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How Strange It Seems

How Strange It Seems: The Cultural Life of Jews in SmallTown New England

Michael Hoberman
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 288
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  • Book Info
    How Strange It Seems
    Book Description:

    Jews have lived in smalltown New England since the colonial era, but during the last hundred years they have been especially active contributors to the region's cultural life. Part oral history, part ethnography, and part literary portrait, How Strange It Seems tells the story of this often overlooked group, tracing its patterns of settlement, economic activity, civic involvement, and religious life since the late 1800s. Based on more than fifty interviews with men and women of all ages from Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Massachusetts, and Connecticut, it seeks to understand what is distinctive—and not so distinctive—about contemporary Jewish communities outside the larger urban centers of the Northeast. Michael Hoberman weaves the personal stories of these individuals and families into a collective narrative that offers as much folklore as history and is equal parts Jewish and Yankee. He introduces us to Hiram Adelman, a Russian immigrant peddler and potato farmer who settled in northernmost Maine because its climate was comparable to his native Siberia, and to Shmuel Simenowitz, an urban transplant who produces kosher maple syrup in southern Vermont. We also meet Suzie Laskin, who moved to the White Mountains region of New Hampshire in the 1900s and soon established a local havurah, and Bob August of Whately, Massachusetts, who once ran what may have been the world's only Christmas tree farm owned by a Jewish family. Each section of the book explores how smalltown New England Jews have both departed from and mimicked the broader patterns of Jewish American experience, while also illustrating how they have acclimated themselves to local practices without relinquishing a strong sense of Jewish identity. Accompanying the text are photographs by Janice Sorensen that include portraits of many of the interviewees and lively glimpses of the region's presentday Jewish revival.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-108-3
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION A Shtetl on a Hill
    (pp. 1-16)

    Jewish life in the United States began as a distinctly urban phenomenon. When the first boatload of Sephardic Jewish refugees came to New York (then New Amsterdam) in 1654, they set a precedent. Successive generations of multiple Jewish backgrounds have followed suit, and only in the second half of the twentieth century, with the rise of so many Jews into the middle class and their subsequent move into the suburbs, did urban centers begin to lose their dominant influence over Jewish life—though even then, a metropolitan consciousness remained prevalent. A countercurrent, however, has always been detectable within Jewish settlement...

  5. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  6. CHAPTER 1 Settling the Landscape of the Present and Future Jewish Migration to Small-Town New England, 1900–2000
    (pp. 17-43)

    Rural New England’s hills, forests, and villages have been home turf for Jews for more than a century. In many cases, Jewish settlers in the region came from cities and had to acclimate to a new landscape, its occupational patterns, and its folkways. Other Jewish arrivals in rural New England immigrated, directly or indirectly, from agrarian communities in Europe. For these settlers, as well as for the many others who may not have been farmers per se but had subsisted in sparsely populated farming communities, milking cows and bidding on farmland came easily, even as learning a new language and...

  7. CHAPTER 2 “I Remember Being in the Barn” The Story of Jewish Agriculture in New England
    (pp. 44-99)

    Jewish participation in New England agriculture, which spans approximately a hundred years, takes its place within a continuum of non-Anglo ethnic farming. Beginning around the middle of the nineteenth century, and accelerating in the aftermath of the Civil War, members of such immigrant groups as the Irish, French Canadians, Poles, and Italians began to buy up increasingly available, untended farmland throughout the region. The Yankees’ movement away from the land occurred at an ever-increasing pace. The historian Lisa Krissoff Boehm points out, for instance, that in the 1850s alone, Hampshire County, in western Massachusetts, was drained of a third of...

  8. CHAPTER 3 A Good Place for Jews to Live Economic, Civic, and Community Life in Small-Town New England
    (pp. 100-165)

    Residents of rural New England have long prided themselves on their villages and small towns. Bastion of the town meeting form of government, the white church, the little red schoolhouse, and town common, small-town New England has long held a precious place in the American imagination as a model of civilized geography, John Winthrop’s City on a Hill writ small. New England villages and towns bring about the ideal convergence of rural rusticity and civilized amenity. In theory, the centralizing geography of the New England town has been a major factor in shaping the region’s cultural life. The small Congregational...

  9. CHAPTER 4 “Just Enough to Make a Minyan” Religious Practice among Small-Town New England Jews
    (pp. 166-227)

    The practice of Judaism has been both a stabilizing factor and a bellwether of changes for the Jewish residents of rural New England. Often the growth, dispersal, and reformation of Jewish communities throughout the region have matched the general trends found among Jewish communities throughout the United States. The area’s first Jewish settlers were thoroughly Jewish by inheritance; their folklife—a re-creation, to varying degrees, of the Eastern Europeanshtetl’s folklife—was inseparable from their theology. Generations of sustained exposure to the vernacular and civic culture of their respective New England communities, as well as to larger changes affecting the...

  10. CONCLUSION. The Rewards of Hard Work: How Small-Town New England Jews Might Be Helping to Reverse a National Decline
    (pp. 228-234)

    The story of Jews living in small-town New England bears implications both for the life of the region and for the history of Jews in America. On the one hand, since American Jews remain a primarily metropolitan population, the notion of small-town Jewish life will alwaysseem strange. To be sure, as of the late 1980s, 95 percent of American Jewry could be located in a metropolitan area; indeed, 4 out of 5 American Jews lived in one of ten specific metropolitan areas.¹ Such figures offer startling confirmation of the general perception, but they are also mitigated by accompanying data...

    (pp. 235-238)
    (pp. 239-242)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 243-248)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 249-254)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 255-256)