth man” and when I got there I was always like number two. [laughs] They told everybody they were the tenth man, to get people there.

The challenge of kashrut

Abraham Hains was well known, and is remembered by many with admiration, for the power of his voice. Perhaps his most important duty within the Waterville community, however, was to serve as shochet.  During Reverend Hains’ time in Waterville, kosher meat was readily available, and so the Jewish community largely kept kosher.  After Hains passed away in 1953, keeping kosher became more of a challenge, but one that many people of the immigrant and second generation maintained.  The experience Judy Brody (née Levine) shares of her mother’s methods of keeping a kosher house echo what many people would have had to do after Hains’ death.

My mother kept a kosher home, and it wasn’t easy because you had to get meat out of town, but it was important enough to her to make our house and our kitchen special so that we understood that.  She had a freezer, and she would go to Bangor, that was only an hour away and she would go on a regular basis every two to three months because, as I said, we were a family of five children.  She had a good-sized household and she bought kosher meat and we were never at a loss for food, but it was strictly kept in my house.

Gordon and Myrtle Wolman, while offering sentiments similar to Judy Brody’s, provide a commonly understood reason for the end of Waterville’s need for a shochet.  In reference to Gordon’s mother, whom they called Nana, Myrtle says, “We used to be kosher, until about 17 or 18 years ago. And a lot of it was because of Nana, she was here and we respected her wishes.”  Over the generations, in Waterville and in communities elsewhere in the United States, the need and desire among Jews to keep kosher began to diminish.  After the death of the generation that emigrated from “the old country,” laws of kashrut were no longer an important part of many individuals’ Jewish identity.  One did not need to keep kosher to be Jewish.

Jews often chose to take part more fully in their American, and specifically their Maine, experience at the expense of keeping kosher.  Members of Tau Delta Phi, Colby’s Jewish fraternity, tell stories of hosting their own lobster dinners.  The Maine lobster was popular among many of Waterville’s Jews, even among people who otherwise generally kept kosher.  This is apparent in a situation Ken Slosberg recalls of his mother’s discomfort with foods she thoroughly enjoyed eating.

…we ate things like, my mother loved lobster and seafood, and of course that’s just forbidden in terms of kosher. So when my grandparents came over she didn’t serve that kind of thing. But she was always interested in food and what we ate, so we’d talk about those things and we always kind of laughed. It always gave her the creeps to talk about shellfish.

Robert Hains, Reverend Abraham Hains’ grandson recalled a similar situation of breaking laws of kashrut.

Maybe until my grandmother passed away for the most part we kept kosher, although I remember lobster in the house on occasion—it may have been on paper plates.  Then we had company, some of my mother’s family was visiting and wanted lobsters, and the phone rang and my grandparents would be there in five minutes so they could visit our company and it all got packed up and out and the windows open and the smell gone in the five minutes before they got there.

Religious expression among Jewish Colby students from away

Jewish Colby students coming to Waterville from away describe having different attitudes toward religious expression than those found in Waterville’s Jewish community.  Doris Hopengarten (née Rose), a Jewish student from the Boston area who attended Colby during the 1930s, recalls, “I didn’t take part in much of the Jewish life at Colby because first of all the only shul was very Orthodox, and I came from a background that was very mixed.”  For Hopengarten, who grew up attending a Reform synagogue, the community in Waterville was too traditional.  Other students, such as Judy Schreider (née Quint), a friend and contemporary of Doris Hopengarten’s, found comfort in connection with the traditional foods of Waterville’s Jewish community:

Well, there was a woman in town that had a little, little tiny old store, I think a Hershey bar must have been a nickel, a big bar must’ve been a nickel.  So my mother said to me, “Why don’t you ask her if she’ll cook for you every night and you can eat in the back of her store?”  So I did.  So for ten dollars a week I walked to her store seven nights a week for ten dollars.  She was an old-fashioned Jewish lady.  She made me lovely, lovely dinners.  I don’t remember fish much, but chicken, or chicken soup, or that was the kind of diet we had at home too.  I was used to that kind of food and everything was fine.

