Maine + Jewish: Two Centuries, which opened in September at the Maine State Museum in Augusta and will continue through October 2019, is partly the product of research done by David Freidenreich, Pulver Family Associate Professor of Jewish Studies, and his students over the past several years.
Three years in the making, the exhibition uses objects and photographs to represent the Jewish experience in Maine, beginning with 19th-century immigrants. It draws on some materials gathered, curated, published, and first exhibited at Colby.
Freidenreich said the Maine exhibition may be the first time that a state museum has presented a special exhibit on the Jewish community of its state. “One of the key reasons why they were willing to give this a shot is that they knew they could build on the work that I had done, that the students had done, that other community historians had done, “ he said. “We have collectively laid the groundwork for telling the story of Jewish life in Maine.”
He contributed one of the essays in an accompanying booklet to the exhibition, recounting the stories of immigrants who quickly wearied of life in crowded tenements in New York and other cities and made their way to a place that reminded them of their former homes in northern parts of Russia, Poland, and Germany. One newcomer to Maine took the train to the end of the line and ended up in Fort Kent in Aroostook County, where he became a successful potato broker. Others became itinerant peddlers, selling wares to farmers in rural Maine, and went on to found some of the iconic department stores in the state. Some succeeded in Maine and returned to cities to the south under very different circumstances than when they had left.
It’s a rich history, and much of the exhibition will be revelatory, Freidenreich said.
“The vast majority of Mainers have probably given Jews in Maine no thought at all,” he said. “They may know individual Jews, or those who live in places with a synagogue might be aware that there is an organized Jewish community. But I don’t think many people are aware of the full scope and diversity of Jews in Maine.”
He said the exhibition in no way tells the full story of Maine’s Jewish history, but it will give people an opportunity to reflect on the stories told and relate those stories to their own experiences, whether those are Jewish or another ethnic group. “It invites other communities to tell their stories and to weave their stories into this broader story of what it means to be in Maine,” Freidenreich said.