Maybe…Maybe Not. Part 1.


Welcoming the Stranger: hachnasat orchim

                  Maine Jewish Museum, 267 Congress St.

Portland Maine 04101

September 3 – October 25, 2015

( daily 10 am – 2 pm; closed Saturdays)


I am staring at my hands as I type. It is 14 degrees outside (up from 10). Due to icy roads, closed schools and general winter malaise…I have been sequestered for what seems to be weeks – but it has only been 4 days.

The disadvantage of being at home during the day is the visibility of the dust bunnies under furniture, cracked plaster in the hallway, dirty fingerprints on switch plates and the ever increasing list of to do’s that grows from these observations.

I am staring at my hands as I type. With their broken nails, flaky skin, visible veins and ‘age’ spots- they look more like my grandmother’s hands than mine.

When carving stone in Italy, at the end of the day, artigiani apply olive oil to their dry skin.

Growing up in Maine, the ubiquitous tin of bag balm sat on the sill behind the kitchen sink.bag balm-lg


Originally used on cow udders, Admiral Byrd took a tin with him to the North Pole.

The smell of Nivea Crème reminds me of my mother squeezing out a small amount on the top of one hand and rubbing it in and reversing the process for the other hand.

Wrinkles are also more obvious during the day.

I sit across from my 21 year old Research Assistant.* I am struck by the smoothness of the skin on her hands. I am somewhat nostalgic for the beauty that is youth – but at 21, I was too busy working two jobs and going to school full time to appreciate it. I often wish for a ‘do-over’ – to be able to pay more attention the 2nd time around.

In the 1986 Movie – Peggy Sue Got Married – Kathleen Turner faints while at her high school reunion and travels back in time. We spend the movie wondering if she will make the same decisions that led to her current state of despair.


I was in line at Whole Foods at Thanksgiving and heard a gravelly voice so distinctive – I knew it belonged to Kathleen Turner. I looked up from my magazine and there she was – placing her groceries on the conveyor belt. I apologized for bothering her but wanted to say how much I admired her work. We talked recipes for the holiday (she was cooking) and the health advantages of the Paleo diet (she has rheumatoid arthritis.) She then paid, bid farewell and carried her own bags out the door…

2015 is the year that Marty and the Professor journeyed to in the movie Back to the Future.My exhibit is scheduled for September and October of 2015.

Although we never tire of that desire to start over, to go back to right a wrong, to take another path, to change the outcomes of our choices,

the only way to travel back in time is through research: newspaper articles, documents, meeting notes, publications, letters, obituaries, ephemera and interviews.


I need new glasses. I haven’t been able to thread needles for quite a while. Whenever I visited my grandmother, she would ask me to thread her needles. It didn’t make sense to a 10 year old. It does now.

I can barely make out the words on some of the PCJW documents I have been sorting.  NCJW papers

A typewritten document has emerged with a handwritten note on its cover:

         “Only copy – do not lose.”

Written in 1955 by Selma Black, A Cavalcade: Thirty Five Years of Council in Portland “ is a summary of the history and work of the Portland National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW) from 1920 – 1955.

In the Book One Summer In America – 1927, Bill Bryson highlights the events – natural and human – that took place that year including Babe Ruth’s achievements, the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, the great Mississippi River Flood, Charles Lindberg’s Atlantic crossing.  1927 is considered to be the most extraordinary summer in American history – one that changed forever how America was viewed by the world.


Lindbergh, while on his post Atlantic flight publicity tour, landed on the beach in Old Orchard, Maine. The Scarborough Airfield was fogged in. He may have flown over House Island as he approached the area.

Black took a similar approach – dividing the work of the PCJW according to who was the president of the organization at the time.

1922-24 Mrs. Jacob (Anna) Sapiro President

Thirty five years ago. The first World War had ended,,,the country was launched on its biggest era of prosperity. Prohibition was here… presumably to stay. Women had at last won the right to vote.… Bathtub gin and the first WCTU meeting: the promise of peace and the prospect of marvelous things to come…radio, air travel, and equal rights for women… This was the climate of Portland when a small group of civic minded and far seeing women felt the need for united action in the local Jewish community…Providing kosher food was nothing new to them, and now a group began to furnish food for immigrants arriving at House Island. The immigration committee had a busy schedule, meeting the immigrants, preventing some of them from being deported, outfitting them and sending them on to their final destination.

I have less than 9 months before the opening of Welcoming the Stranger. It will be an installation and community-based artwork that grows from my research about the House Island Quarantine and Immigration station, the role of the Portland Council of Jewish Women (PCJW) and immigration of the 1920’s reflected in the immigration issues of today.

