Documenting Maine Jewry : Bates College Forum Oct 2009

As Jewish Maine Goes, So Goes American Jewry:
Perspectives on the American Jewish Experience

Abraham J. Peck

Bates College Forum on Maine Jewish History
October 2009

I am truly grateful to be here today. I am especially grateful to Harris Gleckman and Richard D�Abate for organizing this wonderful history forum and for inviting me to be a part of it.

I have spent much of my professional career in American Jewish history, first as the administrative director of the American Jewish Archives at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio and then as the director of research and operational institutions at the American Jewish Historical Society on the campus of Brandeis University and at its newest location, the Center for Jewish History in New York City.

I have witnessed a veritable revolution in the research and writing of American Jewish history and its full and legitimate entry into the broader discipline of American history. It was a difficult path, one that I would like to discuss with you on the occasion of today�s Maine Jewish History forum.

But, to be honest, while my administrative, teaching, and research interests lay in Cincinnati, Waltham and New York, my heart lay in Maine and particularly in Portland.

The reasons why are not difficult to relate. They were over a woman, specifically one Jean Elyse Marcus, a transfer student to American University in Washingon,D C who I met during the first week of classes in the fall of 1967.

I was intrigued by this young woman, because she told me as soon as we met that she was from Portland, Maine and she was Jewish. I was at a loss for words: I had never met anyone from Maine who was Jewish; so I could not play Jewish geography, one of the now-classified dating and mating rituals which sit atop the unwritten manual of American Jewish romance. Indeed, I assumed, there were no Jews in Maine!

Beyond the Periphery of American Jewish Life?

I was proven wrong about that but not entirely. Apparently Jean Elyse Marcus suffered from the dark cloud hanging over Maine�s Jewish community, a stigma described by Benjamin Band in his pioneering study of Portland Jewry published in 1955 : �The growth of the Jewish Community of Portland�has been recorded inadequately by Jewish historians. The reason for this is [that }Maine was considered as being beyond the periphery of the general history of American Jewry��

There it was in bold black letters. On the 300th anniversary of Jewish settlement in 1654 it was revealed that Jewish Maine had not been considered a part of that experience.

1. What did it mean to be �beyond the periphery of the general history of American Jewry.� I could understand being from Fort Kent or Calais, and being beyond the periphery of mainstream life in much of Maine and New England, but beyond the periphery of a 300 year experience? Poor Jean Elyse Marcus!

At any rate, I have come to believe that Maine Jewry was not and continues not to be outside that periphery, thanks in part to the work of Benjamin Band and the scholars who will speak to you later today. Indeed, if all I knew about Maine BJ, Before Jean, beyond its way north or down east location, was the famous American slogan of Remember the Maine!, the American ship whose destruction and adoption by the yellow journalists propelled this nation into the Spanish-American War, I now know very much more,and in the Jewish connection, infinite amounts more�especially the fact that the commander of the Maine just prior to its destruction on February 15, 1898 in Havana Harbor was Adolf Marix, the first American Jewish rear admiral. Maine Jewry may have been seen as beyond the periphery but the namesake of the place they lived was squarely in the heart of the sacred space we call the American experience.

In a sense, however, Benjamin Band was not entirely incorrect about Maine Jewry being beyond the periphery of the general history of American Jewish life. But his statement has to be somewhat reshaped: One can argue that historians of early American history paid little attention to the small Jewish community of the time. That the early Jewish experience in America was outside the periphery of America�s history. There are several causes for such a state of affairs. First, it could be observed that until the late 1960s even the field of early American history, reinvigorated to be sure by a number of brilliant historians, remained the history of New England writ large. Led by those brilliant historians, Samuel Eliot Morrison, Perry Miller, Edmund S. Morgan, both bulk and prestige in early American history went to New England and especially Puritan studies. Other histories, including the histories of early American Jews, might be interesting, but they did not speak to the larger contours of colonial history or to American history generally.

