Charity and Acts of Loving Kindness in Portland, Maine
Or How My Father, Solomon Crasnick, Grew Up to be a Tzadik

By Elaine Crasnick Kahaner

My Father’s family emigrated around 1908 from the Russian village of Timkovich, Minsk a Gibeiburnia, to Portland, Maine. There are some family legends about how they arrived there. One story is that as pious Jews, the men were told that they would have to cut their beards if they landed in New York, so they stayed on the ship until it arrived in Portland, Maine. More likely there already were landtsmen and mishpocha there and so it became magnet for countrymen and relatives looking for a better life in this unlikely corner of the golden land.

The immigrant Jewish community clustered in a neighborhood known as Munjoy Hill, or at the foot of “The Hill” on the narrow, congested streets not far from the waterfront. Their homes were often a “flat” in a triple decker, those quintessential New England three story apartment buildings; not quite tenements, and certainly better than those of immigrant neighborhoods in New York City. The narrow cobblestone streets ran down to the wharves, and there was a cluster of Jewish businesses, including a Kosher butcher and bakery. There were at least five synagogues in the area, and everyone appeared to be related to everyone else. My Father’s family seemed to have been located in this latter area, and must have been one step ahead of the rent collector, because so many street names (Milk, Deer, Locust, India) trigger recognition among my cousins as having been ‘ancestral homes.’

At a more recent family gathering an older cousin reminisced about one flat our Grandparents, Morris and Lena Crasnick, lived in with their many children. “Why,” he wondered, “were there clear glass jars stacked high on a window sill in the kitchen?” He remembered that they sparkled when the sun shone through the glass. Another “alter” had the answer. It seems that every Friday, before Shabbos, Bubbie made an enormous pot, a ”shissel,” of chicken soup. Sometime it had carrots and onions and even a few pieces of meat in it, and was golden yellow. Other times it was nearly clear. But however thick or thin, it got ladled into the jars and each of the children was sent out to deliver one to a home where there was illness or need. That is how the poor helped one another and fulfilled the mitzvah of charity, and probably why they didn’t think of themselves as poor, because they were able to help those even less fortunate.

Another Friday ritual was performed by the Zaide, who took a coal hod, or bucket, and went to each Jewish home directing whoever answered the door to put one piece of coal in the pail. When it was full he delivered it to a family who did not have any of this fuel used for cooking and heating. Therefore he performed a doubled mitzvah; not only did he help the poor, he provided an opportunity for others to do a good deed.

To this day, a century later, I meet people in Portland who exclaim, “Oh, your Father was the sweetest man!” or “Your Father helped me.”, or, “Your Father was my mentor.” I am grateful for this inheritance, and only now, too late to tell him, I understand how very admirable his life as a Jew was.

Although I know of no one in the family who has an inherited object from these two forebears, their lessons are more valuable than any tangible legacy. This is how the community cared for one another and fulfilled the important commandments of charity and gemulet hessed, acts of loving kindness.

last updated : April 18, 2009

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