I am determined to create a family tree for each of the women with the goal of locating living relatives. My assistant signs up for and begins the journey into the past.

After many hours sitting at the computer scrolling through census records, marriage and birth certificates, obituaries, tax records, city directories, we locate Anna Sapiro’s obituary:


Obit: Portland Press Herald, March 14, 1968

Mrs Anna Dorothy Meyerson Sapiro, 82, wife of Jacob Sapiro of 59 Codman St. died Wednesday…

…resided at the Jewish Home for the Aged…

…Mrs. Sapiro was a member of Temple Beth El, a charter member of the Portland Council of Jewish Women….

Besides her husband, she is survived by a daughter, Mrs. Maurice J. Rubinoff, Portland, three sons: Dr. Howard M. Sapiro, Portland; Lester E. Sapiro, Portland and Dr. Sumner M. Sapiro, Brockton, Mass. and nine grandchildren.

There are still Rubinoffs living in Portland. One of them is living in the family home.

And I send a letter.

No response.

And I send an email.

No response.

Holidays come and go. Planning and Zoning unanimously supports historic districting for House Island.

Kenneth Thompston, the expert on harbor fortifications, testified at the House Island hearing. Because he had been instrumental in the effort, I wanted to send a hand written note.

I asked for his address.

         His home was in the Deering High School (rival high school) neighborhood.

How long have you lived there?

Since he was a child.

Did you know the Rubinoffs ?

They hung out when they were kids!

And yes, he would be willing to knock on his door and tell him I have been trying to contact him.

He did.

So it’s time to find my parka, boots, mittens and scarf and head to Maine….Maybe it will be warm. Maybe not.


Maybe…Maybe Not. Part 2


The tendency to ascribe to another person feelings, thoughts, or attitudes present in oneself, or to regard external reality as embodying such feelings, thoughts, etc., in some way.


The act of visualizing and regarding an idea or the like as an objective reality.


The casting of the powder of philosophers’ stone upon metal in fusion, to transmute it into gold or silver.

Head:Jennie Markson obit

When I first saw Jennie Markson’s obituary photo, I projected an entire personality based on one grainy microfiche image.

I assumed that she was a good mother. That she was a leader in the community – supporting a wide range of issues. I assumed she was passionate yet humble. Driven but inclusive.

Based on her list of accomplishments (cut short by an early death from pneumonia at age 46) I wondered if we would have been friends.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Even after meeting with members of her family, there was no way to verify what she was really like or how she felt about what she had achieved in her life. I am only left with my projections.

There is a photograph of my grandmother in which she appears as a well made-up older woman with tight curls and a string of pearls – an archetypal image of a grandmother. She was anything but.

Widowed at an early age, she was left with 2 small children. Although encouraged to give up her children to increase her chances of re-marriage, she chose instead to find work. According to the family story, she was the first woman hired at the Social Security Administration in Maine.

She never made cookies. She didn’t pass on any recipes. She wasn’t a great cook – except for tomato rice soup – that I never have been able to duplicate – (probably because I have never ascertained what flanken is.) She worked into her early 80’s. Following a stroke in 1968, she resided at the Jewish Home for the Aged. lunchroom

Anna Sapiro also lived at the Jewish Home for the Aged before she passed away in 1968. (She was instrumental in creating the Home. My grandmother may have passed Anna Sapiro in the hallway or sat with her in the dining room….they might have traded stories of grandchildren or early life exploits …

Maybe. Maybe not.

Between the lunch crowd and the dinner rush, I sit with Dan Rubinoff at his Back Cove Deli in Portland, Maine.

Anna Sapiro was his grandmother. She and her husband owned the Portland Candy Company. (A cousin I interviewed remembers barrels of penny candy from which she ‘sampled.’)

Their candy store was located on Plum Street. In 1972, not only was the block demolished to make way for Canal Square, but Plum Street became a ‘ghost street.’

Dan’s reminisces about going to his grandmother’s home after school and sampling one of the myriad of baked goods she had made that day. (Maybe this is what led Dan to be in the deli business. That thought, of course, is a projection on my part.)

His brother Stephen wrote:

…She once admonished: “remember to give what you can to those in need. Manage well but worry not about your personal affairs. The bills and taxes will be with you always. What matters most is what you do for others – the quality of what you do (for the community) with what you have.”

…She also made the best molasses cookies, pies, lokshon and potato kugels- to say nothing of her fish chowder and baked haddock. (He did NOT open a deli. So much for projections.)


Simon Rubinoff, the police officer who interpreted for Bela Gross after being rescued from jumping into Casco Bay, was possibly the first Jewish police officer in Portland and their uncle.


