Going Back to Go Forward

November 1 is the Day of the Dead.

….Día de los Muertos helps us acknowledge and internalize that we will all die, so that we may live our lives with more awareness and meaning.

Día de los Muertos expresses the beauty and mystery of life and death. For many, it is a time of partying and celebration; for others, it is a time of introspection. At its most potent, it is a balanced blend of the two.http://www.celebrate-day-of-the-dead.com/

This year, several friends in Arizona donned costumes, painted their faces, and joined the parade to honor the dead.

dod cousins 2Years ago, while on the High Road to Taos Artist Tour, http://highroadnewmexico.com/about-tour  I bought a small Dia de los Muertos skeleton made of a clothes pin and felt.

 

IMG_1671The artist had started an organization to provide art classes to underprivileged children. The sale of the skeletons supported her community-based art.

http://www.centerfornonprofitexcellence.org/nonprofit-directory/art-heart

 

Going Back – Community-Based Art

“Community-engaged” or “community-based art,” refers to artistic activity based in a community setting. Works from this genre can be of any media and is characterized by interaction or dialogue with the community. Often professional artists collaborate with people who may not otherwise normally actively engage in the arts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Community_arts

I came late to art. I visited my first museum in college. My introduction to art mirrored the feminist movement of the 1970’s. Artwork at that time sought to validate women’s imagery and highlight the lack of recognition of women artists. I read about the Women’s House and the Dinner Party. I attended an opening of The Birth Project and sat in the audience as the Guerilla Girls “banana-ed” MOMA and other museums. http://www.judychicago.com/gallery.php?name=The+Dinner+Party+Gallery.

Guerilla girlsMy introduction to community-based art was through Suzanne Lacy. Her piece In Mourning and in Rage called into question the efforts of the police to solve the case of the Hillside Strangler and gave ‘voice’ to the victims. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=idK02tPdYV0

In Lacy’s Crystal Quilt (1987) …

…The performance featured 430 Minnesota women over the age of 60 seated at tables on an 82-square-foot rug designed by painter Miriam Shapiro to resemble a quilt. …An accompanying soundtrack mixed the voices of 75 women talking about aging. A loon cry or thunderclap rang through the space in ten minute intervals, signaling the women to change the position of their hands on the table, thus changing the design of the quilt. http://www.suzannelacy.com/the-crystal-quilt/

Community-based art seemed a possible answer to the loneliness of making art while at the same time, making art meaningful to the community.

Recently, I opened an email from a friend I had not seen for years:

I was cleaning out a closet and found a small jar filled with ashes along with a letter …..The label read: Samhain. 1987. Signed by you.

Jen pixIt has been 27 years since I created my first community-based artwork: Samhain.

Some people believe that the veil between the living world and the hereafter is thinnest on Halloween Eve making ‘passing’ easier for the dying. Samhain, celebrated on November 1, is considered to be a Gaelic celebration following the end of harvest. The day was seen as a liminal time, when the spirits could more easily come into our world. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liminality

My dad died early in the morning of November 1, 1987.

To commemorate his passing, I invited others to attend a Samhain-like ceremony ‘to burn away the hurt and pain of the past.’

I set fire to the sculpture I had created during the 9 months my dad was dying. Attendees added pieces of paper – photographs – small objects to the flames. We stood in silence watching as the flames died and the ashes cooled. Each person then took a vial of ashes home.

I have no photos – just charcoal from the burning…and the memory of that shared experience with friends, artists, and members of the community.

IMG_1678Other community-based work evolved. On my long flight back from visiting the Neolithic goddess temples of Malta, I began the planning for what became a year-long project: Seeds of Change – community based art to feed the hungry.

Food for Thought: Food for the Hungry highlighted issues of rural hunger through a series of pancake breakfasts and “test your knowledge” placemats examining the misconceptions about poverty, hunger, food insecurity, food stamps, etc. The pancakes were made from buckwheat flour grown and milled locally.

As part of the focus on hunger, I conducted an “archeological dig” and created a “museum exhibit” filled with “ancient” sculptures that reflected the beliefs of the Neolithic goddess culture to care for the earth and its inhabitants.

Going Back – Site-Specific Art

 

It has been 30 years since I bought my first “real” artwork. I paid for it in installments. It was a 3-dimensional work depicting an easel, a brick wall and an arched window created by Guenther Riess. http://www.nytimes.com/1986/09/07/nyregion/westchester-journal-art-and-construction.html.

 

025 Reiss 2It has been 20 years since I moved to the Firehouse. When I walked into the building, it became clear that this would be my home.025 Studio 2 Site-specific art is artwork created to exist in a specific locale and integrated in its surroundings.

I jokingly refer to my Firehouse Studio as my largest site-specific work to date.

 

Invisible Legacy (1998)

Invisible Legacy was an installation of 1930’s furniture reupholstered in canvas upon which images, stories, medical reports, photographs, drawings related to the lives of women in my family I never knew. The work creates a conversation about, not only their lives, but those of others like them. Each diagnosed with a mental illness;

Each institutionalized for all or part of their life; Each leaving only an invisible legacy in the form of untold stories, unactualized lives and unrealized dreams.Israelson_jo_01 IL

 

Palimpsest Series (2000 – 2003)

When the ink on vellum was scraped off in order to reuse the vellum, traces of the old lettering bled through. This was called Palimpsest.

From 2000-2003 I created a series of work in which underlying histories – public and private – at one time ‘erased” – would be brought to the surface.

 

Palimpsest: Oella Mill (2000) examined the history of the Maryland cotton and wool industries through mill worker oral histories. I used raw wool, chalkboards and drawings to describe their lives as millworkers and the impact on the local environment. I examined the politics of the cotton and wool industries from sail making to war uniform production.Oella

I also learned a great deal about the life cycle of moths when I received a substantial invoice for their extermination.

 

 

Palimpsest: Wocus (2003)

Crater Lake National Park (Oregon) is one a magical place. The lake appears as a deep blue mirror that reflects passing clouds. Crater Lake filled a volcanic depression (a caldera) that formed when the Mount Mazama volcano erupted approximately 7,700 years ago. http://www.nps.gov/crla/index.htm.

 

At one time, the land and the lake belonged to the Klamath tribe. But ranchers were allowed to drain local wetlands to provide land for grazing cattle. And the habitat for the wocus plant – the main stay of the tribe – disappeared. The U.S. government then “terminated’ the tribe.02Palimpsest3

 

During a residency at the lake, I researched the history of the termination of the Klamath tribe, interviewed members of the Klamath tribe, gathered tule grass to weave, and created a work that depicts both “versions” of the history of the land and its peoples.

 

israelson_jo_04_Palimpsest

Going Forward –

Welcoming the Stranger 2015 Exhibit Maine Jewish Museum

My artwork often focuses on a little known moment in history that reflects larger issues within a contemporary context, The Maine Jewish Museum has accepted my request to create a site-specific community based work for a September 2015 exhibit entitled: “Welcoming the Stranger.” – hachnasat orchim.

I want to weave the names of those once detained on House Island into the fabric of our history.

I want to mesh the stories of 1920’s immigrants to Maine with those arriving today.

I want to document Bela Gross’ quest to be an American citizen and compare it to the quest of current asylum seekers.

I want to learn more about each of the National Council of Jewish Women members who helped early immigrants integrate into the City of Portland.

