Jewish history in Kennebec County
The hum of a large crowd filled Diamond 141 as members of the local Jewish community came to listen to presentations by student researchers on the Jewish Experience in Kennebec County on April 22. Interviews with Jewish residents of Kennebec County, coupled with research conducted through the College archives, provided a portrait of a religious community during the interwar years.
The event was the first of a number of programs designed to celebrate Maine's Jewish history that the College is set to organize in coming years. It was sponsored by the Jewish Studies Program and by the Goldfarb Center for Public Affairs and Civic Engagement.
"Members of the community shared time and memory to provide raw data for these presentations, thereby enabling students at Colby to engage with the greater community [and] understand Jewish life," Pulver Family Assistant Professor of Jewish Studies David Freidenreich said.
The first presentation, by Spencer Kasko '12, entitled "Waterville, Maine, of All Places," focused on Waterville's "fledgling Jewish community." Kasko's presentation examined why Jews came to Kennebec County, and collaborating on data with fellow researcher Sam Levine '11, was able to show that during the interwar years the population of Jews was small but "insignificant it certainly was not."
Kasko explained how many Jews, who worked as peddlers, went from selling wares out of a cart to becoming owners of successful businesses in downtown Waterville. Despite the success stories of some Jewish families, Kasko showed that the local Jewish community was "very much in flux," yet the dynamics of the census data showed that this community was similar to others in small towns at the time.
The second presentation by Kimi Kossler '12 focused on Jewish mothers in Kennebec County, noting that any exploration of the local Jewish community was "incomplete without attention paid to the roles of the Jewish mother."
Kossler examined the importance of the Jewish mother in the workplace, food preparation and developing a Jewish cultural identity. The mother served as the head of the household, while fathers were absent, either peddling goods or working at family stores. Because of the unique proximity between mother and child, Kossler argued that the Jewish mother was understanding and was "willing to accept new styles and traditions of America," which "generated a close bond with her children."
In the third presentation, Becky Muller '10 examined dating and marriage trends in small-town Jewish communities. Muller proposed three guiding trends in Jewish communities: social proximity of Jews to one another, the general lack of Jewish partners and the assimilation and Americanization of Jewish youth. A lack of desire among Jewish youth to socialize within their own limited circles led to a rise in youth groups, summer camps away from home and the practice of day trips to Portland and Boston to meet other Jewish youth. Dances and blind dates also served as important social institutions in getting younger generations interested in preserving the existence of a Jewish community in Maine. Yet Muller noted that "interfaith romantic relations" became increasingly common due to general anti-Semitism, increasing gentile interactions and generational liberalism.
The fourth presentation by Nicole Mitchell '10 examined the religious education of Jews in Kennebec County. In 1910, only 17 percent of small towns provided a formal Jewish education, reflecting a national trend in what Mitchell called "the gradual loss of Jewish knowledge over generations." The quality of the education was not high due to limited resources, a lack in venue space, the general movement of teachers and the lack in proficient training.
Yet in the post-WWII era, Mitchell noted a rebound in Jewish religious education, with both the Sunday school and Hebrew school serving as facilitators of such formal educations. Mitchell's findings reveal the complex, two-sided state of Jewish education in Kennebec County: waning knowledge in the case of older generations and a revival of Jewish knowledge for younger ones. "Now, some children have even more Jewish education than their parents," Mitchell said.
Freidenreich presented sophomore Desiree Shayer's work, which examines the increasing population of Jews on the Hill. An exploration of both social and cultural practices by both Jews and gentiles alike, Shayer's findings revealed a religious school, yet noted some limits for students such as keeping Kosher and joining exclusive fraternities.