Patterns of Jewish Life in Skowhegan
by Kimi Kossler ’12 (June 2011)
The patterns used by Lee Shai Weissbach in Jewish Life in Small-Town America to describe Jewish communities of 100-999 Jews are also characteristic of Skowhegan’s Jewish community, whose population peaked at 24 Jews during the early 20th century. This similarity in patterns of migration, occupation, and Jewish life is due in part to Skowhegan’s close proximity to the significantly larger Jewish population in Waterville.
Patterns of Migration and Settlement
Weissbach states that small Jewish communities were in a constant state of flux due to the perpetual arrival and departure of Jewish families (71). Jews chose to migrate to small towns for several different reasons: the desire to move closer to family, to live in a healthier environment, and the opportunity to increase the family’s economic status. After analysis of Jewish communities in small towns throughout America, Weissbach determined that an important factor in a family’s decision to leave a small town was the hope that relocation would lead to better economic opportunities (87). Another factor that often motivated families to leave small towns for large cities was the desire to lead a more intense Jewish lifestyle (90).
Susman Russakoff’s migration to Skowhegan in 1907 was initiated by the arrival of a broken watch from a friend who lived in Skowhegan. He explained to his friend that the problem with the watch was extremely easy to fix and that he did not understand why nobody in Maine could repair it. To Susman’s surprise, his friend informed him that no such repair man lived in Maine and that he should come visit Skowhegan. Upon arrival in Skowhegan, Susman realized that the town reminded him of the old country and would be an ideal place to raise his family (Russakoff 141-43). He convinced his wife to leave the cramped tenements of New York City in exchange for the rural setting in Skowhegan, Maine and the opportunity to open his own jewelry store (148). Some time after 1920, Susman decided to move his family to Boston in order to expose his children to more Jewish families and their Jewish culture (206). After living in Boston for twelve years, Susman and his wife moved back to Skowhegan and continued to run his jewelry store. The desire for economic prosperity caused Susman to move to a small town, while the lack of Jewish culture caused him to temporarily move his family to a larger city (207-208).
Ted Casher’s parents moved their family to Skowhegan from Waterbury, Connecticut, in order to ease some of Ted’s asthma related problems caused by the heavy pollution in the city. Ted recalled always feeling better when he visited his grandfather, Susman Russakoff, in Skowhegan. The move to Skowhegan not only enabled Ted’s mother to move back to her hometown, but it also helped improve Ted’s asthma (Ted Casher interview). (See further: Migration Patterns of Waterville Jews).
Patterns of Occupation
According to Weissbach, most Jews viewed peddling merely as the start of their journey to economic success and they did not want to continue as itinerant workers for the entirety of their lives (96). The hope for upward economic mobility was strongly rooted in the traditions of Jewish culture (97). (See further: Occupational Trends of Jews in Kennebec County). This desire for an improved economic status led many Jews to start their own businesses, which were often very successful. The success of family businesses in small towns was largely due to the fact that small communities became critical centers for trade and commerce as America’s economy grew to be more complex and spread out (98). While the most visible Jewish businesses in small towns were department stores, there were many Jews involved in livestock trading and some in manufacturing (100).
Unlike the occupational pattern described in Weissbach’s book, which indicates that most Jews transitioned from peddling goods to owning a business, for the Jews in Skowhegan the establishment of a family business was possible without first having to peddle goods. Starting a business was ideal for many Jews, but it did not always immediately lead to financial success. In his memoir, Susman Russakoff recalls the hardships associated with the opening of his jewelry store on January 12, 1907:
Ma was ahead of me in that she could prepare the meal more easily than I could provide the few cents for its cost. There were no lines of customers waiting to enter my store. The few things I had in stock were paltry and made no kind of showing compared to the two flourishing jewelry stores on the upper side of the same street… Business was dismally bad. Even the coming of spring brought no improvement. I was disappointed by not earning at least half what my wages had been. (Russakoff 148-150)
Although Susman’s business showed no signs of improvement in the winter and spring, by mid-summer of that year he finally experienced a surge of business. Coincidently, his busiest day was the same day his first son, Joseph, was born. As Susman’s jewelry business became more successful he was able to move into a larger storefront and purchase a nicer home. His success eventually allowed him to open a second store in Waterville. The family jewelry business was later passed down to his son Archie (Marjory Russakoff interview).