A New Israel

Of course, this stress on Puritanism might have augured well for the history of Judaism in early America. The Puritans took exceptional interest in the Jewish Testament, and their clerical leaders commonly knew Hebrew, often well. But explanations in theory are not explanations in practice. The Puritans interest in Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible did not stimulate historians interests in Judaism or Jews. Few Jews lived in Massachusetts/Maine and the remaining New England states and most Jews who lived in New England lived in Rhode Island, specifically in Newport, a colony and town that did not fit the general narrative of Puritan history once the dissident Roger Williams arrived there. In fact, the history of Puritanism remained just that, a history sometimes not even true to its own constitution and character.

Second, the renewal of early American history also concentrated largely on the seventeenth century, especially the period from 1607 to the late 1680s. Some important exceptions aside, historians tended to jump from the 1680�s to the 1760s and the Revolution. This meant that the very decades that saw the rise of the Jews in colonial America lost out to the two bookends of colonial American history- the early and mid-seventeenth century Puritans and the late eighteenth century Revolution. The Jews who first arrived in the United States in substantial numbers in the 1690s in any British mainland colonies were among many colonists who won little interest from most early American historians before 1970.

Third, the kind of social history that began to be practiced in the 1960s did not benefit groups like early American Jews. But the focus, while on New England, was still focuses on the seventeenth century and missed the major decades of Jewish immigration to America in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and to Maine. Moreover, little of this new history concentrated on mobile populations or on populations with strong transatlantic connections. Jewish peddlers, who came and went as �birds of paradise� with a recent history of immigration from Eastern Europe did not attract the attention of social historians who were looking for group who left behind good historical records.

If there were Jews or a Jewish community in this state in those early years, neither the amount of documents they might have left behind or the social historians willing to study them were much in existence.

American Jewry�s �Special Path�

One could also argue that until recently, American Jewish history was outside the periphery of the broader history of modern Jewish life.

Historians of modern Jewry have long looked upon the American Jewish experience as something of an anomaly. Some set aside special chapters on America, as if its story must be kept apart from that of all other countries. Others introduce America only late in the nineteenth-century, paying no attention whatever to its history up to that time. Nobody, it seems, has successfully integrated America into the overall narrative of Jewish history.

There is a clear reason for this. Modern Jewish history, with its emphasis on emancipation, enlightenment, anti-Semitism, Holocaust and redemption (the creation of the state of Israel) does not square with American Jewish history as it has traditionally been recounted.

You see, American Jewish history, almost from the beginning, was a challenge to modern Jewish history. America, after all, represented a New World Society where almost from the beginning the logic of mercantilism demanded that Jews be given freedoms undreamed of in the Old World. Indeed, if any community in modern times can be said to defy Professor Salo Baron�s charge that Jewish history is too often presented as lachrymose, as a study in suffering, that community must be American Jewry.

How different is the America that has welcomed Jewish victims of European oppression. Liberty ,democracy, church-state separation, de facto pluralism, abundant opportunity, and the fact that America housed several other out-groups, notably African Americans and Catholics, shaped a society that made it possible for Jews to achieve what they so rarely did in Europe: the chance to be treated as equals, to thrive economically and, at the same time, to remain Jewish.

One could argue, indeed as has the historian Hasia Diner, that in many respects the American Jewish way came to be the model that other Jews adopted later on. In its redefinition of Jewishness, in education, in its organization of charity, and in many other respects, too, the American pattern played an important role in influencing Jews around the world. Instead of being beyond the paradigm of Jewish history, Diner concludes, American Jewish history can thus offer scholars the paradigm of modern Jewish history: as American Jewish history goes, so goes general Jewish history.

Writing the American Jewish Experience

But if the social historians of the 1960s and 70s were not writing about American Jewish history and European and other Jewish historians did not know what to say about American Jewish history, who was, if anyone was, writing about the American Jewish experience?

