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Being welcomed in Portland during wartime


“And I would like to go”, Dick had said on the first Shabbat of our marriage. “Would you mind?”

“No, of course not. I would like to go too”, I said.

Hand in hand we walked to the large white building in Brookline, Mass and up the front steps. I was Dick’s wife attending services and sitting next to him in a house of worship. Dick kept showing me the proper place in my prayer book and whispering explanations throughout the service. Afterwards, he introduced himself and me to Rabbi Epstein and we were promptly invited to come home with him for lunch. We walked there together.

“Had you known that your pediatrician’s brother was a Rabbi in Boston?” I asked Dick, many years after our honeymoon.

“Of course”, said Dick and reminded me that his mother had suggested we attend services at Rabbi Epstein’s. Synagogue.

“Oh”, I said, thinking of the young couple we were then. It was a dim October day. My memory gives the Rabbi’s home a Rembrandt quality. The room, its furnishings, paintings, books, yes…and even its occupants seemed to possess a certain richness of content. a glow, a special warmth and handsome ness….all muted by the kind of day light available. I learned then that religious Jews do not turn on lights during the Sabbath. I remember feeling on the fringe of that charmed circle…enjoying the food and conversation…somewhat in awe…just listening and learning. It was the first time I had met Jews of this caliber. so learned, so fine, so deeply Jewish. It was the first time, too, I had ever experienced Shabbat.

A week after Rosh Ha Shannah, the honeymoon was officially over because Dick’s leave was up. We had traveled by train from Boston to Portland, Maine where the Navy had sent him for a special six-week course. Six weeks in wartime seemed like a lifetime to us and we married because of the promise of being together for that long. The top-secret course to which Dick had been assigned was about High Frequency Detection Finding Equipment. Since he was Communications Officer, he needed to learn to operate the equipment which had been newly-installed on his ship* We had checked into Portland’s Lafayette hotel for the night. Next morning, Dick reported for his first day at the school in Casco Bay and I spent my first day alone exploring Portland, searching for a place to live and buying tickets for a concert to take place that evening. There was certainly a lot to talk about when my new husband returned but Dick was not talking. The minute he walked into our hotel room, after a short embrace of greeting, he went directly to the telephone book and, with no explanation whatsoever, began to search through it. “Who are you calling? What are you looking for?” I kept asking and the only answer I got was, “Wait a minute…wait a minute.” I was becoming irritated.

“H”, he said, “I….Jay….Je….Jeh….Jew….Jewish. Here it is! Jewish Community Center!” he cried out triumphantly and then explained to me. “I want to make arrangements for Yom Kippur. Sometimes you can’t get tickets, you know.” He called the number while I listened.

“Hello”, he said, “I’m a Naval Officer. I’ve just arrived here in town and am stationed in Portland. I’m here with my wife” (How new those words were for him to say!)…”And I was wondering….is there any problem getting tickets for Yom Kippur services? We’d like to attend. Uh huh… we’re staying at the Lafayette Hotel. Yeah. Now?” He covered the mouthpiece and said, “They want us to come over right now”…I told him about the concert tickets. He returned to the phone. “No, we can’t now. We have tickets for a concert this evening and….after the concert? All right. Yes. Yes, we can. All right, then. Thank you. Thank you very much. Goodbye.”

He hung up and explained the conversation to me. “they were so nice! They said, ‘Where are you? Well, come over right now…we want to meet you! When I told them we were going to a concert, they said to come over after the concert. They’re going to wait for us.” And so it was that we met the Director of the Jewish Community Center of Portland, Maine, Norman Godfrey, his wife, Ethel, and two other couples, Harold and Gladys Potter and Harold and Milly Nelson….all awaiting us at the Center when we walked in after a very nice concert. Not only did they have tickets for us to Yom Kippur services, but we were informed that we were to stay at the Potter’s home, to have the final meal with them, attend Kol Nidre services, sleep over, attend Synagogue with them the next day, break the fast at their home, and go with them to a Party afterwards at the Community Center where we would meet the entire Jewish Community.