This occupational pattern of owning a family business to promote economic success can also be used to describe the Sterns family. Before opening a Sterns’ Department Store in Skowhegan, Harvey Sterns’ grandfather had owned and operated several stores throughout Maine. Harvey Sterns explains how a branch of the Sterns’ Department Store was established in Skowhegan:
My father graduated from college in 1929. His father, my grandfather, had some illness that also affected my father’s ability to go to graduate school. He had been accepted at Harvard Business, but because of my grandfather’s illness he could not go. So what he was doing was running sales for my grandfather in vacant stores and one of the sales that he ran was a vacant store in Skowhegan. He decided that he liked it there. This would have been either ’29 or ’30, and he decided then to establish a branch of Sterns’ store in Skowhegan.
While it might appear unnecessary to open a branch store only twenty miles away from the principle store in Waterville, Harvey explains how the locations of the stores increased the success of the family business:
It’s always amazing to me. You wonder why would you have a store in Waterville, Maine, and a store in Skowhegan, Maine? But those twenty miles for people were a big difference. Skowhegan had its own center of people shopping there and had its own draw that was different from Waterville.
The Sterns’ family business was so successful that they were able to own several different types of real estate and could afford to have a driver take Harvey to and from Hebrew School in Waterville (Harvey Sterns interview).
When analyzing the roles of Jewish men and women during the late 19th century and early 20th century, Weissbach found that in middle class families men were the sole breadwinners, while the women were in charge of taking care of the children and running the household. Even when women were becoming more independent and involved in club and philanthropic activities, they were to be spared any type of work that involved earning money for the family. During the interwar period, on the other hand, while there was still a distinct difference between the roles of men and women, in many families the wives shared a “sense of economic partnership” with their husbands (133). For many small town businesses an “economic partnership” between husband and wife was formed because a family business often required the participation of both the husband and the wife (134).
The involvement of wives in the family business was seen in both the Sterns’ Department Store and the Russakoff jewelry store. Just as Harvey’s mother was the main buyer for the women’s furnishings, Archie’s wife was the buyer for the family jewelry store. Archie’s daughter, Marjory, describes her mother’s involvement in the store:
She’d buy pieces from one of the salesmen that had come through and then she would call up Kirby Hight who owned a car dealership in Skowhegan. She’d say, “Kirby, we have some beautiful earrings that would go so beautifully with that necklace you bought for your wife last year. Why don’t you come in a take a look?” So Kirby would come in and of course he would go out with the earrings and his wife would get the earrings for Christmas… My dad used to say, “Your mother makes the store hum,” but she only went in on her own terms. He could never count on her to keep hours.
Although it was not her mother’s first priority to work at the jewelry store, it is evident that her time spent at the store was essential to the success of the business and added to the atmosphere of the store.
Patterns of Religious Life
Weissbach states that maintaining a Jewish identity in small towns was difficult for many reasons. The survival of Jewish life in small towns was often somewhat dependent on the community’s connection with larger cities. The distance from a city with a large population of Jews not only made Jews in small communities feel isolated, but it also made it difficult to attain kosher foods and instill Jewish traditions through Hebrew and Sunday school (157). Upon analyzing patterns particular to Jews that originated from Eastern Europe, Weissbach found that they often retained strong ties to traditional Jewish practices and to speaking in Yiddish. If there was no kosher butcher in their local area, they would purchase their meat from a kosher butcher in another town (251). Besides the difficulties of keeping kosher, small Jewish communities struggled to provide children with an in-depth Jewish education. This lack of education was often due to the absence of qualified teachers. The Jewish education provided by the synagogue to prepare boys for their bar mitzvah ceremony frequently came in the form of Sunday school or as informal education (286).