As a matter of fact the history of Jews in America was not written for many years. The earliest authors were not concerned with the few Jews who lived here. True, many of the first books written reflected knowledge of things Jewish�Hebraic ideas heavily undershot Puritan philosophy, for example�but there were no living, palpitating Jews in those books.

Many Christian authors wrote about Jewish history, but theirs was a theological interest in Jews as objects of a divine order and not as subjects for historical study. Authors such as Increase and Cotton Mather wrote tracts bearing long titles for the purpose of converting Jews to Christianity. The literature of the early colonial period produced many pamphlets devoted to this topic.

But what about Jewish authors? One of the first Jewish writers to be published in America was Judah Monis, the first Harvard professor of Hebrew, whose early eighteenth century tracts were devoted to the subject of conversion to Christianity�his own. Monis, of course, was not writing American Jewish history, but was, in effect, making history.

In the meantime, several authors were writing about �Jews� in America. These scribes were exponents of the engaging theory that native Americans were the descendents of the Lost Ten Tribes. A persuasive writer on the subject was Pastor Ethan Smith whose View of the Hebrews: or the Tribes of Israel in America published in Putney, Vermont in 1825 presented, curiously enough, evidence of genuine American Jewish history. Smith referred to certain phylacteries found at Pittsfield, Massachusetts, which were alleged to have belonged to Native American Indian tribes for untold ages. But Smith was probably only on the track of some travel-worn Jewish peddler whose teffilin had dropped through a hole in his pack!

It should be made clear that by the beginning of the nineteenth century Americans had just begun to write their history as we understand the subject. It was unlikely that the historians of the period would or could have written about Jews in the colonies or in the United States. Neither could the American Jewish community at this point afford the luxury of a professional historian, nor had it advanced to a point where it could applaud an amateur one. Contemporaneous Jewish writing was confined to hortatory theology, religious controversy, Hebrew grammars, lexicons, calendars and ancient Jews. Occasionally a congregation printed a constitution or a rabbinical address. The more literary Jews of the time-Mordechai M. Noah, Samuel Judah or Isaac Harby of Charleston, South Carolina, were more interested in writing belles-lettres, and were doomed to be quickly forgotten, only to be rediscovered in the past three decades.

What is clear from the materials up to 1850 is this: no Jewish author had yet attempted to write the history of Jews in America, nor for that matter, had any non-Jewish writer given the subject adequate attention.

Finally, in 1888, a Jewish journalist, Isaac Markens, wrote The Hebrews in America. It started out as a newspaper series in the New York Mail and Express. Markens� book retained the journalistic flavor-his interest is in names and personalities,not in the interrelationship of people and events.

There is a discernible atmosphere of the �success story� about Markens� book. He gloats over large fortunes amassed by individuals, speaks unhesitatingly of the �wealthiest synagogue� in the United States, delights in saying that so-and-so was �prominent,� �respected� or worth so much. To him the American Jewish community was a vast commercial enterprise, glowing with promise �that within half a century, the Hebrews of this country will control the balance of trade.�

Had he visited Portland, Maine just two years earlier, he might have gotten a different picture as Barnard Aaronson described one segment of American Jewry of the time during Portland�s centenary celebration on July 4, 1886:

We number sixty families, and over the major portion being of the middle or poorer class, yet content with their lot�

But this �glamour history� or filopietism, the worship of one�s ancestors, which was reflected in Marken�s book would define the essence of American Jewish historical writing for well over a half century. It was a kind of history that wished to show that Jews also made their mark in the then current sense; and that the Jew was essentially a good citizen.

Perhaps Markens had a good reason to write this way. Only months before the Minerva Publishing Company of New York had issued two scurrilous anti-Semitic tracts, The Original Mr. Jacobs, and the American Jew: An Expose of his Career. The company also announced plans for a monthly publication to be called The Anti-Semite.

