Downeast Judaism

Judaism with a Downeast Flair

by Beth Hillson (April 2011)

“The edges of my life swirl together like my mother’s marble cake and I can’t tell where the Jewish in me ends and the Maine in me begins.”  That’s a line from my memoir Well-Fed:  How I Hungered for Love and Got Brisket, my story about coming of age in a Catholic mill town in Maine, and I think it speaks volumes about the cultures that intertwined and formed my childhood.   Growing up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Old Town, I straddled two worlds – – a world where grandparents spoke Yiddish and broken English, observed Shabbos and the kosher dietary laws;  and the world of Wonder Bread and bobby socks, a post World War Two environment in which  I hungered for acceptance.

We were an Orthodox Jewish community of about 80 people, first, second and third generation Eastern European Jews and their descendants.  According to a synagogue commemorative booklet, the first settlers arrived before the turn of the 20th century and, by my own recollection, the last departed just after the beginning of the 21st century.

These families began as peddlers and became merchants.  Main Street in Old Town was lined with shops that had names like Goldsmith, Sklar, Cutler, Hoos, and Shiro.  The store signs read like a Who’s Who of the Jewish community and indeed, these were the names of the founders of our community and our synagogue.

Being business leaders as well as spiritual leaders created its own swirling marble cake.  On the other side of Main Street and up and down the Penobscot River were factories making textiles, shoes, canoes, pie plates, pulp and paper.  The factory workers were our customers and the stores thrived from the 1940s until the early seventies when Interstate 95 was completed and bypassed Old Town, and competition from imports forced the mills to close. The array of women’s, children’s and men’s clothing, shoes, hardware and sporting goods drew shoppers from lumber towns north of Old Town and even from Quebec.  Old Town was known as a shopper’s paradise and many merchants even learned a bit of French so they could make their Canadian visitors feel welcome.

I didn’t give much thought to the redundancy in merchandise – – three women’s, children’s, and men’s clothing stores  – – except to know I was not allowed to shop the competition.

In the early days, I’m sure the stores closed on Friday night and Saturday and during the Jewish holidays.  But, by the time I arrived, most closed only for Yom Kippur and soon merchants observed the secular holidays instead, staying open when the factories workers, lumbermen and Canadian visitors could shop.  Christmas was good to the Jewish shopkeepers in Old Town.  The stores were open six nights a week and the traffic swelled threefold between Thanksgiving and New Years.

I grew up with both sets of grandparents and an extended family of other Jews, all of whom I called “aunt” or “uncle.”  Both of my grandfathers had accents.  My grandfather, Benny Hillson, was born in Balbieriškis, Lithuania or Balbierishok, as he called it.  He spoke English with a Yiddish accent and made thick “huch” noises in his throat.  My mother’s father, Harry Goldsmith was born in a barn in Olamon, a suburb of Milford just across the river from Old Town.  He spoke Yiddish with a downeast accent, cutting off “r” sounds where they belonged and adding them when they shouldn’t be.  He called me a shainer madel. He would say that a person eats like a Chassah when he means Chazzer.  Grandpa Harry’s favorite expression was stick yah hahad in a woodbahx. I couldn’t tell if he was speaking English or Yiddish.   But I figured it was Yiddish because it made no sense.  It took thirty years for me to realize it was an old Yankee expression – – sick a-bed in a woodbox.   And this is how life unfolded – – Yiddish and Downeast Maine ebbing and flowing in my life like the tides at Bar Harbor.

My friends on Bradbury Street ate ketchup sandwiches – – a smear of ketchup between  two slices of Wonder Bread.   We ate pickled beef tongue on Pumpernickle rye with Russian dressing, instead.  It horrified my friends when they saw my grandmother fish an entire cow’s tongue from a vat of pickling juice and placed it on a platter to cool. I was surprised that none of my friends had eaten pickled tongue, a prized delicacy in my family.

Most of the other Jewish families kept kosher.  We did not.  The explanation is that my mother’s mother ran our family business when my grandfather became ill in the 1930’s and her housekeeper mixed milk with meat.  Although many of my parents’ friends maintained a kosher kitchen, they ate everything outside the home and kept a picnic table in the basement where they enjoyed an occasional pepperoni pizza and takeout Chinese food.  I suspect that most kept kosher so their parents could share the Jewish holidays with their families.  When my father’s parents came to visit, they brought their own food and aluminum plates for heating it.

Our lives were filled with rituals from Rosh Hashanah services held in the back of a house on Stillwater Avenue to drives to Trenton for a lobster feed.  But none was more delicious than Sunday night supper- – a meal of baked beans, bagels and lox with grandparents.

Every  Sunday night Grandma Sophie and Grandpa Benny would drive the four miles from Orono in Grandpa’s green van with Hillson Cleaners written in gold on the side panel.  Grandma always arrived with a large earthenware crock cradled in her arms.  Inside was a stew of plump great northern beans that had bathed for hours in a thick syrup of molasses and brown sugar.  No pork was evident, just a big whole onion that, by dinner time had taken on the tann-ish hue of the sauce it was flavoring.   As many times as I joked with Grandma that she should add salt pork to her baked beans with salt pork, she never conceded.  This is a grandmother who escaped pogroms and hid in a haystack with her baby niece while Cossacks poked bayonets into the hay.  This is the woman who benched licht on Friday nights, and didn’t cook or  work or ride on Shabbos.  “Nu, why should I add pork?” she’d say.  “Next you’ll want me to eat lobster.”