We went to bed so happy that night. Being Jewish took on a whole new dimension for me. After only one day in town, we were no longer strangers. It was because we were Jewish that we were included as family and made so welcome.

The Potters lived in a nice house. They had a five year old daughter named Beverly. They had been married for eight years. They thought we were “adorable” (Glady’s word). We thought they were wonderful. We ate a very good dinner in a very great hurry and rushed off to get to Kol Nidre Services on time.. I hadn’t known what “Kol Nidre” was. Its history and significance were explained to me while at dinner. Later, when sitting upstairs in the Synagogue with Gladys, I first heard its melancholy notes and shivered, I think, because of the moment, as well as because of the cold.

We slept in the Potter’s comfortable guest room after a chilly autumn night’s walk from the “Shul”. I was grateful for the nice warm quilt on the bed.

Next morning we walked to synagogue. Again, I climbed the stairs with Gladys. The day seemed endless. The prayers were in Hebrew. The Rabbi’s sermon was in Yiddish. I understood nothing except my hunger.

After breaking the fast with our new friends, we went to a “Break-the-Fast-party” at the Jewish Center. Dick played the piano and amused everyone with his rendition of Yiddish Songs including a song about Borscht sung to the tune of the “Drinking Song from the “Student Prince”. “Trink, trink, besser vie vine. Trink, trink, for ald lang zyne……”

The crowd applauded and laughed. They requested one encore after another. The Yiddish-Jewish bond between Dick and these people left me feeling out of it and yet, from that evening on, for the six weeks we stayed in Portland, we were the “pets” of the entire Jewish community. “Dick-n-Susan are coming to our house for dinner tonight”, one Jewish child would boast.

“Well, Dick-n-Susan are coming to our house next week”, another would counter as if our invited presence in to their family circle lent them some sort of prestige. Dick and I were amused at how the children would say, “Dick-n-Susan” as if it were one name.

Our first Erev Shabbath in Portland after Yom Kippur was spent at Ethel and Norman Godfrey’s house. Ethel helped me say the words as I lit Shabbath candles for the first time. I liked it. I also liked feeling Dick’s pleasure and happiness. I liked the Shabbat table and saying a blessing over the Challah and over the wine. I equated the religiousness in that household with Christian Americanism experienced up at Colby….grace before meals and all that.

During dinner, Dick told how he had been confused as a child because his Mother had a friend named Minnie Horowitz and he had thought for some time that the Hebrew prayer giving thanks to God for bringing bread from the earth went “Ha Motzi Lechem Minnie Horowitz” instead of “Ha Motzi Lechem Min Ha Eretz” the way it is meant to be. That amusing little story helped me remember the Hebrew words of the prayer. It was also comforting to know that there was a time when even Dick didn’t know.

Ethel Godfrey and I talked a lot that evening about being Jewish. Judaism and its way of life meant a great deal to this woman who was so happy to explain it to me. I might have understood even without her words, however, because it was obvious and could be felt just from being in their midst. It was joyful in that home with the husband, the wife, and their two bright pretty little girls. I thought that this must be what Rabbi Woolsey had meant when he told me to be a good Jewish wife and to raise our children in a good Jewish home. This was the way I wanted to do it, the way I wanted it to be. But I did not yet know how.

Shortly after the evening at the Godfrey’s, I became sick, had a high fever, and was confined to bed in our dingy hotel room. Dick had to work during the day and Ethel took it upon herself to visit me daily. She came with chicken soup and competent, comforting kindness and she nursed me back to health. When I tried to express my gratitude, she brushed it aside saying, “Listen! If my daughter were eighteen, sick, and alone in a strange place, I would want someone to do the same for her.” I understood then, and have never forgotten, that concept of responsibility to others. From then on, everybody’s children were mine.

Thank you to Cindy Potter Taylor for the information
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