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

Tired of Waiting, South Africans Demand Change ‘Now’

With chronic poverty and lack of basic services largely fueling recent xenophobic attacks, many in Rainbow Nation say it’s time for government to act More

Challenges Ahead for China's Development Plans in Pakistan

Planned $46 billion in energy and infrastructure investments in Pakistan are aimed at transforming the country into a regional hub for trade and investment More

'Forbidden City' Revisits Little Known Era of Asian-American Entertainment

Little-known chapter of entertainment history captured in 80s documentary is revisited in new digitally remastered format and book 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.
Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festivali
X
April 24, 2015 4:09 AM
Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video Cinema That Crosses Borders Showcased at Tribeca Film Festival

Among the nearly 100 feature length films being shown at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival in New York City are more than 20 documentaries and features with international appeal, from a film about a Congolese businessman in China, to documentaries shot in Pakistan and diaspora communities in the U.S., to a poetic look at disaffected South African youth. VOA’s Carolyn Weaver has more.
Video

Video UN Confronts Threat of Young Radicals

The radicalization and recruitment of young people into Islamist extremist groups has become a growing challenge for governments worldwide. On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council heard from experts on the issue, which has become a potent threat to international peace and security. VOA’s Margaret Besheer reports.
Video

Video Growing Numbers of Turks Discover Armenian Ancestry

In a climate of improved tolerance, growing numbers of people in Turkey are discovering their grandmothers were Armenian. Hundreds of thousands of Armenians escaped the mass deportations and slaughter of the early 1900's by forced conversion to Islam. Or, Armenian children were taken in by Turkish families and assimilated. Now their stories are increasingly being heard. Dorian Jones reports from Istanbul that the revelations are viewed as an important step.
Video

Video Migrants Trek Through Western Balkans to Reach EU

Migrants from Africa and other places are finding different routes into the European Union in search of a better life. The Associated Press followed one clandestine group to document their trek through the western Balkans to Hungary. Zlatica Hoke reports that the migrants started using that route about four years ago. Since then, it has become the second-most popular path into Western Europe, after the option of sailing from North Africa to Italy.
Video

Video TIME Magazine Honors Activists, Pioneers Seen as Influential

TIME Magazine has released its list of celebrities, leaders and activists, whom it deems the world’s “most influential” in 2015. VOA's Ramon Taylor reports from New York.
Video

Video US Businesses See Cuba as New Frontier

The Obama administration's opening toward Cuba is giving U.S. companies hope they'll be able to do business in Cuba despite the continuation of the U.S. economic embargo against the communist nation. Some American companies have been able to export some products to Cuba, but the recent lifting of Cuba's terrorism designation could relax other restrictions. As VOA's Daniela Schrier reports, corporate heavy hitters are lining up to head across the Florida Straits - though experts urge caution.
Video

Video Kenya Launches Police Recruitment Drive After Terror Attacks

Kenya launched a major police recruitment drive this week as part of a large-scale effort to boost security following a recent spate of terror attacks. VOA’s Gabe Joselow reports that allegations of corruption in the process are raising old concerns about the integrity of Kenya’s security forces.
Video

Video Japan, China in Race for Asia High-Speed Rail Projects

A lucrative competition is underway in Asia for billions of dollars in high-speed rail projects. Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Malaysia Thailand and Vietnam are among the countries planning to move onto the fast track. They are negotiating with Japan and the upstart Chinese who are locked in a duel to revolutionize transportation across Asia. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Bangkok has details.
Video

Video Scientists: Mosquitoes Attracted By Our Genes

Some people always seem to get bitten by mosquitoes more than others. Now, scientists have proved that is really the case - and they say it’s all because of genes. It’s hoped the research might lead to new preventative treatments for diseases like malaria, as Henry Ridgwell reports from London.
Video

Video Bible Museum Coming to Washington DC

Washington is the center of American political power and also home to some of the nation’s most visited museums. A new one that will showcase the Bible has skeptics questioning the motives of its conservative Christian funders. VOA religion correspondent Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Armenia and Politics of Word 'Genocide'

A century ago this April, hundreds of thousands of Armenians of the Turkish Ottoman empire were deported and massacred, and their culture erased from their traditional lands. While broadly accepted by the U.N. and at least 20 countries as “genocide”, the United States and Turkey have resisted using that word to describe the atrocities that stretched from 1915 to 1923. But Armenians have never forgotten.
Video

Video Afghan First Lady Pledges No Roll Back on Women's Rights

Afghan First Lady Rula Ghani, named one of Time's 100 Most Influential, says women should take part in talks with Taliban. VOA's Rokhsar Azamee has more from Kabul.
Video

Video Keeping Washington Airspace Safe Is Tall Order

Being the home of all three branches of the U.S. federal government makes Washington, D.C. the prime target for those who want to make their messages and ideas heard. Unfortunately, many of them choose to deliver them in unorthodox ways, including from the air, as a recent incident clearly showed involving a gyrocopter landing on the Capitol’s West Lawn. VOA's George Putic has more.
Video

Video New Brain Mapping Techniques Could Ease Chronic Pain

From Boulder, Colorado, Shelley Schlender reports that new methods for mapping pain in the brain are providing validation for chronic pain and might someday guide better treatment.
Video

Video Hope, Prayer Enter Fight Against S. Africa Xenophobia

South Africa has been swept by disturbing attacks on foreign nationals. Some blame the attacks on a legacy of colonialism, while others say the economy is to blame. Whatever the cause, ordinary South Africans - and South African residents from around the world - say they're praying for the siege of violence to end. Anita Powell reports from Johannesburg.

VOA Blogs