I want to honor those who “Welcomed the Stranger” almost 100 years ago in hopes of encouraging us to do the same today.

HOUSE ISLAND IMMIGRATION AND QUARANTINE STATION UPDATE:  

quarantine-2

Planning Board Public Hearing, November 25, 7:30 pm. The City Of Portland Planning Board will hold a public hearing regarding the request for historic district designation of House Island. If you cannot attend, please send comments to Deb Andrews: dga@portlandmaine.gov.

Sacred Spaces – Part 2

It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present, over a mutual concern for the future.

William J. Murtagh, First Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places

It has been 100+ years since the first immigrants stepped onto House Island to be processed at the House Island Immigration and Quarantine Station

The original correspondence between the U.S government officials, local businesses, politicians, architects, contractors are retained between planks of cedar, tied with a red ribbon and wedged into a box at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland. I untie the ribbon and carefully unfold the documents – some written in the calligraphy of the time. Later letters were typed on onion skin paper.

Although the local Portland businessmen and politicians at the time supported the government request to build the Quarantine and Immigration Station, they petitioned that the building not be on any of the populated islands of Casco Bay so as not to impact the budding tourism industry.

Archive 3 Archive1 Archive2

Many of the immigrants that passed through House Island were bound for New York and Boston. They came for a better life – to escape oppression or persecution, to find religious freedom, to seek economic prosperity. They came hoping for a new life in a new land.

They left family and friends and a familiar way of life.

They traveled in steerage for up to 18 days.

They arrived not knowing where they would sleep that night or where they would obtain a meal.

Those that ‘passed inspection’ by the Inspectors and Doctors on House Island were taken to Portland, placed on trains at the Grand Trunk Station and sent on to their intended destination.

300px-Grand_Trunk_Railroad_Station,_Portland,_ME

Those detained wondered if they would eventually be allowed to stay or be returned.

The 1924 Quota Act that would restrict the number of Eastern Europeans coming into the U.S. loomed. Steamship companies, predicting the future loss of business, increased the number of ships leaving Europe. http://thestonepath.wordpress.com/2014/07/22/you-should-have-been-here-yesterday-part-1/

Uss George WashWhen 23-year-old Bela Gross left France in 1923 aboard the U.S.S. George Washington, he had a passport, money, a career as a linotype operator and dreams of a better life. He left behind his heritage and his history. He was hoping to locate surviving relatives to replace those he lost in the White Terror events in Hungary. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Terror_(Hungary) 

quarantine-2

In November of 1923, 218 immigrants were detained on House Island. Coincidentally, it was the same time as the National Council of Jewish Women of Portland established the kosher kitchen at the Quarantine Station. http://thestonepath.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/no-coincidence-no-story-part-2/

Bela Gross was one of those immigrants.

The Custom House Inspector determined – incorrectly – that the Russian quota had already been met. Allowing Bela to enter the US would exceed the quota. He denied entry.

Rather than be returned to Europe, Bela Gross jumped into the dark waters of Casco Bay. Patrolman Thomas Conley followed him into the bay. Officer Conley was born in 1883, the son of Galway emigrants and lived on Munjoy Hill. (http://thestonepath.wordpress.com/2014/05/09/no-coincidence-no-story-part-2/) His brother was the well-known boxer Bartley Connolly. One of my closest friends growing up was Michael Connolly. (Yes, a relative.)

Bela art

Friday, November 16, 1923: Boston Herald headline:

Is Rescued After Leap Into Harbor – Immigrant Feared He Would Be Unable to Enter U.S.

…After great difficulty, customs men rescued Gross with a line and he was taken to police headquarters.

He was a billiard hall keeper before becoming the first Jewish police officer in Portland in 1912. Patrolman Simon Rubinoff, a speaker of Russian, interviewed Gross and discovered that Gross,

orphaned at an early age, had wandered from Russia to France where he obtained a Russian passport and visa…(and) feeling quite alone in the world, he was attempting to come here to live with an uncle in Detroit.

Following the rescue, it was learned that Bela had lost his passport. At that moment, he became a man without a country. (Think Tom Hanks movie: The Terminal partially inspired by the 17-year-stay of Mehran Karimi Nasseri in the Charles de Gaulle International Airport, Terminal I, Paris, France from 1988 to 2006.)

Deported from Portland and not allowed to return to France or Germany, Bela was detained on the U.S.S. America for several months. His fate would be determined by the filing of a habeas corpus suit in the Federal Court of New York by his uncle in Detroit.

Docket image

For $20.00 you can obtain a copy of the Federal Court files from the National Archives in Kansas City. The case documents includes a transcript of his interview, the filing by his ‘relator’ Eugene Reinitz against the Commissioner of Immigration, legal arguments and the rending of the decision by Judge Winslow.

From those documents, I learned that Bela Gross was a Jewish Russian. I will never know if he ate in the kosher kitchen on House Island. I will never know if any of the National Council of Jewish Women of Portland offered him sustenance before he threw himself into the icy waters of Casco Bay rather than “…live a life with a lonely heart.”

The headline of the Boston Herald dated Thursday, February 14, 1924, read:

“Without Country” Admitted to U.S. — Court Finds Error in First Deportation of Gross

 There are 217 untold stories about those held on House Island in 1923 when Bela Gross made his decision to jump overboard.

There are other stories of those held at the Quarantine and Immigration Station between 1908 and 1937 when it was closed.

We may never hear them.

Fort Scammel

It has been 200+ years since Fort Scammell was erected to protect the entrance to Portland Harbor. President Jefferson, concerned with increasing British aggression, ordered the construction of the second system forts that included Fort Scammel, Fort Preble and Fort Sumner.

Fort_Scammel

The granite for Fort Scammel was quarried on Mount Waldo and brought by stone sloops to the island. Wharves on the west side of the island were constructed for the off-loading of the stones, as was a stone cutting shed. Stones were unloaded and moved using block and tackle.

GraniteNot only were the stones for Fort Scammel prepared on House Island, but also the stones for Fort Gorges and Fort Preble. Stones were moved from the cutting area to the east bastion by way of a short narrow gauge railroad.

….The British are not coming

In June of 1812 the United States declared war on England. Fort Scammel was garrisoned during the War of 1812 (1812-1814), but the fort’s guns only fired once in August of 1813 on a British Privateer in Whitehead Passage. A month later in September 1813 a British Flag of Truce party landed at the Fort to negotiate for the release of British prisoners from the HMS Boxer captured after a battle with the USS Enterprise off Pemaquid Point on 5 September 1813.

This year is the celebration of the 200th anniversary of the writing of the Star Spangled Banner http://www.starspangled200.com/

According to Portland fort historian Kenneth Thompson, the British originally planned to invade the U.S. through the Portland Harbor.

The presence of the 3 earth and gun battery militia forts proved formidable and the British decided to attack Baltimore instead.

Maryland played a pivotal role during the War of 1812, particularly during 1814 when the British captured and burned Washington, D.C. and then made their way toward Baltimore. The British planned to attack Baltimore by land at North Point and by sea at Fort McHenry, which stood in defense of the Baltimore Harbor. It was during the bombardment of Fort McHenry that Francis Scott Key, a Maryland-born attorney brought by truce ship to negotiate the release of an American prisoner, was inspired to write the words to what became the United States’ National Anthem.

In the 1860’s, Thomas Lincoln Casey was assigned to Maine to oversee construction of Fort Knox and Forts Gorges and the redesign of Fort Scammel and Fort Preble.

