Portland’s Maimonides Club: A Pleasant and Profitable Evening
by Susan Cummings-Lawrence (April 2011)
For the past three years, Maine Historical Society in Portland has been developing a statewide Jewish history project. Our goals are to identify possible partners, assess community capacity, increase awareness of the importance of preservation, and assist organizations and individuals in learning to take care of their materials — or to find a collecting institution that can do the job. In the course of this work, as you can imagine, I have met many wonderful and interesting people who share an interest in history — and cool stuff.
The purpose of my presentation is to offer an example from this experience that demonstrates how community historians can advance formal research and expand our street-level understanding of history. But first, a few words about our subject’s namesake.
Maimonides was a medieval rabbi, philosopher, physician, and, as James Carroll describes him in his new book, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, a man of “magnificent religious imagination.” He authored the 14 volume Mishneh Torah and The Guide for the Perplexed. For nearly a thousand years, he has been an inspiration to Jews around the world pursuing knowledge and understanding.
How did I learn about the Maimonides Club? For a couple of years, I have been hanging out with a very congenial and distinguished group of men… the Jacob Cousins Post of the Maine Jewish War Veterans. The idea was to provide support and technical assistance when needed, especially in order to encourage the preservation of their institutional history. One day, Phil Levinsky arrived at our meeting at The Atrium, the home of Mel Stone, tossed a folder in front of me on the table and said, “Here doll, you might want this.”
The folder contained a run of Maimonides Club organizational records from 1934-1947. Phil had rescued them from a moldy fate and guarded them in his “museum”, his genizah.
When Portland’s Maimonides Club was formed in the early ’30s, it was one of thousands of such Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and clubs founded nationally at that time, and earlier, many of which were named for Maimonides. These clubs include The Pioneers, founded in St. Louis by Rosa Sonnenschein, wife of a Reform rabbi, a feminist and the founder of The American Jewess, the first magazine for Jewish women. The Saturday Evening Girls originated in Boston’s North End for the educational support of Jewish and Italian girls. Its subsequent history is fascinating, but I will leave you to discover that on your own.
Portland literary clubs contemporaneous with Maimonides were The Fraternity, Torch Club and the Jewish Historical Society of Portland, Maine. The Torch and The Fraternity were not Jewish clubs, although they had Jewish members. In fact, Israel and Louis Bernstein both were charter members of the Torch Club and the Jewish Historical Society. You will find the records of the two former at Maine Historical Society.
The Portland Maimonides Club was founded by Israel Bernstein and others in 1934. Some of the “others” included Louis Bernstein and Elias Caplan. Dr. Caplan was Maine’s second Jewish physician and practiced medicine in Portland for over forty years. He was born in Russia in 1878, and by 1904, after receiving his degree from Tulane in New Orleans he had set up his practice here.
The stated purpose of the club was to meet regularly in members’ homes and offer brief papers for discussion. Who was likely to be invited to join this illustrious group? Doctors, business owners, lawyers and rabbis. Collectively, they recapitulated — at a modest level — the polymath nature of the iconic Rambam.
The Club’s approximately fifteen year history, interrupted by the War, was launched Oct. 9 with a meeting at the home of physician Elias Caplan in Portland. The topic for the inaugural evening was The Genius of Shakespeare and the Merchant of Venice.
Years later, in the ’40s, Israel described the Maimonides Club enterprise as “pleasant and profitable.” Congenial, yes, but also highly organized and serious. Louis Bernstein, Israel’s younger brother, and secretary, in the first meeting notice, stated firmly, “everyone will be expected to participate in the discussion.”
Prior to a future meeting, Harold Halpert, owner of Mill End Shops on Congress Street, whose topic was DH Lawrence, sent a note to Secretary Bernstein. In it he indicated that all attendees should read Lawrence before what he must have considered his risqué presentation; otherwise, he wrote, discussion was likely to be “difficult and hazardous.”
On February 5, 1935, at meeting #9, there was another instruction issued by Bernstein: papers already delivered should be “put in shape” and that, going forward, all would be inserted into a binder.
For those interested in learning more about Louis — and reading a hilarious anecdote about local rabbi politics — there is an oral history done with Louis in the 1970s. It is part of the Konnilyn Feig, PhD, Jewish oral history collection housed in the Portland Room at the Portland Public Library and can also be found on the Library’s website.
So… what what else were they up to besides deconstructing Shakespeare and being endangered by DH Lawrence? These discussions included:
Vitamins and health
The Treatment of the Arthurian Legend by Edward Arlington Robinson
This Unbelievable World
The Case for Italy
The Jew of Today: Why he is. What he is.
Although the phantom binders may yet prove real… I am on the trail… one project does survive, preserved in a separate binder by the presenter himself, Dave Astor. Dave saved all his stuff. And this past year he gave his unique collection to MHS. Aimee, a graduate library student from Simmons, who interned with us this fall, processed everything.
Among Dave’s varied and interesting treasures is his Maimonides Club Project scrapbook, not currently part of his collection at Maine Historical Society, although we anticipate the transfer to us. In late December 1946 and early January 1947, Dave Astor sent a letter querying an unknown number of individuals, representing a variety of organizations, on anti-Semitism. Dave had been invited to join the Club after his discharge from the military in 1945. Consistent with his gregarious nature and secular Jewish involvements, he made his debut by seeking the thoughts and opinions of those prominent in civic life rather than taking an academic approach, as others had done. Dave sent a second mailing in 1991; obviously not part of the Portland Maimonides Club, but for his own interest.
In 1946- 47 Dave received about 36 responses. Among others, he heard from: City of Detroit; Interracial Review; Gov. Horace Hildreth; US Military Academy.
In 1991-92 he had 25 responses including Senators Tom Harkin and Orrin Hatch, Chrysler Corporation, and Jesse Helms.
In 1947, Astor received a copy of an eleven page speech from J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI. Hoover had delivered the speech at a meeting of the Boston B’nai B’rith in 1940.
The response from Reginald Brach, President of Time Warner, dated in 1991, is written on the letter Dave sent to him — the same letter that Dave used in his original mailing in 1947. Brach replies, “It is repugnant on every level.”
The approximately sixty responses are varied. The tone runs the gamut from neutral, including some bloodless form letters — to pithy and emphatic, with some speechifying thrown in. Naturally, they raise a number of interesting issues to explore in the future — with the Maimonides Club itself, its members and what I hope will be a trove of papers, including Dave’s.
Preservation of Maine Jewish historical materials by Maine Historical Society, other collecting institutions — and individuals — has enriched both of our Jewish history conferences. Today’s student exhibit, the panel display at Maine Jewish Museum curated by Amy Waterman, installations at Sampson Center for Diversity, postings on the DMJ website, and exhibits and research projects at Maine Historical Society were made possible not only by institutions and professionals. We have benefited directly and enormously, and maybe especially, from those individuals — in this case Phil Levinsky and Dave Astor — who chose not to toss something into a Dumpster.