The connections between Jewish Colby students and members of Beth Israel, at times, ran deeper than that.  Before Colby had an extensive dormitory system, Jewish students often lived in the homes of Jewish families in town.  Also, when Phyllis Shiro moved to Waterville from Massachusetts after World War II, she says,

We had no Sunday school when I came here.  They just had the little synagogue that you saw.  And, I thought, we’ve got to have a Sunday school here.  So, like he said, they learned Hebrew but they didn’t know any of the stories, or they didn’t know any of the history or anything.  So, I contacted… I didn’t even know where to begin, so I called a rabbi in New York and he sent me some information and books and stuff and that’s how we started.  But, we had no place to go, so we were on the second floor of the YMCA, with our little Sunday school.  And some of the other young women at the time helped out teaching.

Conducting Sunday school allowed for greater connection between Waterville’s Jewish community and Jewish Colby students from away.  According to Judy Brody, for a while Jewish Colby students taught Sunday school.  These students were able to teach about Jewish traditions and history, but also about what Jewish life in the communities they in which they had grown up.

High Holiday observance

When it came to observance of Jewish holidays, Robert Hains describes an experience common to many Jewish children in Waterville:

Growing up, all of the Jewish holidays that call for no work, we never went to school, none of my contemporaries went to school, so that would be Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Sukkos or the Feast of Tabernacles, Passover the first two days and the last two days, and Shavuos or the Feast of Weeks and on the, not the interim days but the holiday days, we never went to school.  There may have been a few exceptions in the community but not many.

Judy Brody, who, like Robert Hains, attended Waterville public schools during the 1940s, remembers that as one of only two Jewish students in her class, missing school for holiday observance was sometimes difficult to explain.  Years later, she believes her children may have found this a little easier than she, Robert Hains and their contemporaries, may have.

I have two sons and a daughter, and by the time they came they each had a couple of other Jewish kids in their classes, in their school classes, which always makes it a little better because they always felt awkward when Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur came, and we didn’t allow our children to go to school on those days, and they always had to explain, so it was better if there were a couple of others in your class who didn’t go to school.  They had a few more than I had had growing up.

For Judy Brody, the High Holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur were the only times during her childhood that she attended synagogue.  For others, the High Holidays in Maine came to be associated with events totally unrelated to holiday observance.  Rosh Hashanah in Augusta, according to Sumner Lipman, came to be associated with the Rosh Hashanah Bowl.

After temple, which we’d get out around noontime on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, we had a tradition at our home that we had the Rosh Hashanah Bowl. And all the kids that were in temple would come up there and we’d have a football game all afternoon. And we’d call it the Rosh Hashanah Bowl. We sort of grew up with that. It was a joke. Everyone in town knew it: “When’s the Rosh Hashanah Bowl?” “What time’s it gonna be?” And as I came back and I had children, I developed a tradition that either the first/second day of Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, depending on the weather, it was a tradition for the New Year that I’d always take the kids apple-picking. It’s the same time of year. And now, two generations, my grandchildren say, “Oh, yeah, Rosh Hashanah is when we go apple-picking.” Well, that’s actually a tradition that I started. But they all associate that with the holiday.

Yiddishkeyt as Judaism and the obligation of culture

The history of religious practice among Kennebec County’s Jewish population is marked by the community’s adjustment to its environment.  As people’s economic and social situations changed in Waterville, Augusta and Gardiner, they worked to navigate the complicated relationship between their traditions and their new realities.  Within this context, we can see the blurring of Judaism and Yiddishkeyt, a distinction that may have been maintained in cities like New York, but could not be afforded in the smaller Jewish communities of Maine.  Demonstrating this inextricable connection among Waterville’s Jews, when asked about religious life and holidays, the first memory to surface for Judy Brody is about the Yiddish language, and not about religion or holidays at all.

