News / USA

History Project Documents Jewish Life in Small-town America

Store owner William Levine was an immigrant success story

This image of Levine's store on Main Street in Waterville, Maine, is believed to have been taken in the 1930s.
This image of Levine's store on Main Street in Waterville, Maine, is believed to have been taken in the 1930s.

Multimedia

Audio
Josie Huang

For centuries, immigrants have come to America in search of a better life. That's the path William Levine took in the late 1800s, hoping for greater opportunity than what was available to a poor Jew in eastern Europe.

He found success in a small town in the northeastern state of Maine and now Levine's experience is part of a project to document the history of Jewish life in small-town America.

Gathering place

Levine began his new life in the town of Waterville as a peddler, selling fabric and clothing from a cart. Within a decade, he’d opened a store.

Specializing in clothing for men and boys, Levine’s attracted a wide variety of customers, from students at nearby Colby College, to farmers who traveled from miles away to buy a well-made sports jacket.

Levine's great-grandaughter remembers the store, which her father ran for many years with his uncles, as a major social hub in town.

Howard Miller (left) with family members in the men's casual pants department, believed to have been taken in the 1950s.
Howard Miller (left) with family members in the men's casual pants department, believed to have been taken in the 1950s.

"My uncles were extremely sociable first of all, and they were genuine characters, so people literally came in to say hi to them," says Sara Arnon, who now lives outside of New York. "It was a busy, fun place - especially if you were one of three daughters. It was really a great place to find dates."

Lasting legacy

Arnon's father, Howard Miller, closed the family-run store in 1997 because it was losing business to shopping malls in the suburbs. But its legacy survives as part of the Maine Jewish History Project, which documents Jewish life in small-town America.

"The Levines were a recognizable name and they also kept all of their stuff. You can't do history without records," says David Freidenreich, a professor of religious studies at Colby College who launched the project two years ago.

According to Freidenreich, most books about Jewish life in the United States focus on the greater New York-area experience since most U.S. Jews lived in urban areas.

"I wanted to find some way to teach students about what American Jewish history was like in Maine," he says. "Nobody knew the answers."

Part of the record

Arnon says her great-grandfather helped bring family members to America.

"When he came here he was very instrumental in bringing over his many siblings and other relatives from Russia, Poland."

She remembers there being at least 50 Jewish families in town. Like other immigrant groups, Maine’s scattered Jewish communities managed to connect.

Wendy Miller, another Levine great-grandaughter who is Arnon's sister, says some of the most memorable items the family shared with Colby’s History Project were letters written by young Jews in the early 1900s.

Howard Miller's daughters (from left) Wendy Miller, Sara Arnon and Julie Miller-Soros.
Howard Miller's daughters (from left) Wendy Miller, Sara Arnon and Julie Miller-Soros.

"There were letters from young Jewish girls in the southern part of Maine who had heard of one of the Levine boys," says Miller, "and they would write these introduction letters, 'I don't mean to be forward, but I’ve heard this...'  and they're fascinating."

Miller and Arnon's younger sister, Julie Miller-Soros, recalls tight friendships between long-time Mainers and newer arrivals.

"I had Jewish friends because of Hebrew school and Sunday school, but I had my friends that were Protestant, my friends that were Lebanese, my friends who were Christian," Miller-Soros says. "And I didn't know the difference."

Challenging times

It was a different story along the coast of Maine, where high-end resorts banned blacks and Jews through the 1950s.

Miller-Soros says, even by the early 1970s, she couldn't get hired as a waitress in the resort town of Bar Harbor. Her mother had warned her that would happen.

"I thought she was nuts at the time, but I went with my friends and the three of them did get jobs and I did not," Miller-Soros remembers. "They were blonde and blue-eyed."

While sharing their family's history might help scholars and the public develop a fuller picture of Jewish life in rural America, Arnon believes the Levine story is really a universal American story about all immigrants.

"They came from somewhere, for some reason, and for many of us, it was because of persecution somewhere," she says. "So they came to America to find freedom. And I think that, today, we take that for granted."

You May Like

Australia Knights Prince Philip, Sparking National Outrage

Abbott's surprise reintroduction of knights and dames in the country's honors system last year drew criticism that he was out of touch with national sentiment More

SAG Award Boosts 'Birdman' Oscar Hopes

Individual acting Oscars appear to be sewn up: SAG awards went to artists who won Golden Globes: Julianne Moore, Eddie Redmayne, Patricia Arquette, J.K. Simmons More

Katy Perry Lights Way for Super Bowl's Girl Power Moment

Pop star's selection to headline US football championship's halftime show extends NFL's trend of selecting artists who appeal to younger viewers More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sidesi
X
June Soh
January 23, 2015 10:03 PM
The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do. So painting, even music are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy. Faith Lapidus narrates a report from VOA’s June Soh.
Video

Video Zoo Animals Show Their Artistic Sides

The pursuit of happiness is so important, America's founding fathers put it in the Declaration of Independence. Any zookeeper will tell you animals need enrichment, just like humans do. So painting, even music are part of the Smithsonian National Zoo's program to keep the animals happy. Faith Lapidus narrates a report from VOA’s June Soh.
Video

Video Progress, Some Areas of Disagreement in Cuba Talks

U.S. and Cuban officials are reporting progress from initial talks in Havana on re-establishing diplomatic ties. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State (for Western Hemisphere Affairs) Roberta Jacobson said while there was agreement on a broad range of issues, there also are some “profound disagreements” between Washington and Havana. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.
Video

Video Worldwide Photo Workshops Empower Youth

Last September, 20 young adults from South Sudan took part in a National Geographic Photo Camp. They are among hundreds of students from around the world who have learned how to use a camera to tell the stories of the people in their communities through the powerful medium of photography. Three camp participants talked about their experiences recently on a visit to Washington. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video US, Japan Offer Lessons as Eurozone Launches Huge Stimulus

The Euro currency has fallen sharply after the European Central Bank announced a bigger-than-expected $67 billion-a-month quantitative easing program Thursday - commonly seen as a form of printing new money. Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA from London on whether the move might rescue the eurozone economy -- and what lessons have been learned from similar programs around the world.
Video

Video Nigerian Elections Pose Concern of Potential Conflict in 'Middle Belt'

Nigeria’s north-central state of Kaduna has long been the site of fighting between Muslims and Christians as well as between people of different ethnic groups. As the February elections approach, community and religious leaders are making plans they hope will keep the streets calm after results are announced. Chris Stein reports from the state capital, Kaduna.
Video

Video As Viewership Drops, Obama Puts His Message on YouTube

Ratings reports show President Obama’s State of the Union address this week drew the lowest number of viewers for this annual speech in 15 years. White House officials anticipated this, and the president has decided to take a non-traditional approach to getting his message out. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video S. Korean Businesses Want to End Trade Restrictions With North

Business leaders in South Korea are calling for President Park Geun-hye to ease trade restrictions with North Korea that were put in place in 2010 after the sinking of a South Korean warship.Pro-business groups argue that expanding trade and investment is not only good for business, it is also good for long-term regional peace and security. VOA’s Brian Padden reports.
Video

Video US Marching Bands Grow Into a Show of Their Own

The 2014 Super Bowl halftime show was the most-watched in history - attracting an estimated 115 million viewers. That event featured pop star Bruno Mars. But the halftime show tradition started with marching bands, which still dominate the entertainment at U.S. high school and college American football games. But as Enming Liu reports in this story narrated by Adrianna Zhang, marching bands have grown into a show of their own.

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More

All About America

AppleAndroid