The Middle Merchants: Portland’s Jewish Mercantile Community
by Zack Barowitz (April 2011)
In the mid-1970s my dad landed a summer teaching job at what was then the Portland School of Art. And from that time up till the early ‘80s, when I was a child and new to Portland as a Summer Person from New York City we slowly became aware of a handful of Jewish merchants in the downtown/Old Port area. Among them were:
- Levinsky’s, a large rabbit warren of a clothing store where our local friends would do their back to school shopping. They’d buy Levis corduroys and web belts (they were not allowed to wear denim jeans at their school).
- Klamen’s bottles on Fore Street. Klamen’s was well stocked with antique bottles to be sure, but the proprietor showed very little interest in selling bottles and a bitter distaste for customer service.
- Cinamon Brothers was a large multi-story used furniture store whose proprietors and dusty wares provided, perhaps unfairly, my mental image of the Collier brothers later in life.
- Zeitman Grocery, also on Fore Street. Mr. Zeitman bemused my father one day by chastising him for buying bread from the Port Bake House a then new and proto-yuppie bakery. “What are buying that crap for? This is the finest bread you can buy!” He said pointing to the very soft, pre-packaged bags of J.J. Nissen bread.
- Sukowitch hardware was another fave, my parents liked to find merchandise that had been there since the ’50 in original boxes with original prices.
- Model Market sold packaged and imported foods and had a good wine selection. At the time Champagne was enough of a novelty item that when the proprietor, Saul Goldberg, sold my mom a bottle he advised her to “chill it.”
A little context of time period, in the late ’70s and into the early ’80s the prevailing ethos of Portland was overwhelming white and predominantly Yankee and Anglo-Saxon although with a sizable Roman Catholic population and other ethnic pockets to be sure. While house hunting, my parents can recall a curious phrase being repeated by a real-estate broker who was showing them summer rental properties in Prouts Neck.
“This is a very exclusive area,” said the broker.
“That’s okay,” said my mom.
“This is also an exclusive neighborhood.”
“And this too is an exclusive section.”
“Well, that is fine,” said my Mom, “but we aren’t particularly ‘exclusive’ people.”
It wasn’t until afterwards that we realized that “exclusive” was real-estate code for “no Jews.” Still it was nice of the broker to take the time to show us the property.
Coming from New York City where “everyone” was Jewish being in Portland made me feel quite alien. Not that we sensed much prejudice for being Jewish, rather the discrimination I suffered was for being a Yankees fan; perhaps it amounted to the same thing.
As for the Jewish merchants, well I had simply assumed that they had come from Mars or at the very least taken a wrong turn one day.
In fact that is not the case. From the early 1900s to the early 1960s Portland’s Jewish community was not only sizable but visible, not by horns or black hats and beards, but by the merchant district around the area of Middle, Fore, and Franklin Streets. As one might expect, bakeries, butchers, tailors, shoemakers, and even kosher restaurants served the community. One old-timer whom I spoke to told me that there were three bakeries when he was a kid: “one you went to for their bread, another for their pastries, and the third was pretty good with both.” But apart from serving the basic needs of the Jewish community there were clothing stores, shoe stores, a tire company, manufacturing, a bank, and a social club.
One manufacturer, Si Glazer, who made clothing, was given a contract to make t-shirts for prison inmates; the order was for Mediums but Si had many small shirts on hand. So he tore out the labels that read “Small” and replaced them with labels reading “Medium” as he figured that this was one set of customers who were not in a position to complain.
In searching for colorful stories, the research I am doing is not easy. As my target population is made up largely of people in their 80s and 90s there are certain challenges. This is as much an exercise in gerontology as it is history, one gentleman I spoke to deterred me from an interview with the claim:
“My memory is not too good.”
“Well,” I told him, “a little memory is a lot more than nothing,” and would he consent to an interview.
“Can you send me something that explains what you are doing any better,” he asked.
“Yes,” I would be happy to send him something. “How would you like me to send it?”
“How do I want you to send it?! US Mail!”
“Very well,” I said, “May I have your address?”
“Well, how did you get my phone number?”
“From the phone book.”
“Well, you can get my address from there too!”
Apart from collecting lively stories, when I set out on this research I had two basic questions, the first is where did Portland’s Jewish merchants come from?
Most Portland Jews are not from Mars but of Eastern European extraction who came in through Ellis Island and up through New York and Boston. Indeed many came to Portland as peddlers. One retailer New England Army supply began as hoss n’team and their first “store” was the barn. Another peddler eschewed the pushcart for a rowboat and served the ships.
Throughout the 1940s and ‘50s the mercantile community remained strong, as many jobs were not available to Jews. One is reminded of the famous speech delivered by Rod Steiger in the movie the Pawnbroker based on the Edward Lewis Wallent novel:
You go out and you buy a piece of cloth and you cut that cloth in two and you go out and sell it for a penny more that you paid for it, and then you run right back out and buy another piece of cloth and cut it into three pieces and sell it for three pennies profit . . . .you must immediately run out and get yourself a still larger piece of cloth and so you repeat this process over and over . . . you just go on and on and on repeating this process over the centuries . . . and suddenly you make a grand discovery: you have a mercantile heritage . . .
In the 1960s New England Army Supply Company changed their name to “Levinsky’s.” As Phil Levinsky told me, “President Kennedy made everyone a first-class American.” And in retail the shorter name was a plus. There was one drawback to the New Frontier. President Kennedy did not wear a hat and effectively ended hat-wearing among men. Levinsky’s large inventory of hats was made instantly worthless.
Which brings me to the second question. Where did all the Jewish merchants go?
The urban renewal movement transformed the dense urban fabric around Franklin and Middle Street into an urban highway; this was the final death knell for many ethnic communities in that area. But unlike Italian-American neighborhoods which remain more stable, Jewish immigrant neighborhoods tend to have a shorter life-span. Social liberalization and the availability of a broader range of professions spelt the end to the Jewish merchant district of Middle Street (just two business remain downtown from the old times Wiggon, the office supply store and Hub furniture, albeit in a “new” location). And the Jewish Community Center saw its decline in that period as well.
So ironically, it was not physical changes to the neighborhood that led to the demise of Portland’s brick and mortar Jewish presence. Urban renewal was only a tertiary cause and did not have the devastating effect on the community that it did on the nearby Italian and Armenian neighborhoods. And I don’t sense much sentimentality toward the district.
Perhaps Jewish Middle Street is remembered more as an occupational ghetto than as “the old neighborhood” people may retain fondness for individual stores but perhaps the district as a whole was exclusive, in a bad way.
So the primary cause of the decline was simple attrition. People just wandered away when they got the opportunity, as is consistent with Diaspora. However, many did not wander far and ended up quite close together in the Woodfords area which today boasts the Levey Day School, two synagogues, the JCA, a mikva, and a funeral home.
I think there is a tendency to think of Jewish history in Maine as somehow being secret, private, and apart from the predominant culture but in fact, Maine towns did have physical highly visible Jewish neighborhoods, mini-Lower East Sides if you will, which met the needs of the community for as long as was necessary and then in a very practical manner, they just went away.