After the Civil War, he was assigned to oversee construction on the Washington Monument He served as the Chief of Engineers for the US Army Corps of Engineers 1888- 1895 and was the engineer for the Library of Congress’ Thomas Jefferson Building (1890-1897).

In 1954 Hilda Cushing, whose family owned House Island until recently, wanted to see the fort preserved and was quoted as saying,

“You can’t have tomorrow without today.”

Some people will look at a slab of granite and see an unused block of stone.

But I see the marks made by the hands of men who quarried the stone and constructed granite wharves and forts.

Some people will look the remnants of the Quarantine and Immigration Station – the original detention center, the doctor’s residence and the hospital – and see land for development.

But I hear the voices of those who came to America hoping for a better life for themselves and their children.

Some people will look at a fort that fired only one shot in defense of Portland and not understand its role in protecting the entire bay.

But I know that the architecture has more significance and its long history is of greater value than the firing of canon.

It has been said that, at its best, preservation engages the past in a conversation with the present, over a mutual concern for the future.

William J. Murtagh, First Keeper of the National Register of Historic Places

If you wish to be a part of the conversation regarding the possible historic district designation of House Island and Fort Scammel, PLEASE attend the Historic Preservation Board Hearing at Portland City Hall, Wednesday, October 1, 7:30 pm.

This is the first step in a multi phase process.

If you are unable to attend, please send comments to Deb Andrews, dga@portlandmaine.gov.

**

House Island Analysis of Eligibility As a Local Historic District

Report prepared by tti-architects for Greater Portland Landmarks is available on line: http://me-portland.civicplus.com/AgendaCenter/ViewFile/Item/894?fileID=3899

Sacred Spaces – Part 1

Sacred: highly valued and important; deserving great respect

What makes a place sacred?

 Loss of life?

I live near the site of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War that took place July 1-3, 1863 in Gettysburg. In one single day, 57,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or captured.

http://www.nps.gov/gett/index.htm

Brady photo

I always have trepidation when visiting memorial sites…frequently I find them too big or too controlled or too orchestrated or too pedantic and the emotions too difficult to access. I want to honor those who died and somehow connect to the feelings of those mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, children who suffered their loss.

From our double-decker bus, we look across fields where 8000 soldiers were buried; 3000 horse carcasses burned; where the smell of blood and death and smoke permeated the land for weeks. We drive by the monuments erected to commemorate each regiment or battalion. (The difference escapes me. At this moment in time it hardly matters.)

There are 1,300 granite, marble and bronze monuments and markers throughout the 6,000 acres. The survivors erected many of the monuments. http://celebrategettysburg.com/civil-war-journal-18.html

imagesLincoln wrote in his Gettysburg address:

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.

The battlefields envelop the town of Gettsyburg with its souvenir shops, fast food places, and points of interest – like the home of Jennie Wade wedged between a Holiday Inn and a gift shop. http://www.gettysburgdaily.com/mcclellan-house-jennie-wade-house-battle-damage/

 Jennie Wade – 20 year of age – was hit by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen door as she was making bread. She had been baking for the hungry soldiers who appeared at her door daily.

McClellanHouse01210901_s

It is said that her mother baked 15 more loaves after seeing her daughter die.

It is said Jennie was the only civilian casualty of that battle.

Is that place where she fell, sacred?

What makes a space sacred?

Acts of social change?

Heifer International Headquarters are located in Little Rock, Arkansas. Little Rock is experiencing a downtown renewal and a focus on sustainability – and the future.

imagesHeifer headquarters received a platinum LEEDS rating – fully sustainable. LEED, or Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design, is a green building certification program that recognizes best-in-class building strategies and practices. http://www.usgbc.org/

A year ago, I was invited to exhibit my work: Heifer Relief: Compass, Ark, Berth as part of the 70th anniversary commemorating the Seagoing Cowboys.

http://www.heifer.org/join-the-conversation/blog/2014/March/honoring-heifers-history.html

Little Rock is also home to the Clinton Library. The structure cantilevers over the Arkansas River echoing Clinton’s campaign promise of “building a bridge to the 21st century.”

clintonlib1Little Rock is also connected to the past. From the Clinton library, it is about a 30-minute walk to Daisy Bates Drive through long established neighborhoods filled with Colonial revival, craftsman bungalows, four square homes – reflecting a diversity of design that at one time reflected the diversity of the population in the early years of the city

2120 Daisy Bates Drive is the location of Central High School – a National Historic Site.

litlrck1

Daisy Bates published the Arkansas State Press – an African American advocacy publication – highlighting among other issues – violations of the Brown V Board desegregation ruling.

Bates was the adviser to 9 students, known as the Little Rock Nine, as they attempted to enroll in the all-white Central High School.litlrck2

Inside the Visitor Center the displays tell the story of the civil rights movement leading up to the events in Little Rock. There are oral histories, video, photos, timelines.

http://www.nps.gov/chsc/index.htm

Outside the Visitor Center you step back in time. The houses that existed in 1957 still stand. The trees are taller. A restored Mobil gas station anchors the corner and Central High School occupies an entire block.

Today, 2419 students attend CHS. And in the late afternoon sun on a sultry afternoon, a diverse body of students – white, Asian, African American – stream out of the building at the end of the school day.

What makes a place sacred?

Acts of violence?

In 2001, I visited the site of the Oklahoma City bombing while conducting interviews related to the WW2 McGinty – the ship on which my dad had served in WW2. I wanted to know if the ship and crew had been stationed at Nagasaki after the bomb. If so, it may have contributed to the rare cancer he had. He could have been classified as an atomic veteran and possibly qualified for benefits.02McGinty

After months of research in the National Archives, I found the name of the ship’s doctor that served with my dad. He was living in Oklahoma and invited me to visit and interview him. I learned more about his life on the McGinty and life on a destroyer escort but not the answer to my question.

It was several years after the Oklahoma City Bombings when I entered the museum doors. I had to leave midway as the displays were too graphic, too violent, too raw.

In the field next to the reflecting pool stand 168 chairs – in nine rows to represent each floor of the building. Each chair bears the name of someone killed on that floor. Nineteen smaller chairs stand for the children.

Chairs

This year, some of those pre-schoolers would be graduating from college.

http://www.oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org/secondary.php?section=2&catid=30

What makes a place sacred?

Acts of heroism?

The site of the crash of Flite 93 is spare and somber. Unlike the Oklahoma City Memorial site located within a city with its buildings, gardens, museum, Flite 93 Memorial is located off of Highway 30/Lincoln near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. http://www.nps.gov/flni/index.htm

The approach to the site and visitor center is along a winding road through wildflower fields and wetlands. At the time of the crash, the site was being restored as a wetlands park in a former coal mine.

As you crest the hill to the parking lot, nothing resembling a traditional memorial is visible—no large visitor center blocking the view; no museum buildings. (The Visitor Center Complex is under construction and scheduled for dedication, 2015)

There are several small kiosks with photos of the 40 passengers and crew who died. There is a walkway – a black walkway – lined with stone barriers into which small niches are carved to provide places for notes, mementos.

Flite 93-1

There is this ever-present insistent wind that accompanies you along the path. There are ‘listening posts’ where you hear architects explain their design.

As you stop at each numbered post, it is easy to separate yourself from the reality – the memory of the event – the sacredness of the place.

