by Celia C. Risen, Dorrance Publishing Co., Inc.,

A Review By Rhea J. Côté Robbins, Brewer


Some Jewels of Maine: Jewish Maine Pioneers is Celia Risen's second book. Her first book, published in 1988, is entitled Yankee Fiddler: A Man Called Suss . Both books are about the Jewish families who came to settle in Maine. With her recent book, Some Jewels of Maine, Risen focuses in depth on the entire state of Maine and several of the immigrants and their families who came to settle here during the late 1800s, early 1900s and carries the story to modern times. The immigrants came from Russia and Eastern Europe to escape the pogroms, persecution and conscription into the Czar's army.

Risen, now retired from teaching, began her inquiry into the Jewish pioneers who came to Maine after conducting interviews with them and their descendants for the English as a Second Language (ESL) courses she was teaching. The stories sparked her interest so she decided to pursue the families' histories.

Some Jewels of Maine captures the lives of the Jewish pioneers and their struggles of living through the hardship of language, culture, religious barriers in a new, foreign land. What they left behind in the old country were even greater hardships. What they became in the new land was a distinct and unique people who prospered, for the most part, despite the barriers, and because of the barriers. The push to succeed and the hard working diligence of the Jewish people who came to settle in the state are a part of many Maine communities local legend and lore. From the beginning of their arrival, even without knowledge of English or without much capital, these Russian and Eastern European immigrants touched the lives of the people in the state.

"I wanted to show the ESL students what others were able to accomplish even though they came with no money, no skills and no knowledge of English," Risen states. What began as a way to illustrate to her ESL students the influence that these immigrants played, despite the barriers of language, etc., in the formation of the communities they settled in, Risen's book speaks to many of us about the valuable contribution these immigrants made to their culture and the economy of the state.

Interestingly, for me, the interweaving of other cultures with the Jewish immigrants is adeptly illustrated. I can add my own personal testimony, coming from the French Canadian [Franco-American] culture, about the interactions with many of these Jewish immigrants, or their descendants, which was a part of my upbringing. I was told, and it was held up as an example, of the way in which the Jewish people often aided their own to succeed in the world of commerce. The local paper would advertise the "Founder's Day Sale" of the local Jewish clothier. A peddler's wagon was featured in the ad because that was how the business had started. My mother worked for two such clothiers, hired because of her bilingual skills, as many others were also hired to work in the stores because of their bilingual abilities, which represents a prominent feature of the way these Jewish pioneers would learn to do business-in the language of their customers. Later on, as a family, we raised chickens for another Jewish business enterprise. My aunt would tell me stories of the Jewish peddler in No. Maine and what his interaction with the French community there was like. In reading Risen's book, my own life's history was revealed to me through the stories of the many Jewish families that effected the communities to which they came to work and live.

The Jewish pioneers came to Maine because the climate and landscape resembled the ones they had left behind. Immigrant followed immigrant as well. The economy in Maine was one which allowed for immigrants to learn a trade, peddle, apprentice, or become an independent worker. Many who started out as peddlers, prospered to become merchants, factory owners, chicken plant processors, distributors of goods and services as well as community leaders. Risen writes a catalog of accomplishments and achievements for the women and men whose families immigrated to Maine. Because education was a goal for all, both women and men, through the hard working efforts of others before them, were able to attain college education in the second and third generations to become doctors, lawyers, professors and entered other professions as well.

Religion played an important role in their lives. Maintaining kosher homes and Jewish religious observances were a part of their integration in the community. Synagogues were begun when there were enough Jewish families in that town to support it. When faced with anti-Semitism, they responded by creating fraternities, support networks, lending agencies and other organizations to counteract the prejudice they faced. Some communities were more accepting than others. Risen often points out that the Jews and the French often faced the same core of prejudice-that which was directed toward cultures other than "Yankee."

Risen writes in a style of "the pot of living" which is open ended and stirs in details through a cultural language that reflects Jewishness. She expounds on proverb, humor, philosophies of Jewish tradition, candidness of intercultural animosities, shochets, schonorrers, economics defined by histories, poverty, struggles in upward mobility, successes and failures of the families which read as a who's who of many Maine communities. Many will recognize family names such as Sterns, Bernstein, Povich, Berliawsky, Lown, Wolman, Lipman, Goldsmith, Cohen, Cutler, Etscovitz, Levine and many more whose enterprise touched the lives of thousands through the years. Each chapter interviews one family which leads to the next chapter like a string of pearls of influence. Each chapter also focuses on an issue or cause or concern close to the individuals featured. The language and ritual of Jewish living is explained historically for the dislocated immigrants who took up the hard work of recreating the support networks necessary to define a distinct people. In modern terms, taking into consideration the renewed interest in global economics, this book reveals the multicultural and international landscape which has is a legacy of the state. The historic proof of the tradition and ability to do business in the language of one's customers as well as a multicultural focus informing the communities in which these immigrants settled, is a strength to be drawn from in today's market place.

Risen began her connection to Maine in 1955 when she and her husband sent their children to the camps developed in the state for Jewish children, and later they began summering here on a tree farm in central Maine every year from June till September. Her intimate knowledge of the Jewish communities captures the flavors of each and reflects it back to the reader in detail and accuracy. Her book, Some Jewels of Maine: Jewish Maine Pioneers is an important book to add to the libraries, classrooms, curriculums and pleasure reading lists because of the inevitability of how these pioneers have touched our lives. As a reading public, we need to know their stories. As a multicultural, international historic community, we are enriched by our collective history told in this book.

last updated : May 19, 2009

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