Both books were reactions to the perceived success and aggressiveness of the nation�s German Jewish community that had begun its immigration to America over a half century earlier and had achieved an unqualified success�a real American dream.

Did these echoes of anti-Jewish sentiment echo in Portland, Maine? And did the fear of such emotions by some non-Jewish Americans cause Barnard Aaronson to downplay Portland Jewry�s successes? Or because there were so few old-line German Jewish immigrants in Portland, was he simply telling the truth about the city�s east European Jewish residents? And when Aaronson described himself during that same speech as the �president of the Hebrew Congregation, Sharith Israel and that � a quarter of a century ago there was no representative of the Jewish Church in your city,� Was he using the phrase �Jewish Church� as a common denominator to explain a house of worship, because the Christians in the audience would look upon it more favorably. Don�t forget , Aaronson spoke, well over a century after the US constitution was promulgated, when a great many Americans still believed they lived in a Christian, often more narrowly defined as a Protestant country. Some still do. We do not know Aaronson�s reasons for using the term �the Jewish Church� but we need to try to find out.

American Jewish History: A New Direction

Two American Jewish historians, without a doubt two of the greatest Jewish historians of the twentieth century, Jacob Rader Marcus and Salo W. Baron , were responsible for leading the writing of American Jewish history away from the apologetics and filiopietism that distinguished the discipline since the appearance of Isaac Markens� work in 1888.

And there was a special reason for this shift. Remarkably and almost concomitantly, early in the 1940s as the terrible European tragedy of the Holocaust was taking place before their eyes, Marcus the Cincinnati based scholar at the Hebrew Union College, who had earlier specialized in Central European Judaica, and Baron, his Columbia University based colleague in New York, who was emerging as perhaps the greatest Jewish historian of his era, were moved to tell contemporary leaders that whether a free American Jewry was prepared or not, the mantle of international Jewish leadership and the burden of perpetuating Jewish scholarship and communal identity had fallen on their shoulders. In 1940 Marcus, an ordained Reform rabbi, told his Central Conference of American Rabbis colleagues that the force of emerging events was thrusting world leadership upon new centers, Palestine and the United States. American Jewry had to take a large step forward. For Marcus, it was not a question of whether America could become a great Jewish center. We, he wrote, �have already reached that state, the task now confronting us is to become that type of center which will initiate that state, the task now confronting us is to become that type of center which will initiate for World Jewry a new Golden Age of learning inspired by the finest in the civilization of this generation.�

In 1942, Baron stood before a gathering of Jewish social and communal workers and delivered a similar message. He noted that �until World War I, despite tremendous increases in population and wealth, the Jews of the Western Hemisphere were largely the recipients of the cultural and political bounty of the Old World,� and while sure to credit the American Jewish community with a rise toward maturity during the Great War, Baron stated clearly that �the Second World War has placed in American Jewry�s hands undisputed leadership of world Jewry with all the challenges and responsibilities which it entails.�

One of the main responsibilities was an understanding of the American Jewish historical experience by, as Baron defined it, a new generation of [historians] �equipped with the knowledge furnished them by the methods of modern social and historical sciences.�

The war against the writing of American Jewish apologetics and filiopietism was declared in 1954, during the national celebration of the 300th anniversary of Jewish settlement in North America. A group of American Jewish historians sequestered themselves in a meeting place in Peekskill, New York to discuss the future of American Jewish history as a discipline worth being a part of the broader field of American history.

�Portland Jewry: Its Growth and Development� by Benjamin Band, published by the Jewish Historical Society of Portland, was one pioneering response to this declaration. Published in 1955, the book is an extraordinary effort to chronicle nearly a century of Jewish life in Portland. But it suffers from the limited amount of time that Benjamin Band was allowed to research and write. It suffers from the fact that Benjamin Band, a gifted linguist and teacher, had to share his precious research and writing hours with the grading of student exams.And it suffers from an inability to immediately answer the call of the Peekskill conference and others that �a new approach to the interpretation of American Jewish history� was needed, one in which �the first step to improve the quality of American Jewish historical writing is to regain the awareness that the Jewish experience in America should be studied as part of the larger scheme of American history.�In such a perspective, American Jewish history, is not a distinct field but an integral part of American history. The same, I would argue, applies to local Jewish histories.