Suddenly, you realize you are following the flite path taken by the plane as it was directed by the passengers…to crash.

Midway along the path, you notice a large boulder and a grove of trees – some old, some tall—swaying in the wind. They seem to be protecting a small group of newer saplings. In 10 years time, they have grown enough to begin to eradicate the black hole punched into the grove of trees by the crashing plane. http://www.nps.gov/flni/planyourvisit/planttreesflni.htm

Hemlock grove

It has been more than 150 years since the battle of Gettysburg

It has been 57 years since the Little Rock 9 entered Central High School.

It has been 19 years since the Oklahoma bombing.

It has been 13 years since 9/11.

In 13 years, a grove of trees fills an empty landscape.

In 19 years, an entire generation of preschoolers has graduated from high school.

In 57 years, there is an African American President.

In 150 years, battles are re-enacted without shedding blood.

George Santayana:

We must welcome the future, remembering that soon it will be the past; and we must respect the past, remembering that it was once all that was humanly possible.

You Should Have Been Here Yesterday – Part 2

When you ride the Peaks Island ferry at night, the ocean sparkles with the reflection of the lights from Portland. The city skyline is vastly different from the one my Dad sketched in 1985 – when the highest points were the spire of the Cathedral and the dome of the Observatory.

Today, instead of decrepit wharves and fish processing plants sprawled along the waterfront, there are gourmet food trucks, cruise ships, oyster bars, and boutiques. Newly built hotels are located across the street from historic brick buildings constructed after the Great Fire of Portland, July 4, 1866.

 http://www.whatwasthere.com/

There is always nostalgia with regard to the past…for the history as well as the architecture. There are still cobblestone streets in Portland made from the ballast of ships that entered the harbor and stone fountains for horses that no longer walk the streets.

cobblestones

Following the demolition of Union Station to make way for a strip mall, preservationists within the community joined together to form the Greater Portland Landmarks.

The_Union_Station,_Portland,_ME

 

http://www.pressherald.com/2011/08/31/the-ugly-birth-of-preservation_2011-08-31/

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”

Margaret Mead

I was raised to believe it is possible to affect change. When the Munjoy Hill East End Beach was closed due to pollution (before the construction of the sewage treatment plant), mothers (including mine) marched to City Hall to demand a pool be built so that kids would have a place to swim that summer.

Recently, a referendum was put to a vote by citizens of Portland to halt the sale of the Congress Street Park to a developer. As a result, the city is now creating a city-wide plan for open space.

http://www.pressherald.com/2013/06/14/congress-square-park-part-of-a-global-struggle-for-public-space_2013-06-14/

Prologue

It was July 4th weekend when I finally arrived in Maine. Peaks Island traditions include a participatory parade, family picnics and cookouts on Back Shore, culminating in a fireworks display over Casco Bay.

When I was in 6th grade we had to memorize the preamble to the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. At that time is was a memorization exercise; now it is the blueprint for nations around the globe who are pursuing democracy.

When in the Course of Human…

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

We hold these truths..….

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_history.html

I am still conflicted about the concept behind the pursuit of happiness.

Is it happiness for an individual or for the greater good?

Do we pursue happiness for its own sake or to benefit others?.

Guide to Being an Aging Activist

On a holiday weekend, I paddle my kayak between 5:30 am and 9:30 am to avoid boat traffic. It is a quiet morning when I approach the osprey nests located in the bell buoys at either end of House Island.

House Island osprey nests I have never been on the island as it has been privately held for many years. The owner purchased the island to preserve it and prevent development.

The doctor’s house, the old quarantine station and a smaller structure have always been visible. The 1904 immigration building had been demolished but the remaining foundation outlined the footprint of the structure.

Fort Scammel – built in built in 1808 of blocks of granite –anchors the opposite end of House.Fort_Scammel_East_-_3

As I circumnavigated the island, the sounds of the osprey and her fledges were replaced with the sounds of machines. There was excavation equipment clearing the area near the former quarantine station.

Demo pix House IslandSomething felt wrong. Yes, the island had been sold but no plans had been announced. Yes, the island did not have “official” historic designation, but Fort Scammel has long been a companion to Fort Gorges. I wondered if there were permits for what was taking place.

 

 

How to find a reporter on a holiday weekend

The Vinograds (David and Miranda) hail from England but have been long time summer people on Peaks. They have a penchant for old buildings – going so far as to dismantle one scheduled for demolition and then reconstructing it. (Their favorite bumper sticker: Gut Fish, Not Houses.)

When I shared with them the apparent demolition, they suggested I research recent articles about House Island and it’s sale. Sally Oldham (married to Ted the photographer of the 20,000 buildings in Portland….See most recent blog.) wrote an op ed piece in June, 2014 entitled: Properties in Peril. House Island was one of two properties featured.

She concluded:

…Physical preservation of the buildings and landscapes that embody these stories, such a rich part of Portland’s history, could make them the linchpins for successful developments.

We hope that there will be easy public access for Portlanders and tourists to the Portland Co. complex buildings and House Island’s Fort Scammel and at least exterior views of the immigration station buildings so important to this city’s past.

Over the coming months, Portlanders will want to carefully watch the developments proposed for each of these key complexes.

http://www.pressherald.com/2014/06/11/maine-voices-two-portland-projects-highlight-opportunities-pitfalls-of-historical-development/

Tom Bell is a long time Press Herald writer and has covered development issues. I emailed him and he wrote back. I sent him photos of the apparent demolition work and all the documents and photographs I had collected. He called me for an interview.

How to contact city employees on a holiday weekend

Sending an email to the City of Portland permits, zoning, inspection, and historic preservation offices on July 4th felt like putting a note in a bottle, casting it into the sea and hoping it would be found quickly.

Meanwhile, the sounds of the machines continued.

I also contacted anyone who might have even a tangential interest in the island including the Audubon Society, Preservation Maine, and Greater Portland Landmarks.

I researched the Seashore Protection Act, Maine endangered species lists, and the decrease in monarch butterflies due to milkweed loss.

EVERYONE was on vacation.

I had no idea if other options were available to me to halt the work – at least temporarily. I needed a legal advisor.

And the machines continued.

How to find a lawyer (quickly) on a holiday weekend.

How would I find a lawyer on a holiday weekend and one that would be familiar with House Island?

Across from the Peaks Island library and adjoining Brad’s bikes is a window advertizing legal services and a number to call if you need a lawyer.

TwainI called. He did not have the expertise I was seeking and referred me to Tom Federle. He provided his cell number. I called and left a somewhat cryptic message. I did not expect a response until the end of the long weekend.

Within a few minutes, Tom returned my call. He was at his summer home on a nearby island.

His advice:

Let the City Offices have time to investigate the situation. Let them follow the established procedures. But, let’s create a Plan B.

But, the machines were still working.

 How to gain the public’s attention on a holiday weekend

July 9, 2014 Portland Press Herald, front page headline:

             Maine Island With Storied Past set for new chapter

http://www.pressherald.com/2014/07/09/a-rewrite-for-island-near-portland-harbor-with-storied-past/

I decide to hide out in the Maine Historical Society (following my attorney’s advice) and conduct more research on the House Island quarantine station. A volunteer historian goes into the stacks and returns with a manila folder marked “ISLANDS.”