On Sunday, we sat around the dining room table passing platters of white fish and bowls of beans and draping thin slices of lox on bagels.  I listened to my parents and grandparents chat about other members of the Jewish community, switching to Yiddish when the gossip got juicy.

We cleaned up quickly and gathered around the black and white TV to watch Jack Benny, then Ed Sullivan.  My grandmothers laughed until tears streamed over their cheeks. I was more entertained watching their reactions than watching the shows.

I was just as enthralled watching hunters in plaid wool pants, shirts and gum rubber boots eating helping after helping of bean hole beans when I went to the gentile side of life and found pork in my beans at the annual Hunter’s Breakfast.  This breakfast took place every November 1, the start of the hunting season in Maine.

My father was neither a hunter nor a gatherer.  He did not own a pick-up or a rifle.  I was fascinated by both. I loved to go to the park and hang out with the hunters in their wool jackets.  I loved to hear them swear and talk about the deer they would get and watch the steam from the griddle explode as it hit the frigid air. To be honest, I did not love the frigid November temperatures or the bleakness of a snowy Maine night. And as fascinating as the hunters were,  I really went to their breakfast for the bean hole beans, starching little devils swimming in a sea of syrup and pork fat.   And I went for the boiled ham, ribboned with stripes of white fat.  I layered slice after slice on warm LaBree bakery biscuits.  I washed everything down with hot coffee.  I told my parents I was going to the Hunter’s Breakfast to see friends.  I told my friends I was going to the breakfast because I wanted to see the hunters and the rifles.  I did not tell anyone I was going for the beans and ham.  I was a closet pork fiend.

Lobster was nother food I loved, another tradition in the Hillson household.  Several times a year, my father organized a feed and invited other Jewish families to partake.  An hour before everyone arrived, a pickup truck would drive into our driveway and unload two boxes of lobsters covered in cold green seaweed.

We sat around the same dining room table, spilling out into the kitchen and the living room.  Each gathering began with the same topic:  “How’s business?”  someone would ask.  Next would come discussion about the Jewish community and the synagogue.  In the early years, the discussion focused on building a synagogue, plans, design, construction and fund raising, all discussed as people cracked claws and dipped lobster meat in drawn butter.  Even my Orthodox grandparents, joined in, eating fish from aluminum plates as they took part in these discussions.  My mother, the liberal with a college education, insisted we consider a reform synagogue where women could participate equally with men.  My Grandpa Benny, a Talmudic scholar, was adamant that women sitting with men, music and reading prayers in English would never do.  “You might as well go to church,” he insisted.

For many decades, the Jewish community rented a house and held services with the help of a cantor who was hired for the High Holidays.  During other, lesser holidays, Grandpa Benny, Barney Sass and others ran the services.  I remember sitting in a room at the back of the house where I could hear mumbled davening and see heads covered in prayer shawls bobbing from side to side.  I couldn’t wait for services to end so I could go home and eat the feast my grandmothers had prepared.

Temple Israel was consecrated in 1955 which made me seven.  I have the black commemorative book.  But when I look back, I don’t see the lot on Center Street, across from the post office that was owned by Sam Cutler and donated to build the temple.  I don’t see the celebration that surely took place when the doors opened for the first time or the building when it was simply a cement foundation and my father, Abe Podolsky, Jimmy Shiro, and Sam Goldsmith stood over the freshly poured concrete imagining the future with a house of worship, a place where the next generation would have a chance at a rich Jewish education.

In my mind, the synagogue of my youth was fully erected, elegantly modern, covered outside and in with redwood stained slats.  I am surprised, when I look at photos that it is not the gorgeous building I remembered.  It is small – – one room on the main level for the sanctuary and a basement, painted mint green, with a boys’ bathroom, a girls’ bathroom, and a kitchen carved out of the open space, casement windows where the foundation rose above the ground.

It was here that the next generation – – Robin and Jeffry Hoos, Alan Shiro and his cousins Peter and Arthur, Diane, David, Dana and Jodi Goldsmith and my brother, Bruce, sister, Jennifer, and me – –  sat on uncomfortable folding chairs, learning Hebrew, learning prayers, while my gentile friends played outside in the fresh air.  One imported Yeshiva student or another was brought in to teach us.

At the other end of the basement was a kitchen with a large pass-through window.  Behind the window mothers, grandmothers and aunts prepared holiday feasts – – potato latkes for Chanukah,  Hammantaschen for Purim, bagel and lox brunches on Sunday, and noodle pudding and blintzes for Simcha Torah.  When they were ready, someone drew open the accordion blind that covered the pass-through.  At the loud crinkly sound,  we lined up to eat.  These are my best memories of Temple Israel and our little Hebrew School.

In fourth grade, the girls were allowed to drop out.  But the boys had to remain until they turned 13, until they reached Bar Mitzvah.

These days, when the lobster shells have been cleared, I cut into a slice of marble cake, trace a vein of chocolate, until it turns to vanilla and back to chocolate, and I remember life in Old Town – -one minute observing a Jewish holiday and the next, fishing through a kettle of bean hole beans to find the sweet chunk of salt pork.

If I had to chose between my two favorite flavors – – chocolate and vanilla, I’m not sure I could just as I don’t think I could chose whether I prefer to be a Mainer or a Jew.

When I tell people I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish community in Old Town they always ask the same question:  “What was it like growing up Jewish in Maine?”  And I start by saying, “You know how it is with marble cake?”