The current exhibit at the Maine State Museum, Maine + Jewish, opened in October 2018 and will close on Oct. 25. Given limited display space, the exhibit does not claim to be definitive. Yet no prior Maine State Museum exhibit had attempted so comprehensive a display of one of Maine’s important minorities. Earlier exhibits on Native Americans and on Franco-Americans, for example, had been more limited in scope.
Thanks to both museum staff and volunteers, the exhibit wound up with a remarkable number and variety of objects: more than 200 images and 170 objects. These range from audio displays of Hebrew poems and prayers to Yiddish songs; from household utensils to new clothing styles; from farmers to peddlers; from business owners to lawyers, teachers and other professionals. Also on display are items from Jewish summer camps, usually established because of Gentile camps being closed to Jews. Balancing this is a printed notice regarding Gentile camps and other social gathering places that avowedly exclude Jews of all ages. The most impressive object came from a recently closed Auburn synagogue: an Art Deco style Ark housing Torah scrolls, the most sacred objects in Judaism.
The story of Maine’s Jews, as described in the exhibit, is hardly unique. It applies to millions of non-Jewish immigrants seeking better days in America. The first wave of Jewish European immigrants was from Germany, followed by many more immigrants from Eastern Europe. Save for the Irish Potato Famine of 1846 until 1851, the same held true for non-Jewish Europeans.
The common objective of both groups was to escape the terrible conditions of their native lands — economic, religious and political. Some newcomers resumed farming and continued the rural life that was so abundant in much of Maine. Others wished to move to cities, whether as peddlers going from door to door or, if more prosperous, as businessmen, lawyers, accountants, teachers and other professionals traveling less often and likely earning more money.
By the 21st century, the number of Maine Jews who are avowedly religious and observant in traditional ways has declined. Yet Maine Jews in other ways have grown, and flourished, as in the acceptance of Maine rabbis and congregants who are openly gay. Equally important has been the acceptance of non-Jewish spouses and partners in nearly all of Maine’s synagogues and community centers.
It was therefore wise for the exhibit’s organizers not to focus on religious attendance as the primary measure of Maine Jewry but instead to provide broader cultural perspectives not limited to synagogues — stronger relationships with Muslims, for instance, environmental causes, voter anti-discrimination campaigns and Jewish films.
In the years since the exhibit was planned, the situation for Jews in Maine — and elsewhere in America — has changed. The resurgence of anti-Semitism and the murder of Jews inside their own synagogues has revived Nazism. In addition, there have been ever more anti-Semitic threats to schools and other institutions by phone and by flyers. All of these challenges have generated unprecedented security measures, including police protection and screening of visitors.
Finally, not long before the Augusta exhibit opened, tensions between many American and Israeli Jews came to national attention during the Donald Trump administration and the Israeli elections. The once almost automatic positive connection between Israel and the United States — whether as Democrats or as Republicans — has faded. The common anti-Semitic argument dating back centuries that many American Jews have dual loyalties has again reared its ugly head.
Ironically, Stephen Miller, the chief promoter of Trump’s ever-more restrictive policies on immigration, especially from South and Central American countries, is himself the great-grandson of a Jewish immigrant who came to the U.S. to escape persecution. His uncle has denounced him.
Hence the complexities of Maine + Jews. See it while you can.
Howard P. Segal is a professor of history at the University of Maine in Orono.