GROWING UP JEWISH IN PORTLAND, MAINE

by Rita Schwey Weisberg
delivered at Temple Beth El, 11/14/2004

First of all, I want to tell you that even though this panel has been referred to as the elders, I am the youngest one on the panel.

I was born at home and delivered by Dr. Melnick, a Jewish doctor. I think that he did a wonderful job and hope that you agree. At the time, my parents already had two other daughters. The oldest was Judy who was four years older than Marcia. Marcia was 5 years older than I was. Dr. Melnick came into the house with two suitcases and told Marcia that in one there was a little girl and in the other there was a little boy. Marcia chose the suitcase that I was in. She was always very smart!

Our family doctor was Dr. Henry Tabachnick .

I grew up on Munjoy Hill. When I was very little, we lived on Vesper Street, across the street from the Orthodox Rabbi, Rabbi Lewitis. There were many Jewish neighbors at that time. When I was six, we moved to Wilson Street, because we needed a bigger place. My mother was expecting a baby which turned out to be twin girls. (Helen and (Dianne ) It was hectic growing up in a family of five girls. Our house was a few streets from the Eastern Promenade and we spent most of our summer days either taking picnics to eat on the grass or going swimming in the East End Beach.

During my very young days, I played mostly with the kids that lived in the neighborhood, some Jewish and some non Jewish. I had a very happy home life. My mother was a very intelligent woman that instilled in me many of the values that I have today. She did not like to argue and always saw the best in people. My home was always full of my sister's friends including Jean Meyer and Phil Levinsky. (Jean used to play the piano and sing the Greena Cousina and cry real tears) We had so much fun. My parents had a pinochle and bridge game with the same couples that met each week for about 40 years. One of the couples was Dave Astor's parents , another was Maxwell and Eddie Shible's parents . They loved my mother's cooking. She was a very good cook and made all the traditional Jewish dishes. My uncle was in the potato business in Presque Isle and would send huge bags of potatoes to us and my mother would grate potato latkes for all of her friends . Everybody loved to come to my house. There were times when my mother's friends were in one room, my father's friends were playing pinochle in another room, my sister Judy's friends were dancing hi the living room, and Marcia's friends were in another room. We made our own entertainment, playing the piano and singing around the piano, putting on mock weddings, etc. It was a lively home.

If you kept a strictly kosher Passover, your foods were extremely limited. The only cake we made was sponge cake. We used to line the 9 X 13 pans with shelf paper or brown paper and after we took the cakes from the oven, we would peel the paper off and pray that the sponge cake did not fall in. My birthday very often fell on Passover, so my birthday cake would be a sponge cake. I remember a grocery store on congress Street that sold Passover Candy. They had huge blocks of jelly candy and for a nickel, they would cut you a big piece. My school was then on Monument Street and after I ate my lunch at home, I would stop at the store and get a piece of that candy.

There were no supermarkets to shop in and we had many corner grocery stores within walking distance to our home. During World War 2, it was good to be a friend of Bob Kuvent's grandmother, Mary Astor. She and her husband ran a corner grocery store on the next street to us. Whenever there was sugar or bananas that she had, she would let us know. She kept them under the counter. If I remember correctly, the sugar was rationed and we had to use our ration coupons to buy it. Another store was Block's. It sold groceries, and a little of everything. It was a few blocks further from us. Mrs. Block was a sister to Mrs. Astor and Mr. Shible.

We lived in a duplex house. There were four families, two on each side. At one point, there was a French family that lived downstairs. The woman liked my mother very much but always asked my mother if she was sure she was Jewish. Apparently, she had a very negative opinion of Jews and my mother did not fit the stereotype of what she pictured as a Jew. We did get along in spite of the woman's prejudice. It was comments like that that made us feel more comfortable associating mainly with our fellow Jews.

Also the Orthodox Rabbi, Rabbi Greenbaum lived across the hall for a time.. He had a beautiful young blond Israeli wife named Miriam.> When my sister Marcia's male friends came to my house, they always rang the Rabbi's bell by mistake (on purpose) so that they could see the beautiful young Rebbitzen. Phil Levinsky was one of those mischievous young men.

My father's mother lived on Newbury Street, across from the old Shaarey Tphiloh Synagogue. She rented an apartment from Mrs. Goldstein , whose granddaughter married Milton Berle . Every week I would take the bus to my piano lesson which also was on Newbury Street and visit my grandmother. My piano teacher was Mary Goldman, Al Goldman's sister. I started taking piano lessons from her at the age of 10 and went by bus by myself to the lessons. I would then go down town or go to the library. I was very independent and did not have parents driving me around as they do today.

In school, in the music classes, we had to sing the beautiful Christmas carols. I used to sing them, but leave out the name of Christ. I remember helping to decorate a Christmas tree in the second grade. I loved decorating the tree, only because it was so beautiful and naturally, we never had one at home. I stayed home from school on all the Jewish holidays. It was not hard to make up the work if you were a good student. They did not push the kids as fast as they do now.

I never experienced any prejudice in school. When I went to Junior High School, I began to socialize with only Jewish kids. I had a best friend, Marianne, who is still a very dear friend of mine even though she does not live in Portland. We belonged to Young Judea at that time. Our leader was Yetta Cope, a sister-in-law to Mitchell and Arthur Cope. We used to collect for Jewish National Fund with the blue cans from all the Jewish people.

I played the piano at the various Synagogue Sisterhood and Hadassah meetings for the entertainment portion of their programs and enjoyed all of the older people. At a Federation Meeting, I remember playing Hatikvah when President Roosevelt's son and his wife Fay Emerson were the guests of honor.