In the more than fifty years since the Peekskill conference and declaration, such a new direction has indeed taken place. I have had the good fortune to be a part of the shaping of such a direction, first in my 20 year association with Jacob Rader Marcus at the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, and my work at the American Jewish Historical Society.

What forms this new direction, as I understand it, with regard to the writing of local American Jewish history.

1.Immigrant religious life- Historians are beginning to realize that East European Jewish immigrants to America often subordinated religious commitments to ethnic ones, stressed secular forces, and moved in various directions as they sought to retain their traditional religious ways and organizations, and were forced to move toward a more �Americanized� form of traditional Jewish religious observance and beyond to more radical innovations. The immigrants sought feverishly to re-interpret Jewish ethnic and religious life in full awareness of American conditions,, and the American influences were much more important than European models.

2.Social Class, Mobility, and Ethnicity: Few aspects of Jewish life in America are as important as the class structure,and none has received so little serious attention. Particularly needed are careful reflections on class as it shapes the life cycle of individual Jews and their children and on the interplay of ethnic and class factors.

This provides an opportunity for exploring the Jewish experience in America in a comparative ethnic context. For Jewish mobility in 19th and 20th century America, comparisons with other immigrants that arrived in America in the same immigration waves would enrich our understanding of the Jewish experience. In Portland , the Jewish experience in the latter part of the nineteenth and early decades of the 20th century is a vital area of needed research.

3. Historical Sociology. The so-called new urban history, already a part of historical writing for the better part of three decades, often blurs the traditional distinctions between sociologist and historian by a judicious use of quantitative materials, and by a wish to make the scope of urban ethnic history so large that it embraces the ordinary and obscure individuals of the group under study. We want to know why immigrants chose one city over another, one religious movement over another, relationships with one ethic group over another, and the institutional environment within those ethnic communities that aided or hindered their economic, religious and political evolution.

And this new direction does not have to be limited to a city like Portland but to other smaller towns and communities all across this state.

And there are institutions willing and ready to help. Established institutions such as the Maine Historical Society and newer ones, such as the Jean Byers Sampson Center for Diversity in Maine at the University of Southern Maine, are archival centers that collect materials and initiate and sponsor new research. New initiatives such as Documenting Maine Jewry and exhibits and collecting schema in cities like Bangor, Lewiston/ Auburn and Biddeford/ Saco point to an interest by local community members who want to tell the story of Jewish life in their city or town.

As Maine Jewry Goes�..

And I have some good news for you. That new direction in the writing of American Jewish history is already here. You will hear today presentations by historians of the new direction discussing important aspects of the Maine Jewish experience and New England Jewish experience. I have had the great honor to work with them over the past several years. I called this talk to you �As Maine Goes, so Goes American Jewry.� I do not think I am wrong.How we write the Jewish history of this state will in the end reflect on our greater understanding of the American Jewish experience. It is by now a well-understood fact that the history of New York City Jewish life is a part of but by no means the full extent of how we are to understand that experience.The story of Maine Jewry may resemble the history of other Jewish experiences in America but it may also differ enough to add a new wrinkle to the interpretation. And that may be true for so many other parts of the experience of Jews in this extraordinary nation, an experience that is already beyond the recognition of its 350th anniversary. Perhaps it is time to issue a new call for another new direction, because we are not the same historians we were in 1954 or in 1994.

And as for me. In my 40 years WJ, with Jean, I now know that there have been Jews whose stories form a part of our understanding about this magical place we call Maine. I know that because I have become one of them.

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