I do remember every other Sunday, it’s not a holiday, but every other Sunday my grandfather came by bus from Auburn, Maine… and we had a big family dinner when he came.  But before we started dinner he would go upstairs to one of the bedrooms with my brother and me, and he would teach us Yiddish.  And if we understood the sentence correctly he would give us candy called Bolster Bars.  And so to this day I can understand everything in Yiddish.  I can’t say anything because he didn’t require that, all he wanted us to do was learn to understand it.

Robert Hains echoes Brody’s idea when he describes how, though everyone spoke fluent English, Yiddish was the language of the house, and so everyone in his generation knew a “little Yiddish.”  Knowledge of the language, however incomplete, allowed Waterville’s Jews to maintain some semblance of their old, largely Lithuanian-Jewish, culture.

In Waterville, the Jewish community’s progression away from Orthodox adherence to their religion can be seen strikingly in the treatment, over time, of the Sabbath.  Growing up, Robert Hains remembers his family fighting with the paperboy, who always seemed to come collecting his payment on Saturdays.  Multiple interview subjects stressed that their families walked on Sabbath and did not drive, even if they were working on Saturday, as Hains did through his time at Waterville High School.  Jewish stores stayed open on Saturday, they had to.  This was understood.  Yet, as Robert Hains suggests, the community seemed to move most completely from its strict adherence to tradition when some Jewish stores stayed open during the High Holidays.

I can remember when Levine’s and Stern’s first decided to stay open on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, the non-Jews questioned it, “Aren’t you supposed to be closed today?” and it’s quite a comment on what Jews think of themselves and how they will act as compared with what ancestors might have done, or generation before might have done, and that’s the way it seems to go.

Jewish religious life in Waterville may resemble and differ from patterns observed in small Jewish communities around the country, but what the particular experience of this group shows us is a balance that all ethnic or religious groups and all people struggle to keep: the balance between customary belief and tradition, and current situations and realities.  For many people, like the Shiros, their family’s level of religiosity was never in question, despite unorthodox behaviors and observance.  Waterville’s Jews, like Jews everywhere, have spent the past century, or so, livingly Jewishly, whatever meaning that held, both religiously and culturally for them.  Myrtle Wolman, explaining her family’s practices, shows that there have always been different levels of observance within this small Jewish community.  Yet all of these experiences and variations remain valid ways of living Jewishly in Kennebec County.

And so we were observant—not to the letter, but we were observant. We lit candles, we said blessings, we had hamotzi, we had Kiddush, that sort of thing. Much more than many people our age but we had it. It was a minimum but we had it!  We didn’t do the long Kiddush, we did the short Kiddush.

For them, for their identities, the short Kiddush is enough.

Print sources

Morawska, Ewa.  Insecure Prosperity. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996.

Weissbach, Lee Shai.  Jewish Life in Small Town America: A History.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Interviews

Brody, Judy.  Interview by Jena Hershkowitz.  19 January 2010.

Fanger, Sumner.  Interview by Spencer Kasko.  21 January 2010.

Friedman, Irene.  Interview by Nicole Mitchell.  16 January 2010.

Hains, Robert.  Interview by Jena Hershkowitz. 7 January 2010.

Jacobson, Kenneth.  Interview by Katie Peterson.  9 January 2010.

Jolovitz, Lester.  Interview by Samuel Levine.  10 January 2010.

Lipman, Sumner.  Interview by Spencer Kasko.  9 January 2010.

Schreider, Judy.  Interview by Desiree Shayer.  21 January 2010.

Shiro, Burton and Phyllis.  Interview by Samuel Levine.  17 January 2010.

Slosberg, Kenneth.  Interview by Nicole Mitchell.  19 January 2010.

Wolman, Gordon and Myrtle.  Interview by Hasan Bhatti.  21 January 2010.

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