See also “A Place of Inspiration: Maine Jewish Art,” a digital presentation by Ling Ding ’18 created for the Maine State Museum (May 2018).
Sound and Light: Jewish Artists and Musicians in Maine
by Deborah Weisgall (April 2011)
This is a big subject, worthy of a panel of its own. To keep it somewhat manageable, I am going to limit this discussion in time and place: to Midcoast Maine from the beginning of the 20th century to a decade or so after its midpoint. I am going to talk about a few of the Jewish artists with national reputations who lived—and some who still live—in the state. Since the arts have been included in a panel on Jewishness, the stories will, I hope, illuminate facets of the Jewish experience in this country during this time: the opportunity for reinvention, the space for invention, the increasing social and cultural acceptance of Jews, the luxury of being able to ignore issues of Jewishness altogether.
Art and Maine are intertwined. Even now, our idea of the state is built upon images invented by artists. In the 19th century writers and painters—an impressive bunch that included Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Henry David Thoreau, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, Fitz Henry Lane—described this landscape as a beautiful, accessible wilderness. Ever since lighthouses marked safe passage for ships, Maine has been within easy reach of the cities along the Eastern seaboard. In the last decades of the nineteenth century, a seasonal influx of wealthy rusticators from Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and from the Midwest, began arriving. Artists formed part of this migration and established summer colonies up and down the coast. With its scenery, isolation, and proximity to the markets for culture, Maine has always attracted artists.
For the hundreds of thousands of eastern European Jews who came to America during roughly the same period, and especially for those who made it all the way to Maine, visual beauty was not generally the first thing on their minds. But one of these immigrants, Louise Nevelson, became a prominent artist.
Born in the Ukraine, Leah Berliawsky came to Maine in 1902, when she was three years old. She talked about the anti-Semitism she lived with as a girl, but I suspect that the truth was more complicated. Contemporary newspaper accounts of the founding of the synagogue in Rockland, in 1913, express a mix of respect and curiosity, leavened with occasional mild dismay. In high school, Nevelson was captain of the girls’ basketball team. Yes, she was tall, but she must also have been well-liked, her charisma already in evidence.
She could not wait to get out of Rockland. Soon after she graduated from high school, in 1918, she married a New Yorker, whom she divorced in 1931—not before he had financed her art classes. Nevelson’s earliest paintings have a kind of Chagall-like atmosphere: fanciful villages and stars floating over the hills west of Rockland. She found her artistic stride with her black or white or gold assemblages: a kind of a monochromatic Constructivism, the Russian artistic movement that flourished after the first World War. Nevelson’s art looked back to where she had come from. Maine seems an accidental place. But more than one critic has pointed out that her agglomerations of found objects can be seen as an homage to her father and his junkyard and lumberyard in Rockland.
Rockland, small and parochial, might also have made her hungry to reinvent herself. Like many Jews (and many non-Jews, as well—Edna St. Vincent Millay, from six miles up the coast, was doing the same thing) Nevelson grabbed at that chance. Towards the end of her life, her dealer, Arnie Glimscher, said that Nevelson herself —the persona she carefully cultivated: layers of long false eyelashes, elaborate robes, enigmatic statements—was, finally, her greatest work of art.
While Nevelson was escaping from Maine, other Jewish artists were arriving. William Zorach, born Zorach Samowich in Lithuania, visited Gaston Lachaise in Georgetown in 1919, just a year after Nevelson went to New York. He and his wife, Marguerite, bought a summer house nearby; their daughter, Dahlov Ipcar, herself an artist and illustrator, still lives in Maine. Marguerite Zorach was not Jewish. When she wrote of America that “she has but little past of her own to hamper her,” Marguerite Zorach was referring to the possibilities for making adventurous new art; her husband might have understood it more broadly.
Certainly this was the case with the musicians who arrived in Rockport in 1930, courtesy of Mary Louise Curtis Bok, a prominent summer resident of Camden. Mrs. Bok had endowed a music school in Philadelphia, and her director, the pianist Josef Hofmann, told her what to do to make it into a first-rate academy: recruit a world class faculty, offer students full scholarships, and arrange year-round instruction for its students. Mrs. Bok followed his advice; to this day, the Curtis Institute remains one of the finest music schools in the world. The teachers Hofmann hired were, like himself, Eastern European Jews, homeless after the Russian revolution and the first World War, many of them desperate for work. Thomas Wolf, the grandson of Leah Luboschutz, the violinist and teacher, says, that Mrs. Bok “imported this group of European Jews to Maine and established a summer colony. She wanted a community. She bought houses in Rockport and parked people there.” These musicians were, as Tom Wolf says, “trying to shed all evidence of Jewishness.” They were reinventing themselves; in America they became exotic, Russian artists. Mrs. Bok eventually married the Jewish violinist Efrem Zimbalist, one of the most famous musicians of his day. He converted to Christianity. When one of his students, Roy Malan, was writing his biography, Zimbalist announced, “The only thing you cannot say is that I’m Jewish.”
