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.


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

Photogallery Pope Condemns IS 'Persecution' of Minorities

Pope delivers annual 'Urbi et Orbi' (to the city and the world) blessing, appeals for end to conflicts in Africa, dialogue in Middle East, condemns Taliban attack in Pakistan More

China Reduces Number of Crimes Punishable by Death

Earlier this year China announced plans to remove nine crimes from the list of capital offenses, including counterfeiting, fraudulent fund-raising and forcing others into prostitution More

Analysis: For N. Koreans, Parody Has Grave Tone

Most North Koreans who might see 'The Interview' would be horribly offended, outraged, and confused More

This forum has been closed.
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.
Estimates Rising of Foreign Fighters in Iraq, Syriai
Jeff Seldin
December 24, 2014 11:38 PM
Foreign fighters are making more of a mark on the battles raging across Syria and Iraq than initially thought. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Estimates Rising of Foreign Fighters in Iraq, Syria

Foreign fighters are making more of a mark on the battles raging across Syria and Iraq than initially thought. VOA's Jeff Seldin has more.

Video Russians Head Into Holiday Facing Economic Malaise

Russian preparations for the New Year holiday are clouded by economic recession and a tumbling currency, the ruble. Nonetheless, people in the Russian capital appear to be in a festive mood. VOA's Daniel Schearf reports from Moscow.

Video Mombasa in Holiday Tourism Slump Due to Security Fears

Kenya's usually popular beachside tourist destination of Mombasa is seeing a much slower holiday season this year due to fears of insecurity as the country has suffered from a string of terror attacks linked to Somali militants. Mohammed Yusuf reports for VOA on how businessmen and tourists feel about the situation.

Video For Somalis, 2014 Marked by Political Instability Within Government

While Somalia has long been torn apart by warfare and violence, this year one of the country's biggest challenges has come from within the government, as political infighting curtails the country's progress, threatens security gains and disappoints the international community. VOA's Gabe Joselow report.

Video US Political Shift Could Affect Iran Nuclear Talks

Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to resolve Iran’s nuclear crisis are continuing into 2015 after Iran and six world powers failed to agree by a November deadline. U.S. domestic politics, however, could complicate efforts to reach a deal in the new year. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins has the story.

Video NYSE: The Icon of Capitalism

From its humble beginnings in 1792 to its status as an economic bellweather for the world, the New York Stock Exchange is an integral part of the story of America. VOA’s Bernard Shusman reports from Wall Street.

Video Islamic State Emergence Transforms Syria and Iraq in 2014

The emergence of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as a potent force in early 2014 changed the dynamics of the region. Their brutal methods - including executions and forced slavery - horrified the international community, drawing Western forces into the conflict. It also splintered the war in Syria, where more than 200,000 Syrians have died in the conflict. VOA’s Henry Ridgwell looks back at a deadly year in the region -- and what 2015 may hold.

Video Massive Study Provides Best Look at Greenland Ice Loss Yet

The Greenland ice sheet is melting faster than predicted, according to a new study released in the Proceedings of the National Academic of Sciences that combines NASA satellite data and aerial missions. As VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports, the finding means coastal communities worldwide could be at greater risk, sooner, from the impact of rising seas.

Video US Marines, Toys for Tots Bring Christmas Joy

Christmas is a time for giving in the United States, especially to young children who look forward to getting presents. But some families don't have money to buy gifts. For nearly 70 years, a U.S. Marines-sponsored program has donated toys and distributed them to underprivileged children during the holiday season. VOA's Deborah Block tells us about the annual Toys for Tots program.

Video France Rocked by Attacks as Fear of ISIS-Inspired Terror Grows

Eleven people were injured, two seriously, when a man drove his car into crowds of pedestrians Sunday night in the French city of Dijon, shouting ‘God is Great’ in Arabic. It’s the latest in a series of apparent ‘lone-wolf’ terror attacks in the West. Henry Ridgwell looks at the growing threat of attacks, which security experts say are likely inspired by the so-called "Islamic State" terror group.

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.

All About America