Jewish Portlandia, East Coast Style


With its starchy white lighthouses and Hopperesque coastline, Portland, Me., is easily pigeonholed as as a summer destination.

But even under cover of snow drifts and icicles, this quaint brick city on the Atlantic is picturesque – and lively despite the chill. After all, Mainers don’t need Florida when they have L.L. Bean: they simply zip up their parkas, strap on snow boats and head downtown to explore an increasingly sophisticated culinary and cultural scene.

It may be chilly outside, but Portland’s Jewish cultural scene heats up in the late-winter and spring months. After a brisk walk along the cobblestoned waterfront, warm up inside the Portland Art Museum, where Jewish artists are a rich part of the American collections; explore a new Jewish museum in an old landmark synagogue; and stay on the cutting edge at the Maine Jewish Film Festival, where all of Portland comes together.

On the east side of downtown, the Maine Jewish Museum opened in the former Etz Chaim synagogue just two years ago. Since then, it has become one of the most delightful — and popular — attractions of its size in southern Maine.

It is also a resounding success story of historic preservation. Etz Chaim, a European-style shul built in the early ’20s to serve a burgeoning urban community, had fallen on hard times as its membership moved out to the suburbs. But preservationists and Jewish residents were unhappy with the prospect of losing yet another tangible piece of Portland’s rich Jewish legacy, so a grassroots movement emerged to save the building and give Portland its own Jewish museum.

The museum’s website lists opening hours as 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. “and by serendipity”; drop by within those timeframes, and enthusiastic guides are on hand to illuminate what makes this stately red-brick museum unique. This spring, the museum expects to unveil a renovation that will greatly improve accessibility to the building with an elevator and better wheelchair access to the historic second-floor interior. The lack of an elevator had been an obstacle for visitors to the three-story structure, although a chair lift has been in place in the interim.

Upstairs is the pretty cream-colored sanctuary, framed in gleaming dark wood and lit by stained glass. But it’s the third floor that frequently strikes the most resonant chord: an exhibition that focuses on Maine Jewish history and, in particular, its tradition of Jewish summer camps, whose color wars and canoe races invite a very particular nostalgia.

Contemporary Jewish artists with a connection to Maine are represented in rotating galleries on the ground floor. If you time your visit right, you may be surprised at the international caliber of the artists on display.

I was surprised to learn how many American-Jewish artists have strong ties to the region — the most famous being Louise Nevelson, the avant-garde Modernist sculptor and outspoken feminist, whose family settled in Maine after fleeing Czarist Russia. Nevelson is also one of a number of American-Jewish artists on view at the Portland Museum of Art, an underappreciated gem of the Northeast.

The others include Alex Katz, with a fresh spin on Pop Art, and the Modernist Abraham Walkowitz — noted for his association with Alfred Stieglitz and his worshipful, exhaustive renderings of the dancer Isadora Duncan.

American art — from neoclassical sculpture to post-Impressionist paintings — is the strength of this diverse and compelling collection. In particular, the PMA has significant holdings of works by Winslow Homer, painter of stormy seas and sunlit fields.

As of last year, Homer fans can complement their viewing with a guided tour of the artist’s studio in Scarborough, which the museum acquired and restored over the past decade. You’ll need to book your excursion in advance for scheduled springtime visits; a van escorts small groups on a scenic ride south from Portland to the Scarborough peninsula. There you can see the world through Homer’s eyes from his rustic wooden cottage, perched on a tidy green bluff overlooking the ocean.

Back in the city, as the ground begins to thaw, the Maine Jewish Film Festival returns in March for another season of cinematic thrills.

Portland boasts of being the smallest city in the nation to host an independent, world-class Jewish film festival; the 17th annual event runs from March 22-29 at venues around town. From the opening gala to the international mix of drama, comedy and documentary films, this is the hottest ticket on the spring calendar — and a great way to experience the diversity that is Portland Jewish life.