There were yellowed newspaper clippings, a few brochures, photographs of a variety of island and island events. Tucked within the mix was a small, 8-page booklet entitled:

Experiences of My Early Life on House Island on Casco Bay in Portland Harbor Portland Maine

by Roberta Randall Sheaff

Self-published in 1983, it is out of print.

It begins:

I was born on House Island, a quarantine station, in 1909 in one of three houses there.

IMG_1439I looked up Roberta’s obituary. She died in Minnesota in 2004 at the age of 95. ‘She is survived by a daughter, son-in-law, grand children and many nieces and nephews.” I found her daughter’s address and telephone number in Duluth.

I called.

Benita Fuller-Fugelso talked freely about her mother and her mother’s love for House Island. Like most surviving children, Benita wished she had listened more carefully to the stories her grandparents and mother shared. She would now have a greater sense of the contribution her family made to the local history.

As we concluded our conversation she added:

“I have about 100 of my mother’s remaining books. I would be happy to give them to you to use in your efforts on my mother’s behalf to highlight the history of House. She would be thrilled to know her words will be shared with those who care about “her island.”…..

Generosity: kindness – willingness to give money, help or time freely.

How to Start a Controversy with Emails after a holiday weekend

Email #1:  Zoning and Permits – Thank you for contacting us. I searched our records of the site and have not found any demo permits.

Email #2: Inspection Services – Inspections Staff will visit the island to ascertain the situation first hand.

Email #3: Greater Portland Landmarks – we request that a representative of the historic preservation office attend the inspection as well.

Email #4: Lawyer – I made the argument that he is re-engaging in demo work and that requires a demo permit. If he is removing foundations, I would argue it is demo, not clean up as he stated.

Email #5: Me - I request that House Island be considered a historic district.

Email #6:  July 16th, the Historic Preservation Board meets to determine if they will move forward with the nomination of historic district. There is a multi phase process that culminates in 2 public meetings:

Preliminary workshop – August 6th to share report on history and significance of House Island.

Public Hearing – September 3rd

Email #7:  Following the inspection, a stop work order was issued.

The machines stopped for 7 days.

 

Epilogue 

I realize I cannot prevent the eventual development of House Island. I hope to encourage an examination and documentation of the buildings, the land, the fort, the untold history. I hope that its historical significance will be proven. Because -

When it’s gone, it’s gone.

I spent the morning, once again, kayaking across the channel from Peaks Island to House Island to observe the osprey. On this particular day, the fledglings were poking up from the nest. Mom and Dad were bringing them food and discouraging me from getting too close.

There is no reclamation of history when the physical evidence is removed.

When it’s gone; it’s gone forever.

Addendum

Please take the time to voice your opinion regarding the historic district designation of House Island, by contacting:

Deb Andrews, Historic Preservation, City of Portland

DGA@portlandmaine.gov

Or attend the public meetings.

 

I wish to thank the Joel and Linda Abromson Fund for their generous support of my research of the history of House Island and its relevance to the immigrant heritage of Portland.

 

You Should Have Been Here Yesterday – Part 1

You Should Have Been Here Yesterday – Part 1

If oral historians had a bumper sticker it would read:

“You should have been here yesterday.”

My hopes of interviewing Aunt Bunny were dashed – she is too ill for visitors. I had driven 10 hours to meet with her. However, her sister was willing to meet with me. So, I made a detour to Massachusetts.

A woman of a “certain age” i.e. over 90, Bobbie lives in a two-story home, bowls twice a week, plays mahjong. She had spent the day before my visit with her son pouring over a 100 years of family photos – and still able to name every person. She handed me a faded photo of Millie.

Mildred Markson. Wife of Maurice. Born 1880.Died February 10, 1966.

Millie is somewhat serious looking. Thin. She was known as the “beauty of the family.” She was a founding member of the Portland Council of Jewish women.

Aunt Bobbie has many stories, especially of her childhood at the family summer compound in Maine. Millie was alive during those years. She often slept on the porch as she had suffered from TB. No stories were told about immigrants or House Island or even the good works that Millie had done. Aunt Bobbie ended our conversation by saying:

“Millie was the most generous person I ever met. She didn’t wait to be asked. She helped everyone in the family – sent me to college, provided for widows, and never expected anything in return….”

You should have been here yesterday…Brandeis Law Library

Generosity: Kindness – willingness to give money, help or time freely.

I had hoped to Bobbie would be able to provide more information but instead, I left with one word – generosity. Millie and the other women who provided assistance to the immigrants were generous with their money, their help, and their time.

I was still in Massachusetts so I checked the map and made another detour.

“Chief Justice Louis Brandeis was born to Jewish immigrant parents. After graduating from Harvard at age 20, he established a law firm and became know as the “People’s Lawyer.” Brandeis later fought against powerful corporations, monopolies, public corruption, and mass consumerism, all of which he felt were detrimental to American values and culture.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_Brandeis

Brandeis University was named for him. I am hoping that the Brandeis Library will have a link to the case files related to Bela Gross’ habeas corpus decision. His plight might have been reported in Jewish newspapers or law related periodicals of the 1920’s.

It is summer. The campus was virtually empty. There was a smattering of students following signs to a conference center.  The library didn’t open until noon. I waited. As I entered, I looked around and noticed there were 3 of us at the research desk:  me, the research librarian, and a delivery guy trying to find out who had ordered Indian food for the library.

I handed my list of topics and questions to the librarian. He would research the Brandeis databases. I headed to the stacks.

Many universities are no longer purchasing books or are de-accessing their collections. Colby College in Maine has moved 170,000 of its books to storage. There is even a campaign to bring back the books. 

Button

http://www.slate.com/articles/life/education/2014/05/college_libraries_should_keep_their_books_in_the_stacks.html

However, the stacks are often where I find what I am seeking — even when I have no idea what I am looking for.

The shelves at Brandeis hold treasures. There are large leather bound books whose content I cannot understand – books written in Hebrew, Islamic texts, Yiddish newspapers. There are Jewish periodicals, Jewish newspapers. Titles refer to Jewish history, Jewish politics, Jewish film.

I am drawn to the film lists. I am looking for films that re-create the sounds and feel of the 1920’s. After an hour of reading film synopses that span the years from 1920 to 1994, I return to the front desk.

The librarian looked deflated. He was an ‘on-line research wizard’ and had pursued multiple avenues to locate the information I wanted. He was stymied. After apologizing profusely he added:

“The Law Librarian just left for the summer. He’ll be back in the fall. (…You should have been here yesterday.)”

You should have been here yesterday… Portland Press Herald

           When we die, we leave behind a midden: photographs, bank accounts, letters, clothes, teeth, bones.         Whatever patterns the artifacts in these piles of rubbish carry are usually and mercifully lost as they are mixed into the compost heap of time past. Biological artifacts are especially evanescent: as fire eats wood by oxidation, so air eats paper. Librarians call this process “slow fire.**”

Without the help of research librarians, I would be lost amidst the miasma of continually expanding information. Fortunately, every library has at least one “gem.”

The Portland Room at the Portland Maine Public Library (PPL) is ‘the city’s hub to preserve and provide access to Portland history.’ The growing collections include printed books and periodicals, maps, archives, manuscripts, photographs, digital records, as well as microfilmed and digitized Portland newspapers. http://www.portlandlibrary.com/locations/main-library/portland-room/

The ‘gem’ at the PPL is Abraham Schechter, Special Collections Librarian and Archivist. http://laviegraphite.blogspot.com/search?q=living+history

Abraham

The day I arrive, Abraham was scanning glass negatives rescued from the basement of the former home of the Portland Press Herald newspaper founded in 1862. These negatives will become the Portland Press Herald Still Film Negative Collection. “….The collection measures approximately 310 linear feet, shelved. There are approximately 550,000 negatives in the collection.” It is a Herculean task.

