Summer love: Jewish project summons memories of OOB

By Gillian Graham, Staff Writer, Biddeford Courie

Biddeford-Saco-OOB Courier, August 26, 2010, page 7

Dorothy Green and Sol Crasnick met and fell in love on Old Orchard Beach in 1933.

Seventy-seven years later, their daughter, Elaine Crasnick Kahaner, stood at the front of Temple Beth Israel in Old Orchard Beach and listened as others shared their memories of growing up Jewish in Maine.

About 100 people gathered for a summer meeting Sunday afternoon at the shul on East Grand Avenue to share stories and learn more about Documenting Maine Jewry, a community-based history project that provides information on Jewish citizens of Maine. Documenting Maine Jewry is working in cooperation with the Maine Historical Society and Maine Humanities Council.

Kahaner, a member of the project's coordinating group, said she expected only 30 or 40 people to attend the meeting when she first started spreading the word. Within weeks, she received phone calls and letters from people across the country and Canada who recalled visiting Old Orchard Beach as children.

"People have very happy memories of being connected to the Jewish community here," Kahaner said. "It was a unique community because it was so inter-connected."

One letter, from Nelson Myers of Toronto, Canada, recalled how his late father, Bernard Myers, brought his parents, Ross and Jennie, from Montreal to stay at the Lafayette Hotel in the late 1930s. His mother, Edna, met her future husband at the ballroom of Hotel Empire in 1938 after she arrived by train from Montreal.

Kahaner said the most memorable phone call came from a 90-year-old woman in Montreal. Weeping, the woman described how smelling a nearby bakery reminds her of summers in Maine.

"She's transported back to Old Orchard Beach, Maine, because it smells like the kosher bakery on East Grand," Kahaner said.

As three generations greeted each other before the meeting, shul President Eber Weinstein said the group was the largest the synagogue had seen in some time. The synagogue was built around 1917 by a French carpenter hired by Joseph Goodkowskey, who built the Lafayette Hotel. The building later was doubled in size and has been used year-round for the past 30 years. Until the 1960s, "it was standing room only" in the shul on Saturday mornings.

"It's so nice to see all these Jewish people with ties to this shul," he said.

Weinstein said many orthodox Jews stayed at the Lafayette because it was one of three kosher hotels in town. The hotel was torn down in 1974, a few years after it closed.

Weinstein said his connections to Old Orchard Beach go back generations. His family ran the Weinstein Bros. fruit and produce stand beginning in the 1880s. His grandmother, then 9 years old and pulling her two younger sisters in a wagon, escaped the 1907 fire that destroyed much of the town.

For Beverly Hurwitz of Philadelphia, the meeting provided an opportunity to reminisce with childhood friends. Her father bought a house on Graham Street in 1925 - the same cottage where her family continues to summer. They had the only outdoor shower in the neighborhood when Hurwitz was a child. Barbara Epstein, who lived on the next street, remembered the shower and that Hurwitz's mother "was just the best."

"I've come to Old Orchard Beach every year of my life," Hurwitz said. "It's wonderful to be here with all these people."

Her son, Jim Hurwitz, said he has spent all of his summers in Old Orchard Beach.

"I was born in the middle of July in Philadelphia and was here by the end of July," he said.

During the meeting, each person was given 90 seconds to share their connection to the Jewish community in Maine. Many remembered growing up in Portland, Lewiston/Auburn or Bangor and traveling to Old Orchard Beach and Pine Point in Scarborough in the summer.

Jack Shapiro, who grew up in Auburn and summers at Pine Point, stepped into the temple on Sunday for the first time in 30 years. He brought with him his 92-year-old father, Sherman G. Shapiro, who used to summer in Old Orchard Beach. Jack Shapiro said his grandfather, Jacob, moved to Auburn from Lithuania in the 1890s. After peddling rags and bobbins, he opened JJ Shapiro & Bros. store to sell clothing and dry goods.

Janie Silver used her 90 seconds to say she has been coming to Old Orchard Beach most of her life and met her husband in town. Her sisters waited tables at the Lafayette, she said. Lisa Bornstein Brand said she grew up in Auburn but remembers fondly living in Old Orchard Beach for two years in grade school.

Julie Lyons said it was "extraordinary" to come back to Old Orchard Beach with her 96-year-old mother and sister, Annette, to see familiar faces.

"I have such fond memories of the beach," added Annette Lyons.

Steven Hirshon of Portland and formerly of Old Orchard Beach, lived just down the street from the shul. He currently is collecting stories of people who fell in love in Old Orchard Beach for a Documenting Maine Jewry film. He said people may contact him through the Facebook page "I met your dad (mom) in Old Orchard Beach."

"A lot of people have met and fallen in love in Old Orchard Beach over the years," he said.

Many people recalled going to the Jewish Community Center on Cumberland Avenue in Portland or meeting friends and future spouses at summer camp.

"I just absolutely love coming back to Maine," said Karen Levin of Newton, Mass. Her family still owns the house her parents bought in Portland in 1955.

Robert Levin of Boston has visited Old Orchard Beach "every year of my life except during the war."

"It's a wonderful place and wonderful people," he said. "Old Orchard and Maine are a big part of my life."

Ruth Sylmor of Cape Elizabeth said her family had a lake house, but she was envious of friends who spent the summer in Old Orchard Beach.

"I was jealous of The Pier and all the things going on down here," she said as a woman at the back of the room called out, "I knew it was you Ruth!"

Kahaner said she also remembers Sylmor from their childhood and still has a photo of them together at her sixth birthday party.

Muriel Maron Shuchat, who attended the meeting with an "entourage from Montreal," said she brought her children to ride the merry-go-round and thinks Pier fries are still as good as they always were.

"We've had so many happy, phenomenal summers here," she said. "Very few things in one life could replace that joy."

Epstein, who earlier remembered her neighbor's outdoor shower, said her connections to Old Orchard Beach date back to when her grandfather was a part-time canter here. Her parents met at the Lafayette Hotel and were married for 51 years.

"There's a lot of great memories that have gone on here," she said. "There's a lot of history."