My father, the composer Hugo Weisgall, had studied at Curtis with those illustrious teachers, including the conductor Fritz Reiner. When his father-in-law, my mother’s father, found a summer cottage to rent in Camden, the presence of this musical colony was one of the reasons my father decided to take the place sight unseen. We drove from Baltimore—the trip took two days—and arrived in the rain at a sorry shack stuck on the side of a hill. It smelled of mildew and tilted dangerously downhill if too many people stood on the porch.
At first, my father’s relations with the Curtis colony were complicated because my father was openly and passionately Jewish, and it angered him to be around Jews who said they weren’t. This was a time when other serious Jewish composers, like Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, who was my father’s classmate at Curtis, were writing music in a consciously American vernacular—one that would come to define American music. My father did not begrudge them that; he was working to subject his lyric gift to the rigors of atonality—the invention of another Jewish composer, Arnold Schoenberg. But we came back to Camden the following summer, and my parents bought a farm in Lincolnville, seven miles inland. Growing up, I often wondered why my father had done this—what was there about this place that made him want to stay?
It wasn’t until I was an adult and went back to Czechoslovakia, to the town in Moravia where my father was born, that I understood. My father had spent his boyhood in an idyllic place, a town set in rolling hills, beside a peaceful river. Really, he came to Maine for the same reason those 19th century artists did—for its beauty and its solitude. I remember that our hundred acres cost $3,600; we could not afford the coast.
The artist Alex Katz came to Lincolnville a few years after my family did. It was all he could afford, too. He, however, was looking for landscape: for subject matter, not memory. He has said that he, along with his friends Lois Dodd and Neil Welliver, was searching for a way of painting that was not abstract at a time when Abstract Expressionism exercised an almost tyrannical dominion over the art world. Katz’s landscapes and portraits made with bold washes of subtle color, can be read as abstractions, but they record recognizable territory. Swampy lakes, second-growth woods, inland : Katz and Welliver and Dodd found their subjects in what had been ignored. It’s as if instead of looking east towards 19th century views, across the rocky coast to the bays and prosperous islands, Katz also looks in the other direction; he’s mapped out his own territory.
These stories all have codas; these Jewish artists have left important legacies to Maine. Louise Nevelson and her family gave many of her works, especially some early ones, to the Farnsworth Museum in Rockland. When they were teenagers, Leah Luboschutz’s grandsons, Tom Wolf and his brother Andrew, both musicians themselves, started a series of chamber music concerts in Rockport to continue the Curtis tradition. One of Zimbalist’s students, Shmuel Ashkenasi, the first violin of the Vermeer Quartet, first came to Rockport as a teenager, bought a house there, and has returned every summer to play concerts. Last year, Bay Chamber Concerts celebrated its fiftieth anniversary. And at the memorial service last summer for Tom’s mother, Irene Wolf, her own grandchildren led the congregation in saying Kaddish.
In addition to inventing a new image for Maine, Alex Katz has contributed in a more traditionally Jewish way to the state—philanthropically. His foundation has been buying art for the Colby College Museum and the Farnsworth Museum: contemporary works by important and emerging American artists. Katz’s collecting eye is as sure as his painter’s one; he has been instrumental in turning Colby’s museum into one of the most exciting college museums in the country.
And my father, more than twenty-five years ago, offered to lead High Holy Day services at the Rockland synagogue; in those days only a few families belonged to the shul. My father sang the beautiful music that his own father, a cantor, had learned in Vienna, music that is hardly heard anymore. A few years later, Dana Goldsmith, a pediatrician who was also a musician, started a choir to give full voice to the music. By the time my father died, the synagogue had more than a hundred and twenty members; the music belongs to the congregation now. On the coast of Maine, far from its glorious flowering and terrible destruction in Central Europe, this music has found a safe haven and a home.