Within the special collections are Census Books, Federal Court Records with applications for Naturalization, Tax Records, Marriage Licenses, and Obituaries. It is a virtual treasure trove chronicling human existence spanning centuries in the city of Portland, Maine.

To access the information, you must have a name, a birth date and a death date. The best place to find that information is in the obituaries. Although most city data since 1924 is digitized and on-line, the only way to read the 1923 news is via microfiche. There are no newspapers existent.

Scrolling through reel after reel of scratched, dimly-lit microfiche, I find myself reading ads and articles that reflect life today as yesterday. Corrupt politicians, murders, scandals, wars….and sales of the day.

In 1924, the City of Portland tax division took photographs of every building in existence at that time. Markson’s Clothing was one of those images. Beginning in 2011, this same process is being replicated by Ted Oldham. His goal is to photograph each of the 20,000 buildings in Portland. He has already completed 13,000.   He believes that…“Our buildings are a physical expression of what our values are.”

http://www.pressherald.com/2011/12/28/new-collection-takes-shape-man-photographing-20000-buildings_2011-12-28/

Dollar Down and a Dollar a Week.

Markson Bros. Clothing store became known throughout New England for both men and women’s clothing. Bunny/Bobby’s great aunt Millie’s husband, Maurice. – founded Markson Bros. with great aunt Jennie Markson’s husband, Elder. (Whew…family trees are confusing especially if they are someone elses.)

March 10, 1925.

Mrs. Jennie Markson , a prominent Jewish woman, died last evening of pneumonia, after an illness lasting a week….

Mrs. Markson was a prominent club woman and an interested and active worker in all community affairs. She was a member of the Council of Jewish women, a director of the United Hebrew Charities, a past president of the Etz Chaim sisterhood, a ….

Jennie died at age 46 from pneumonia on March 10, 1925. Only 2 years after starting the Portland Council of Jewish Women with her sister Millie. Only 2 years after establishing the House Island immigration assistance program.

At the end of a very long day, I had only found obituaries for 2 of the NCJW women. I did find obits for some of their husbands. (If a husband died; a wife sent in an obit. The reverse was not necessarily true.)

You should have been here yesterday…NCJW documents

Faith Rogow’s book: Gone to Another Meeting, chronicles the history of the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) from 1893 – 1993. It is a fascinating read because the organization’s history mirrors the trajectory of women’s rights and roles in American society – not just the history of Jewish women.

Cover Rogow

http://www.amazon.com/Gone-Another-Meeting-National-1893-1993/dp/0817306714/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1405784278&sr=1-1&keywords=gone+to+another+meeting

The Library of Congress has 48,000 items; 216 containers and 91.8 linear feet of the NCJW documents. The Portland Maine chapter documents are NOT included.

So I write letters:

National Council of Jewish Women Headquarters– DC

Nothing

National Council of Jewish Women Historian – NYC

Nothing

Mary Herman, former president of southern Maine/Portland area

Nothing

ASIDE: Angus King is her husband, Maine Senator and former Governor

Mary directed me to the current NCJW Portland president: Lynn Goldfarb.

Lynn Goldfarb

Nothing

However, Lynn remembered a story about a fire in which the records were destroyed.  MAYBE Gail Volk (several time past president) might be holding some documents “for safe keeping.”

Gail Volk

I call her. She has 2 “clipping” albums. One labeled 1920-1948; the other labeled 1948-1980. They have been in her attic for ‘safekeeping.” Although she summers at the lake and is inundated with relatives and friends, Gail is willing to drive the albums to Portland.

I contact Nina Rayer – a paper restoration and conservation expert – in case the documents need stabilizing before we review them.  We arrange to meet at the Maine Jewish Museum.

We cover a table with plastic, don gloves and masks. Nancy carefully opens the bag and removes 2 scrapbooks. They are literally falling apart.

We document each step in the process. How a document appears; how it is packaged; how it comes apart and goes back together; which items are next to each other…all this matters to an archivist and conservation specialist. It is their ‘art.’

CU album

ribbonThe most recent album is in better condition. Nina recommends we number the pages, separate them carefully and have them scanned.

The older album is held together with yellow ribbon. The front cover is detached from the pages. We carefully remove it and set it aside. We read the first entry. It is a newspaper clipping of an event that took place in 1926.  The first entry is not 1920 but 1926. The primary source materials describing the work of the NCJW on House Island would span the years from 1920-23. Those pages are missing.

First page

We reviewed both albums again, hoping the missing materials might be misfiled but to no avail. (I did, however, confirm that in 1969 I received a college scholarship of $500.00 from the NCJW of Portland.)

 

You should have been here yesterday…House Island sold!!

House Island has been sold. There is an excavator and a bulldozer visible from the deck of the ferry as you approach Peaks Island.

Courtesy Gregg Bolton

Courtesy Gregg Bolton

Rumors abound. Condos. Helipad. No one has seen plans. It will not be retained as a historic site.

Once the existing structures are removed, we will have lost the opportunity to honor those who made the immigrant journey – those who were detained – and those allowed to remain….as well as those who ‘welcomed the stranger.’

We should have been here yesterday.

 

 

 

**A slow fire is a term used in library and information science to describe paper embrittlement resulting from acid decay. The term is taken from the title of Terry Sanders’ 1987 film Slow Fires: On the preservation of the human record.

 

 

 

No Coincidence – No Story (Part 2)

Bashert…meant to be.

 Who were the immigrants held in quarantine on House Island in 1923??

I am a long time mystery reader. Following in the foot steps of my favorite detectives: Detective Porfiry,Sherlock Holmes, VI Warshawski, Kinsey Millhone, and my latest Flavia de Luce (an 11-year-old amateur sleuth), I begin my ‘investigation.’ I contact everyone in Maine who might have information about the immigration history of Portland.

Many of the early immigrants coming to Portland, Maine settled in the Munjoy Hill area. Italians settled on India and Middle Streets and started businesses such as Amato’s bakery (1903.) http://www.amatos.com/

Munjoy-Hill-Map

Aside: Mystery of the Black Dahlia

One of the greatest unsolved mysteries involved a woman who had grown up on Munjoy Hill and moved to Hollywood where she was brutally murdered. http://mainetoday.com/profiles/the-black-dahlia-lived-on-munjoy-hill-an-unsolved-murder-from-the-vaults/

 The Irish immigrants congregated in two main neighborhoods and the streets connecting them along Portland’s waterfront: the west end, later known as Gorham’s Corner, with its Saint Dominic’s parish (the oldest Catholic Church in Portland, dating from 1833); and the east end, better known as Munjoy Hill, with its Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (1866). Michael Connolly http://www.amazon.com/They-Change-Their-Sky-Irish/dp/0891011102

Book Cover

I contact the Maine Irish Heritage Center www.maineirish.com and Italian Heritage Center www.italianheritagecenter.com in Portland. They generously send out my request for anyone whose relatives were detained or were processed through the quarantine station on House Island to contact me. No positive responses to date.

