Resources for Jewish American History – Part 1

May is Jewish American Heritage Month. Jewish history in Maine dates back to 1785; in Bath, to 1880. You can use resources in the History Room to learn about Bath’s Jewish community, or take a tour of the amazing online archive and museum at BathJewishHistory.org. There are many other resources available in Maine for the study of Jewish American history, which I will outline in a later post.

First, what are some topics in local Jewish history?

• Local businesses
• Notable people
• Synagogues and places of worship
• Social organizations
• Ethnic relations
• Genealogy

Bath Jewish History Online

I learned a little bit about each of these topics when I spoke with Fred and Marilyn Weinberg of Beth Israel Congregation earlier this month. They gave me a tour of BathJewishHistory.org, a digital archive and museum. The website is hosted by the Beth Israel Congregation and tells the story of Bath’s Jewish people and families and their social, economic, and religious life in the area.

Local Businesses

Jewish history in Bath goes back to at least the 1880s, when the first Jewish-owned businesses opened their doors. S. J. Goldstein’s  clothing store was first, followed by S. A. Issacson, both at the Church Block on Front Street. [1] A few years later, William Filene, founder of the well-known Boston department store, chose Bath as a location for a branch, which was known as Boston Bargain Clothing Company and managed by his son, Bert Filene. Morris Povich’s clothing store, a Bath landmark, operated later, in the 20th century. Other Jewish businesses included groceries, sandwich shops, furniture and appliance stores, and Mikelski’s music store. Many of the original locations have been replaced by newer buildings, including Bath’s City Hall. Second-generation Jews in Bath pursued professional occupations including, doctor, educator, realtor, lawyer, and insurance agent. [2]

Notable People

Some Bath residents are known for their work, like Sam Povich, credited with the invention of the lobster roll, or Ada Greenblatt, a popular real estate agent. Others became well known through their good deeds. A plaque celebrating Donald Povich was created by the Bath Historical Society, and now hangs outside the History Room door. Minnie Brown’s bequests supported both Beth Israel’s Minnie Brown Center and the 1997 addition to the Patten Free Library, which includes the current History Room. [3]

Synagogues and Places of Worship

Beth Israel Congregation celebrates the 100th anniversary of its formation this year, with additional celebrations to follow as they mark the developments which led to the creation of the synagogue on Washington Street. Until 1920, observers of the Jewish faith met in a variety of locations throughout town, where there were many public and private halls available for their use: at the YMCA on Summer Street, the Fraternal Brothers of Eagles Hall (172 Front Street), the Red Men’s Hall of the Sasanoa Tribe No. 6 (100 Front Street), above A. Hallett & Co. (Sagadahoc Block), and at the former Music Hall once located at the corner of Centre and Washington. [4] In 1919, when the Jewish population had grown, WWI had ended, and the shipbuilding industry was going strong, the community came together to raise funds for a Synagogue. Marilyn Weinberg noted the support of non-Jewish Bath residents, who gave a total of $2400 toward building the synagogue. Beth Israel was recognized as a congregation in 1920, the building opened in 1921, and it was completed in 1927.

Many More Facts and Stories

There are many more facts and stories to explore at BathJewishHistory.org, including speeches and essays by community members, a comprehensive index to Bath’s Jewish business owners, the records of the B’nai B’rith and the Bath Hebrew Ladies Society, and newspaper articles about local social organizations and events.

Areas for Further Study

Ethnic Relations

Racial antisemitism grew sharply around the globe in the first part of the 20th century. How strongly was the impact of racism and antisemitism felt in our community? Primary sources indicate that Bath was never immune to hate and bias. Some actions by non-Jewish people could be considered relatively harmless: in 1921, a local Christian woman named Rose Billings recorded missionary activities aimed at the Jewish community in her diary, which is exhibited online at Colby’s Maine Jewish History Project. Other sources document more threatening activity, from an unsettling photograph of the Ku Klux Klan marching up Front Street on July 26, 1924, to a Bath Independent article reporting on vandalism against nine Bath businesses, published September 12, 1940.

However, the majority of documentary evidence shows that the Jewish community and the rest of the Bath community maintained a positive and cooperative relationship: founding the synagogue, participating in National Brotherhood Week, and contributing to relief efforts after World War II.

Your Own Genealogy

Genealogists interested in their local Jewish and Eastern European ancestors can refer to Alfred T. Holt’s Early Jewish Families of Bath, a handwritten genealogy available in the History Room. Holt’s work is based on a survey of the 1900, 1910, and 1920 federal census. He looked for Bath residents with a parent who had been born in Russia (at the time, Russia included Poland, Lithuania, Ukraine, and other countries). In his own words, “we cannot say that all these families were Jewish”—but we can be sure that Holt was a dedicated genealogist.

Documenting Maine Jewry is a statewide resource for the study of Jewish heritage in Maine, organized by community, with contributors across the state from Biddeford to Bangor. Some parts of the site are available to all; access to the extensive genealogical database requires registration.

Cyndi’s List is a comprehensive online resource guide for genealogists everywhere. The section on Jewish genealogy includes hundreds of resources from across the globe.

[1] https://www.bathjewishhistory.org/beth-israel-history
[2] https://www.bathjewishhistory.org/bah-merchants
[3] Sandy Whiteley, “A Bath Family,” Bath Historical Society Newsletter 104 (2010)
[4] https://www.bathjewishhistory.org/bath-synagogue

Resources for Jewish American History – Part 2 will focus on additional local, national, and state resources, collections, and exhibits.

Many thanks for Fred and Marilyn Weinberg and BathJewishHistory.org for the crash course in Bath’s Jewish history!

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