I walk to reduce stress – but in winter, in lieu of walking, I get a pedicure in order to avail myself of their massage chair. (I go to Princess Nails – a Vietnamese family owns and operates it. They ask about Mom and I ask about their children.)

pedichairs_313x236I walk to the shop via the Bayside Trail. Past the Whole Foods, Planet Dog and other recently opened stores that are part of the ongoing gentrification of Portland is a large fenced area that encompasses an entire city block.

I make my way past the entrance. Outside of the gate are groups of men – some carrying metal objects, some waiting to drive their trucks laden with scrap into the yard.- A sign on the front door reads:


EST. 1896.

Lena Perry was credited with setting up the kosher kitchen on House Island. Lena Perry’s husband, Eli, was a junk and scrap metal dealer.

Eli Perry 4Perry junk

As I entered the office, I was greeted by two young men.

I was sure they were descendants of the “Perrys.” After all, the sign did say ‘since 1896.’

Eli Perry was the original owner of the scrap metal business. Working alongside him was Louis Lerman – who purchased the business in 1926. The Lerman family continues the tradition.

ASIDE: A childhood friend whose family lived directly across the street married into the Lerman family– and the 2 helpful young men in the office are her 2 sons. So much for that projection.

After Perry sold the business, he and Lena moved to Bethelem, N.H. and purchased a hotel. Bethlehem, known as the “ Star of the White Mountains,” was a summer destination for Jewish families beginning around 1916.

… a few Jewish families became summer visitors seeking relief from their hay fever symptoms. As a matter of fact, the National Hay Fever Relief Association was founded in Bethlehem a few years later. By the mid-1920s, the Jewish community grew significantly, helping to keep hotel rooms full. Although in much fewer numbers, Chassidic Jews can still be seen today, traditionally dressed, taking a summer stroll on Main Street.

Aside: The synagogue that the Perry’s attended is closed for the winter. However, proof of their residence was provided to me from the President of the synagogue.

Perry plaque

Before relocating, Lena was listed in the 1923-5 Portland Directory as the proprietor of the Peaks Island House – a hotel-boarding house located on Peaks Island when it was still known as the Coney Island of Maine.Peaks_Island,_Maine,_Boardwalk,_postcard

Since the start of the House Island research, I have wondered how the PCJW women had the knowledge of transporting food on ships, traveling between House Island and Portland…and the vagaries of tides and wind…

Lena’s experiences on Peaks Island could have been the key to the entire endeavor.

Maybe. Maybe not.


I possess very little memorabilia from my own life. When I moved my mom into assisted living a year ago, I retrieved my yearbooks and a few photos. I added them to my Decade Boxes. Each box is the size of a scrap book – filled with some ephemera, special cards, mementos, articles, some videos. Most everything relates to my accomplishments, my art, and my close relationships.

my boxes

Four of the 7 original women were alive when Selma Black wrote the history of the PCJW from 1920 – 1955. They were probably middle aged by that time. Maybe even grandmothers. Although the interviews of their grandchildren provided memories of recipes, anecdotes from their own childhood and a few family stories, there was no sense of the complete person – what they were like before marriage, before children – what drove them to help others – what beliefs did they possess that compelled them to ‘welcome the stranger.’

A Jungian view of projection is that we place on others that which we don’t see in ourselves – both good and bad characteristics.

My projections of the women – caring, compassionate, innovative, organized – are probably based on own desire to be seen as I see them.

And I wonder …when someone examines the contents of my Decade Boxes…what conclusions will they make about me?


I sorted and organized 6 additional boxes of PCJW papers. The documents represent data – moments frozen in time – edited down to salient points, agreements and understandings. But, once again, the 1920 meeting notes establishing the House Island kosher kitchen and immigrant assistance programs were not there.

I am hoping that the papers will be archived at the University of Southern Maine (USM) Judaica Collection so others who may be interested in writing this history will have a place to start.

I am putting my search to rest. It is time to make Art.


And…there is still the unsolved mystery of what happened to Bela Gross…

Well. Maybe not.

House Island Update:

Following the November 25 hearing, Planning and Zoning recommended House Island for historic district designation.

On January 5, 2015 (6 months to the day of the stop work order), the vote was unanimous and the 3 remaining structures of the Immigration and Quarantine Station will be protected. Future development can only take place with approval from the Historic Preservation and Zoning divisions of the city. Thanks to everyone who supported theses efforts.


* When I realized I wanted to find out more about the seven women who founded the Portland Council of Jewish Women, the fates delivered me a student majoring in Arabic studies, minoring in art, and a passion for genealogy research.