 COINCIDENCE: I went to school with the Maine Irish history expert as well as the editor of the Italian American Heritage newsletter. Both are from long standing Munjoy Hill families.

The other immigrant group that may have entered Maine via House Island were Jews.

Documenting Maine Jewry is a collaborative genealogy and history of Maine’s Jewish communities. MaineJews.org is a kind of crowd source web site for gathering and posting pictures, articles, oral histories, music, etc. related to Jewish history in Maine. www.mainejews.org

As an artist, I unravel my ‘art-related mysteries’ by spending hours in library stacks. Most of my ‘clues’ are obtained in face-to-face interviews and through personal networking.

This investigation will take place in on-line archives. There is so much information to wade through. It is daunting. The study and practice of organizing, preserving, and providing access to information and materials in archives is called archival science. Science is the operative term. Finding information requires thinking like a scientist – not necessarily like an artist. Fortunately, archivists (and librarians) are incredibly helpful individuals who are generous with their time and expertise.

Harris Gleckman knows the content of the MaineJews.org site – both catalogued and still to be catalogued. He directed me to an out-of-print book published in 1954.

COINCIDENCE: My aunt babysat for the web master when he was a child living in Forest Park. (Seriously.)

 Band, Ben,  Portland Jewry: It’s Growth and Development , Jewish Historical Society, Portland , Maine, 1954

Written in celebration of 300 years of U.S. Jewish settlement, Band wrote in his preface:” Jewish communities were asked to compile a record of their development and growth.” His book was a collaborative approach – an example of early crowd sourcing. There were 17 chapters that outlined the history of Jews in Maine beginning in the 1800’s. It is only available on line.

I read.

Looking in the past

Maine’s earliest Jews came from Germany in the late 1880’s.

They learned English and established “religious services, supplies of kosher meats and a burial ground. They often earned their living peddling, the junk trade and the second hand clothing and tailoring.“

tailorASIDE:

The skill listed by most immigrants coming to Ellis Island was “tailor” due to the great need for garment workers. Most had no training. They learned through word of mouth during quarantine that it was the skill to have to gain entrance to the US.

Most of the 2 million Jews that came to America in the 1920’s were from Eastern Europe. Often less educated and less affluent than their earlier counterparts, they came to America hoping for a chance for a better life.

In the 1920’s, the City of Portland struggled to assimilate the influx of Eastern European Jews and other recent immigrants. One of the largest anti-immigrant Ku Klux Klan rallies (by some accounts, 10,000 Klansmen) gathered in Portland in 1923 to protest the presence of these new “foreigners.”

I read more.

….When immigrant ships landed in Portland in 1923 and 1924, 218 passengers were detained on House Island. The Council of Jewish Women set up kosher kitchens there under the supervision of Mrs. Lena Perry. Chapter X: New Social and Fraternal Organizations-Band

Looking in the present

The names of the original settlers of House Island also appear on the gravestones at the Peaks Island cemetery. So, I send out my request to the Peaks Island list serv. Responses were supportive of my efforts but yielded no leads. Then a photo attachment appears in an email from Kim Mac Isaac.

Kim, a historian and archivist herself, is the former executive director of the 5th Maine Museum. Kim’s family has been on the island for generations. She even remembers rowing over to House Island to explore the old quarantine station before its demolition. She had a photograph. (So far, it is the only one I have seen.)

quarantine-lge

COINCIDENCE: While sculpting a memorial bench for my dad and creating a native plant garden on Peaks Island in 2008 -10, I was able to support myself by cleaning the 5th Maine Museum. http://www.fifthmainemuseum.org/

 

The Maine Jewish Film Festival features films that ‘explore the Jewish experience through drama, comedy, documentary and short film formats.’ Works are screened at multiple venues and in multiple cities throughout the state.  http://www.mjff.org/

I create a postcard to hand out to each attendee. I distribute the postcards in hopes of finding anyone who had family members that were detained on House Island or allowed to immigrate into Maine after being processed there.

ASIDE:

My short film – Chorus of Stones – that chronicles the creation of the memorial on Peaks was rejected by some of the best film festivals including the Maine Jewish Film Festival. https://vimeo.com/2999812

pcback500 postcards later, I had not received one solid lead. Everyone thought it was an interesting mystery but could not provide any additional clues.

COINCIDENCE: A researcher who works at the US Holocaust Museum in DC picked up my postcard while she was at the festival. She thinks she can help find the names of the immigrants who passed through House Island quarantine station. I work a few blocks from the Museum.

Looking in the Archives

I continue to delve into the archives of the Maine Historical Society, the Memory Network, the Portland Room of the Portland Public Library, the New England Archives in Waltham, the Osher Map collection and Judaica Collection at the Glickman Library, University of Maine. I read books about immigration and U.S. immigration policies of the 1920’s including those cited in the Congressional Record. The rhetoric and debate reflects the immigration concerns of today.

As the implementation date of the 1924 Quota Act approached, passenger ship companies worried about the loss of business that would result. So, they doubled the number of ships leaving for America. When Ellis Island and Boston could not manage the deluge of immigrants, some ships were re-routed to other quarantine stations: House Island.

Immigrants allowed to remain in the U.S. could then be sent by rail to New York or Boston. Others were returned to their country of origin.

  • What I didn’t find were all the names of people who were held there.
  • What I didn’t find were the names of Portland residents whose family members came into Portland through House Island.
  • What I didn’t find were the names of those returned to their country of origin.

What I did find were the names of the women who established the Portland Council of Jewish Women (later the National Council of Jewish Women) who set up the Kosher kitchen. *

A friend once described the State of Maine as a small town. If that is true, the Jewish population of New England must be a neighborhood. I have just enough postcards to send to synagogues from Maine to Boston.

It is Passover week in which Jews commemorate the exodus of the Jews from Egypt more than 3000 years ago. It is an 8-day holiday in which you are obligated to tell the Passover story. This year, I listen with a new perspective: Passover could be thought of as a story of immigrants.

It is also a week of consuming symbolic foods. We eat matzo rather than leavened bread as a reminder of the haste in which the Israelites fled Egypt. There was not enough time for the bread to rise. http://homecooking.about.com/od/foodhistory/a/passoverfoods.htm

MatzohA week passes. Passover ends.

I arrive home one night and listen to the message on my answering machine:

My name is Jim Waldman. I am the Controller at the Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Our secretary was out today and I had to open the mail. http://tbewellesley.org/index.aspx

Imagine my surprise when the first 2 names on the list of the founders of the Portland Council for Jewish Women were my great grandmother Millie and her sister.

Millie’s great niece  (Bunny) lives in Maine. She is 94 years old and has a perfect memory.

Bashert?

I had just purchased a ticket to Maine to visit my Mom. I guess now I am going to visit ‘Aunt Bunny,’ too.

 

 

*Portland Council of Jewish Women, 1920

Name First Name Home Address Husband’s business
MRS. Eldar MARKSONb. 1879 –d. 3/10/1925 Portland ME) Jennie 237 State St. Markson Bros. Clothing504 Congress Street
Mrs. Maurice MARKSON(b. 1880 – d. Feb 10, 1966) Mildred S. 100 Neal St. Markson Bros. Clothing504 Congress Street
MRS. Jacob SCHIEBE(b. 1873 – d. 12/12/1964) Jennie 94 Vesper St. Tailor22 Monument Sq #402
MRS. Jacob ROSENBERGd. 5/12/1949 Helen 48 Western Promenade. Rosenberg Brothers real estate85 Exchange St. Room 305,
MRS. Benjamin PRESS Molly 224 Eastern Promenade Real Estate
MRS. Jacob SAPIROd. 3/13/1968 Anna D 93 Morning Street Husband worked9 Plum Street
Mrs. Eli PERRY Lenna 170 Cumberland Ave. E. Perry and Co Junk117 Lancaster St.

