A Concise Primer on Maine’s Jewish History by Abraham Peck (abridged)
Susman Abrams (1743–1830), a native of Hamburg, Germany, was the first known Jewish resident of Maine. He came to the state in the post-Revolutionary period and lived in Waldborough, Thomaston, and finally in Union where he operated a tannery. Abrams married a Christian woman but did not himself convert to Christianity.
Maine had relatively few German or Sephardic Jewish residents. German Jews were among the earliest Jewish residents of the state and began to settle in Bangor by 1829. Bangor developed numerous Jewish institutions and a Jewish cemetery was created in Waterville in 1830. These Jews came to Maine as peddlers, walking the roads of the huge state and going from farm house to farm house to sell their wares. Haiman Philip Spitz was the first modern Jewish settler in the Bangor area and helped found, along with five other Jewish families, Congregation Ahawas Achim, which was officially formed in 1849. Because of economic difficulties, the synagogue and most of the German Jews who founded it, disappeared by 1856. A second group of German Jews, who came to Bangor in the 1860s and 1870s, intermarried itself out of existence within a few years. Yet, Captain A. Goldman, most likely a member of one of the Bangor Jewish families, was the only known Maine Jew to give his life in the cause of the Union during the Civil War as a member of Maine’s 17th regiment.
The first East European Jews began to arrive in Portland in 1866 and were peddlers like the German Jews who came to Maine a few decades before them. In 1875, the Portland Lodge of B’nai B’rith purchased a site in Cape Elizabeth. The site became the first Jewish cemetery in Portland, the Smith Street Cemetery, located in what later became a part of South Portland.
But there was little organization in the Jewish community of the time, that is until 1886 when Portland celebrated its centenary on July 4. Although only a handful of Jewish families lived in the community, as Bernard Aaronson designated to speak for the small Jewish community of the time observed, “We number sixty families, and over the majority portion being of the middle or poorer class, yet content with their lot….”
That contentment was reflected in a sense of pious synagogue worship, a piety that earned Portland Jewry the nickname of the “Jerusalem of the North.” One of the earliest Chassidic rabbis to settle in America, Rabbi Gershon Ackerman, a Brezner Chasid (from the Russian Polish town of Berezno), came to Portland in 1909 and lived in the city until 1928.
The Jews of Maine were fortunate in not having to endure a large amount of anti-Jewish sentiment. That was reserved for Maine’s Catholic population, especially its French Catholic community. Know-Nothing activists in the 1840s burned down Catholic churches and tarred and feathered Catholic priests. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan of Maine, part of a rejuvenated national KKK movement, marched through the streets of several Maine communities, but aimed most of their animosity again at Maine’s Catholics rather than the much smaller and less visible Jewish or African American communities.
But Maine’s Jews were not immune from social restrictions. Many resorts, country clubs, and private social organizations still restricted Jews by formal or informal means. Finally, in the late 1960s, a number of non-Jewish politicians, including Maine’s governor, Kenneth Curtis, decided to end, once and for all, these discriminatory practices. It was a non-Jew, Charles W. Allen (1912–2003), the father of Maine Congressman Tom Allen, a Portland lawyer and member of the Portland City Council, who led the struggle to force private clubs in Maine to open their memberships to Jews and African Americans.
Among the most important Maine Jewish family names, among others, are those of Stern, Bernstein, Povich, Berliawsky, Lown, Wolman, Lipman, Goldsmith, Marcus, Cohen, Cutler, Escovitz, Glickman, Unobskey and Alfond. They, and many other families, have contributed to the success and continuity of Jewish life in Maine.
Other Maine Jews have established their imprint on the national scene as well. Hiram Abrams (1878–1926) was a co-founder of Paramount Pictures Corporation and founded the United Artists Corporation. Shirley Povich (1905–1997), born in Bar Harbor, was one of the best-known and beloved sports writers in American journalism who wrote for the Washington Post. Albert Abrahamson, born in Portland in 1905, was a professor of economics at Bowdoin College and held various positions in government including that of assistant director of the War Refugee Board, created in 1944 and the only American governmental institution that sought to rescue European Jews from the Holocaust.
Louise Nevelson (1899–1988) was born in Russia but came to America in 1904 and settled with her family in Rockland, Maine. She became one of the most famous American sculptors. Dahlov Ipcar (born in 1917) is the daughter of another famous American Jewish sculptor, William Zorach. She came to Maine in 1936 and settled in Georgetown. She is a renowned painter, illustrator, and soft sculptor. Linda Lavin (born 1937) is a movie, television, and Broadway actress. William S. Cohen (born 1940), the son of a Jewish delicatessen owner in Bangor (and a non-Jewish mother), was elected to the United States Congress from Maine in 1972 and to the United States Senate in 1984. He was appointed the U.S. Secretary of Defense in 1997.
B. Band, Portland Jewry: Its Growth and Development (1955); M. Cohen, “Jerusalem of the North. An Analysis of Religious Modernization in Portland, Maine’s Jewish Community, 1860–1950” (Honors thesis, Brown University, 2000); J.S. Goldstein, Crossing Lines. Histories of Jews and Gentiles in Three Communities (1992); J.M. Lipez, “A Time to Build Up and a Time to Break Down: The Jewish Secular Institutions of Portland, Maine” (Honors thesis, Amherst College, 2002).
[Abraham J. Peck (2nd ed.)]