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

Beijing Warns Hong Kong Protesters, Cracks Down at Home

In suppressing protest news, China reportedly has arrested more than 20 people on the mainland who acted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters More

Competing Goals Could Frustrate Efforts to Fight Islamic State

As alliances shift and countries re-define themselves, analysts say long-standing goals of some key players in Middle East may soon compete with Western goals More

Child Sexual Exploitation to Worsen in SE Asia

Southeast Asia’s planned economic integration is a key step for boosting the region’s productivity, but carries downsides as well 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.
The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plainsi
X
October 01, 2014 10:45 AM
It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video The Legacy of Jimmy Carter: The Preacher from Plains

It is common in the United States to see tourists flock to sites associated with America's presidents. Some are privately owned and others are run by the National Park Service or the National Archives -- but most have helped draw business and people into the towns and cities where they are located. As VOA’s Kane Farabaugh reports, there is one particular presidential hometown that is unique in what it has to offer those who make the trip.
Video

Video Hong Kong Protests Draw New Supporters on National Holiday

On the 65th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Hong Kong protesters are hoping to stage the largest pro-democracy demonstration since the 1989 Tiananmen protests. VOA's Brian Padden visited one of the protest sites mid-day, when the atmosphere was calm and where the supporters were enthusiastic about joining what they are calling the umbrella revolution.
Video

Video India's PM Continues First US Visit

India's prime minister is on his first visit to Washington, to strengthen political and economic ties between the world's oldest and the world biggest democracies. He came to the U.S. capital from New York, the first stop on his five-day visit to the country that denied him an entry visa in the past. From Washington, Zlatica Hoke reports Modi seemed most focused on attracting foreign investment and trade to increase job opportunities for his people.
Video

Video Malaysia Struggles to Stop People Joining Jihad

Malaysian authorities say militant groups like the so-called "Islamic State" have used social media to entice at least three dozen Malaysian Muslims to fight in what they call "jihad" in Syria and Iraq. As Mahi Ramkrishnan reports from Kuala Lumpur, counterterrorism police are deeply worried about what could happen when these militants return home.
Video

Video Could US Have Done More to Stop Rise of Islamic State?

President Obama says airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria will likely continue for some time because, in his words, "there is a cancer that has grown for too long." So what if President Obama had acted sooner in Syria to arm more-moderate opponents of both the Islamic State and the Syrian government? VOA State Department Correspondent Scott Stearns reports from the United Nations.
Video

Video Treasure Hunters Seek 'Hidden Treasure' in Central Kenya

Could a cave in a small village in central Kenya be the site of buried treasure? A rumor of riches, left behind by colonialists, has some residents dreaming of wealth, while others see it as a dangerous hoax. VOA's Gabe Joselow has the story.
Video

Video Ebola Patients Find No Treatment at Sierra Leone Holding Center

At a holding facility in Makeni, central Sierra Leone, dozens of sick people sit on the floor in an empty university building. They wait in filthy conditions. It's a 16-hour drive by ambulance to Kailahun Ebola treatment center. Adam Bailes was there and reports on what he says are some of the worst situations he has seen since the beginning of this Ebola outbreak. And he says it appears case numbers may already be far worse than authorities acknowledge.
Video

Video Identifying Bodies Found in Texas Border Region

Thousands of immigrants have died after crossing the border from Mexico into remote areas of the southwestern United States in recent years. Local officials in south Texas alone have found hundreds of unidentified bodies and buried them in mass graves in local cemeteries. Now an anthropologist and her students at Baylor University have been exhuming bodies and looking for clues to identify them. VOA’s Greg Flakus has more from Waco, Texas.
Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.Colonel Steve ‘Spiros’ Pisanos left Greece and came to the U.S. to learn to fly. He flew fighters for the Allies in World War II, narrowly escaping death multiple times.

AppleAndroid