No Coincidence – No Story ( Part 1)

A recent This American Life examined the role of ‘coincidence’ in our lives. There are those who see all events in life as just random occurrences. There are those that see connections between disparate events – possibly guided by a ‘Co-incidence Coordinator’- as an indication of the existence of synchronicity. http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/489/no-coincidence-no-story

Julia Cameron, in The Artist Way, writes about ‘Synchronicity and Spirituality:’

Once you accept that it is natural to create, you can begin to accept a second idea: that the Creator will hand you whatever you need for the project. Be alert: there is a second voice, a higher harmonic, adding to and augmenting your inner creative voice. This voice frequently shows itself in synchronicity.

And, there is a Chinese saying: No Coincidence, No Story.

I am a story teller. I tell stories through my art.

The Past is Prologue

I grew up in an area of Portland, Maine known as “The Hill.” Munjoy Hill was a neighborhood of immigrants – Irish, Italian, Eastern European. We were connected by our sense of place, our values, our diversity.

We filled multi-unit housing with our extended families. We could venture out into a neighborhood of grandparents, aunts, uncles who watched over all of us – relative or not. We walked to school together. We shared homework assignments. We shoveled sidewalks and coalesced on corners.

The Eastern Promenade (‘The Prom’) was our backyard: We listened to free concerts at Fort Allen Park, oo’ed and aah’ed at the July 4th Fireworks, sledded at the Monument, and watched the “submarine races” with our dates. http://easternpromenade.org/2013/10/17/our-video-is-live/

Casco Bay and its ‘calendar’ islands were our constant companions. (It was once thought there were 365 islands hence “calendar islands.” In actuality, they number between 180 and 222.)CascoBayMaps

There was alcoholism, sexual abuse, mental illness, evictions, divorce….but the close knit Hill community provided its own version of a safety net. If you needed an egg, you could borrow one; corner stores let you run a tab until payday; friends with cars drove you to hospitals, grocery stores, appointments. Overwhelmed by life, you went next door for a cup of tea with cream and sugar.

We formed life-long friendships: ones easily renewed even with the passage of time. We worked; we loved; we moved away and joined other neighborhoods.

Looking to belong

I was usually the only Jewish kid in the class. As such, I was frequently called upon to explain Jewish holidays to my Christian classmates. My family struggled financially and spiritually. My parents were unable to provide me with a Jewish education. I sometimes felt like a stranger – an outsider – in my neighborhood as well as in my religious community.

As kids growing up on the Hill, we were more interested in hanging out on the Prom, playing pick up baseball, and finding beach glass. Studying history was an anathema: too many dates and too much war. Until I toured the Portland Observatory a few years ago, I did not know that the street where I grew up (Moody) was named for the man who developed the flag system for incoming ships.

Visit the Portland Observatory" Maine art Project by WPA c. 1937

The Portland Observatory is the only remaining maritime signal station in the United States. Tower operations were paid with annual fees collected from shipping merchants, who purchased the right to have their flags stored in the building and hoisted up its flagstaffs when their ships were sighted.

sanctuary21-1200x383My mother resides in an assisted living facility so we often go on ‘outings.’ The Etz Chaim Synagogue at the bottom of “The Hill” has recently been restored. Changing demographics, changing politics, changing economics led to the shuttering of its doors. It re-opened as an ‘inclusive’ synagogue and the Maine Jewish Museum that features art work by contemporary Jewish artists from Maine.  www.treeoflifemuseum.org

Around the age of 13, I stopped attending the Orthodox shul. I was tired of sitting in the balcony – detached from the Torah and relegated to a passive role of watching the men and boys participate in the service. A budding feminist before feminism was part of the national zeitgeist, one day, I just stomped out.

The tour starts.

The Guide begins to explain the history of the synagogue. Seeking participation from her audience, she poses a question alluding to the beginnings of Etz Chaim. My mother speaks up to add her 2 cents (actually more like a dollar) and says:

My grandfather  (my great grandfather) started this synagogue.

The Docent continues, expounding on the events that led up to the 1921 opening of Etz Chaim. http://mainejewishmuseum.org/history/story-of-etz-chaim/

As the tour continues, my mother leans towards me and whispers:

There was a big fight. A disagreement between the Rabbi at the Shaarey Tphiloh Synagogue and your great-grandfather. He stormed out with half the congregation and eventually established Etz Chaim.

(I guess stomping-out behavior is part of my genetic make up—It appears that in my family, we vote with our feet…)

Why don’t I know about this?

Forty-five years after I left Maine, I still struggle to resolve my sense of being a stranger in my own community.

Seeking my belongings

I am on the ferry to Peaks Island again. It is time to open up cottages for the season and to take my kayak out of storage.

Following the memorial service for a friend’s young daughter, I went on- line and bought a red 2-cup coffee maker and a red 16.5 foot long sea kayak. The brevity of her life was the impetus to act. (The coffee maker was an impulse buy; I had been thinking about buying a kayak for over a year.) I took kayak lessons while creating the memorial garden and bench for my father. https://vimeo.com/29998120

I go out early in the morning – before the sun heats the air and waves begin to form. I glide easily across the glassy surface of the water. As the air warms, the waves increase. wave

As a friend and I paddle around the tip of House Island, we see the remains of blocks of granite – used in the construction of Fort Scammel. My friend jokingly says something about ‘free’ stone for sculpting. House Island is privately held so we remain on the water.

As we give a wide berth to the osprey nest (too early to see the fledglings http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/osprey/lifehistory) she asked me:  “Did you know….House Island was known as the ‘Ellis Island of the North’ – and in 1923, 218 immigrants were detained at the quarantine station on House Island.”

I spent a great deal of my childhood traveling among the islands of Casco Bay and had never heard this story.

Why don’t I know about this?

Longings

According to the Maine State Archivist, there is no information about those held at the House Island quarantine station in existence from 1904 – 1937. Neither the Maine Historical Society or the Maine Maritime Museum or the Portland Room of the Public Library or the University of Maine has any resources pertaining to the construction, management or removal of the facility.

Even Captain Hal Cushing (the current House Island owner) has no photographs or documents relative to the history of the quarantine station.

Much of my previous artwork examined family relations, untold secrets, little known histories. I make connections between seemingly disparate pieces of information. I create artworks that focus on a moment in history that reflects larger issues within a current context.

I make an appointment to meet with the Curator and Director of the Maine Jewish Museum. I tell them I am an artist. I tell them about my great grandfather. I tell them about House Island. I broach the idea of creating a piece for the museum. (When my mom was in high school, she spent summers as an au pair. One of her charges was the Maine Jewish Museum curator: Now, why don’t I know about that?)

I am not sure if the ‘Coincidence Coordinator’ is at work here. But there is a Yiddish word to describe what I am experiencing: Bashert – loosely translated as “meant to be.”

I am a story teller. I tell stories through my art. And I believe there is a story to tell.