AUGUSTA — When she was a little girl, Amy Waterman would travel north from Massachusetts to visit her grandparents in Calais and was always astonished at how they hung on to the Jewish traditions they brought with them from Eastern Europe. More recently, as she began researching an exhibition about being Jewish in Maine, Waterman was even more astonished at the commitment of her family, and many others like them, to preserve and observe such ancestral traditions as preparing dough for blintzes or picking sorrel for use in soups.

It was against the odds that those traditions survived at all, let alone in a remote and rural areas where communities are thin and spread widely, she said. Waterman helps tell part of the story of the Jewish experience in Maine in a new exhibition, “Maine + Jewish: Two Centuries.” It’s on view at the Maine State Museum in Augusta for a year, through October 2019. Waterman, who lives in Brunswick, served as the exhibition’s guest curator, traveling across Maine many times in search of stories and items to display and to learn more deeply the history of Jewish people in Maine. Among many other things, she learned that her family’s experience was common.

“I don’t think people from away can quite understand what it’s like to grow up a Jew in Maine,” she said. “I think what rises to the surface has to do with the grit – the rising to the challenge – that’s involved with making yourself comfortable in a new place with the variety of obstacles that are standing in your way, language among them. It required fortitude and flexibility.”

It’s hard to say with certainty, but Waterman believes there are between 15,000 and 30,000 Jewish people in Maine today, or somewhere between 1 and 2 percent of the state’s population. The first Jews arrived in Maine in the early- to mid-19th century, from German-speaking parts of central Europe.

“Maine + Jewish” tells stories from across Maine, examining where and why Jewish people settled here, the traditions, religious and otherwise, that have survived and evolved, and the obstacles Jews overcame to become fully integrated. Waterman called the exhibition a community effort. She borrowed widely from individuals and organizations, and assembled more than 200 images and 170 objects to tell a broad narrative that includes many related small stories.

There are audio displays of Hebrew poems and Yiddish songs, as well as excerpts of musical prayers sung by prominent Maine cantors and choirs, including the late Cantor Kurt Messerschmidt. There are sections about Jewish summer camps and Jewish businesses, and a spotlight on the anti-Semitic barriers that Jews have faced. The exhibition includes a 1920s brochure from the Arundel resort in Kennebunkport advertising its many charms, including fresh fish and lobster “obtained in great abundance near the shore.” It also warns, “Hebrews not entertained.”

Among other things, Harvey Lipman offered a toy truck that he played with as a child, adorned with the name of his family’s business, Lipman Poultry Co. He said the exhibition made him feel proud, and he felt certain his parents would feel “so excited to see their work and family represented this way.”

He grew up in Augusta, among only a few dozen Jewish families. “It was like living on an island surrounded by a sea of gentiles,” Lipman said. “I was just thrilled to see this exhibit, because these are things from my childhood. These things still have a voice, they speak to me. And the story is very much about how I grew up.”

The centerpiece of the exhibition is an Art Deco-style Torah ark, where Torah scrolls were stored. This one comes from the former Beth Abraham Synagogue in Auburn, which was established in 1934 and closed last year. The ark felt especially meaningful to Lipman when he visited the exhibition a few weeks ago. He traveled to the synagogue in Auburn once a week to study for his bar mitzvah, and the ark played a prominent role in his growth from boy into man.

When he saw the ark in the exhibition, he walked up to it and touched it. “This is where I prayed,” he said. “I can remember the rabbi opening the ark, and he said, ‘Stand up straight. You are in the presence of the lord.’ There is a lesson you remember the rest of your life.”

Bernard Fishman, who directs the museum, brought his professional and personal experience to bear in “Maine + Jewish.” Among other things, he was the founding director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland in Baltimore, and his family owned the M.H. Fishman Co., which operated five-and-dime stories in Calais, Biddeford, Waterville and Houlton and around the Northeast. He grew up in New York and came to Maine for summer camp, before eventually moving here.

Like Waterman and Lipman, the Fishman family story is reflected in the stories of many other Jews in Maine, and it’s a story of migration, survival and gratitude. Fishman’s grandfather migrated from Russia and eventually settled in New York City where he headquartered his business. He did not know his actual birthday, so he chose the American Thanksgiving as his birthday and always gave thanks for the gift of a safe and secure place to make his life – the reward of coming to America. And each year at the family dinner in New York, Fishman’s grandfather celebrated the bounty of America, as he saw it.

“That sounds somehow corny today, but it wasn’t, and it isn’t,” Fishman said. “He felt a deep sense of gratitude to the United States that is still very moving to me after all these years.”

And in that truth lies the heart of “Maine + Jewish.”

IF YOU GO:  MAINE + JEWISH: TWO CENTURIES’
WHERE: Maine State Museum, 230 State St., Augusta
WHEN: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday
ADMISSION: $3 adults, $2 ages 6-18 and 62 and older, free for ages 5 and younger
INFORMATION: mainestatemuseum.org or 287-2301