While many of Weissbach’s patterns accurately describe the religious life for Jews in Skowhegan, it was apparent through interviews that each person had a different religious experience, which in turn resulted in a variety of views on Jewish culture and traditions. Even though Skowhegan’s Jewish community consisted of less than thirty people during the early 20th century, they did not feel completely isolated from the greater Jewish world because of the community’s close proximity to Waterville’s Jewish community and synagogue. In fact, Ted Casher, Marjory Russakoff, and Harvey Sterns attended Hebrew school and trained for their bar and bat mitzvahs at the Waterville synagogue. Although the Jews in Skowhegan did not describe the connection to Waterville’s Jewish community as a necessity to Jewish life in Skowhegan, the short distance between the two communities most likely aided in maintaining the Jewish life present in Skowhegan.
For Ted Casher and Harvey Sterns, keeping kosher was part of maintaining their Jewish identity. The Casher family bought meat from Waterville’s Rabbi Hains and the Sterns family purchased meat from a kosher butcher in Bangor. Harvey Sterns explained that his parents kept kosher so that his grandparents would be able to eat at their house. Although Marjory Russakoff’s parents did not keep a kosher home, her mother did have special rules regarding the appropriate time to eat pork:
We certainly did not have a kosher home, not even for a split second. But it was really funny where my mom would draw the line. She was very happy to have bacon at breakfast and it was totally okay have ham in a sandwich for lunch, but never would we ever have pork for dinner. Pork for dinner was like so un-thought of. She would not buy a pork chop or a pork roast, but she did not have any trouble buying bacon or ham.
While the Jewish families in Skowhegan had different rules regarding maintaining a kosher home, one thing remained the same: nobody ate pork at dinnertime. (See further: Food and Jewish Identity in Waterville).
To attend Hebrew school or receive training for a bar mitzvah the children in Skowhegan had to commute to the Waterville synagogue. Harvey Sterns recalls attending Hebrew school and Sunday school a couple of times a week and that the level of teaching and scholarship was very high. Harvey’s experience at Hebrew school in Waterville was completely opposite of Marjory’s experience, in which she claims she received a “lousy Jewish education.” Her poor experience was due to the constant succession of rabbis and their inability to excite and properly teach her and her fellow classmates. A typical day at Hebrew school consisted of memorizing passages from the Torah without any explanation as to the meaning or significance of it. This lack of proper Jewish education not only frustrated Marjory, but it also made it difficult for her to understand her Jewish culture. (See further: Religious Education in Kennebec County).
Although many Jews in Skowhegan retained strong ties to their Jewish traditions, living in a small Jewish community caused some Jewish families to feel less connected to the Jewish traditions from the old country. Whether the size of the small Jewish community was considered a “triple digit” community or consisted of less than thirty Jews, the Jews in small towns were often obligated to accept slight changes from their orthodox ways. Perhaps the most significant transformation caused by living in small towns was the continued loss of a true Jewish identity in each successive generation.
While Weisbach’s patterns for three-digit Jewish communities are found in Skowhegan’s small Jewish community, this is not meant to imply that all Jewish communities with less than one hundred Jews share identical experiences. Instead it suggests that the survival of Skowhegan’s Jewish community was due to its close proximity to larger Jewish communities, in particular the Jewish community in Waterville.
Weissbach, Lee Shai, Jewish Life in Small-Town America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005).
Russakoff, Susman, Memoirs (1965).
Casher, Ted. Interviewed by Kimi Kossler, April 20, 2011.
Russakoff, Marjory. Interviewed by Kimi Kossler, April 20, 2011.
Sterns, Harvey. Interviewed by Kimi Kossler, May 3, 2011.