During the high holidays, I would go to the Shaarey Tphiloh Synogogue and visit with my grandmother in the upper part of the Synagogue where only the women sat. I loved to hear the Cantor and the choir sing, but did not understand any of the prayers. We always had new clothes for the holidays and the girls always wore hats. We also would visit the Etz Chaim Synagogue to see what was going on there. It was a time to not only get a little Yiddishkite but to socialize with your friends. On the upper portion of the Shaarey Tphiloh Synogogue there was a very nice ladies' lounge where my friends and I spent a little time. We never rode on the Jewish holidays. By this time, my friend Marianne lived on Pleasant Ave. and we would walk from my house near the Promenade, to the Synagogue on Newbury Street, and then to her house on Pleasant Ave., and this was done with spike heels, you understand. Most of the Jewish families had moved to the Woodfords area of Portland by the time I was in high school, but I still continued to socialize only with Jewish teenagers.

In high school, my social life was mostly at the Jewish Community Center on Cumberland Ave. We had a Center Youth Lounge where we could play the juke box and dance or just sit and be with one another. It was a home away from home. We had a bowling alley on the top floor and this was the place that most Jewish activity in the city took place, including all the Jewish Sorority and Fraternity Dances. I was president of the Delta Kappa Sorority in my senior year of high school. Our sorority would sell raffles and donate things to the Jewish Home for the Aged. I think the raffles were only 5 cents each. Two other sorority sisters and I were asked to speak at a Friday evening service at Temple Beth El before it had its own building.. The topic was why people were not coming to services and each one of us wrote her own speech from a different viewpoint. Our sorority was also asked by Temple Beth El if any of us in the sorority had musical talent. Harriet Serlick and I both played the piano, so we volunteered to be in a Mother and Daughter program at the Temple. When we went to the first meeting, we were rather shocked to be asked if we were soprano or alto. We went along with it and did participate in the group. I never heard any complaints.

It was customary for local businesses to search out people who studied advanced secretarial studies in my school. There was a position for a secretary at the Canal National Bank, an old Yankee bank that was established 125 years prior. The head of the business section of my school sent me to apply for the position. He told me, however, that since I was the best qualified person he had, if they did not hire me, I should not feel badly and that it would be because of my religion. Unbeknownst to me, he told them at the bank that if they did not hire me because of my religion, he would never send another person to them. Any way, I was hired and was the first Jewish girl in the city of Portland to work at a bank. I never was shown any direct anti-semitism but one day the head of the investment company that was next door to the bank came in to see my boss. My boss and I shared an office. The investment man proceeded to say to my boss that a very decent Jew came in to his place to examine the tax returns. My boss knew that it was Eddie, with whom I was engaged at the time, and was rather upset for me but they quickly went on to another subject.

I always had a deep feeling about Judaism. When I first met my husband Eddie, one of the things that impressed me about him was his Jewish education and love of the religion. We had to return from our honeymoon sooner than we would have liked to because Eddie was teaching Hebrew School part time.

Several years later, I taught Sunday school at the Temple. In the beginning, 4, 5, and 6 year old children were all in the same class. I believe we had 49 children. I had two helpers. One of them was Bonnie Godfrey, who many of you know sang with the Metropolitan.

Our children went to Hebrew School at the Temple and became Bat and Bar Mitzvah. It was a time when the Bar Mitzvah service was the most important part of the day and not the lavish parties that are now being held. Cantor Messerschmidt trained the children to perfection and the services were beautiful with the Choir singing and the organ's accompaniment. During the Saturday service, we had a children's choir which also added to the beauty of the service. The children attended Kadima and USY.

We kept a kosher home and celebrated all the holidays at home with special foods and decorations. Our Seders were always very special. Since my dining room is small, the Seder was limited to my family, parents and sister' families. But, one year, we had a third Seder a week later and invited just friends. My parents were in the Barron Center during their 90's. After My mother died and my father was unable to leave the Barron Center, they let us use their lovely day care room and the family which numbered about 25 brought all of our home cooking with all the traditional foods and disposable plates and had a wonderful Seder. Channel 6 came and featured a segment of their news with part of our Seder. .

When my children were old enough for me to go back to work, I went to work at the Portland Water District. For most of the 20 years that I worked there, I was the only Jewish person, out of 250 employees. I found that the people were very interested to learn about my religion and took it upon myself to tell them many things. There were several times when someone would make a comment about Jewing someone down and I always called that person to task about the remark. One young man, after I told him that I was insulted with his remark, apologized and sent me a beautiful Hallmark card saying how sorry he was. There was one man I worked with that always commented that all Jews were rich, so one day I told him that if he became Jewish that he would become rich too. He said that he was not smart enough to be Jewish. I told him that as soon as he had the operation, that he would become smart. After that, every time he came by my desk, I would hold up my scissors and he would run.

Eddie and I were blessed with many friends. We have celebrated birthdays and anniversaries with dinners, humorous plays and roasts with the same 10 couples for about 50 years. The Levinskys, Brinns and the Weisbergs hosted two parties at the South Portland Boys' Club and called them Country Fairs. We called ourselves the Weisbrinskys (a combination of Weisberg, Brinn and Levinsky) They were wonderful parties and are on video tape. If there is enough of a demand, they will be shown next year at the "Movies" as part of the Jewish Film Festival. My wonderful husband and many of our dear friends have passed away, but I treasure their memory and, I also treasure the new friendships that I have made.

last updated : May 12, 2009

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