When one thinks of New England destinations for the Jewish diaspora, Poultney probably isn’t the first town that comes to mind. But new research from a Middlebury prof unearths a Jewish immigrant community that thrived in the small southwestern Vermont town in the late 19th century.
About three years ago, Robert Schine got a call from Mary Lou Willits, executive director of the Slate Valley Museum in Granville, New York, a restored barn that sits about 60 miles south of Schine’s Middlebury home. Willits was putting together a series of shows on immigrants who lived near slate quarries on the New York-Vermont border. Would Schine like to serve as consultant, Willits asked, to a show about Jewish merchants who used to populate the Granville-Poultney region?
Schine, who has been teaching courses on modern Jewish thought at Middlebury College since 1985, replied that he wasn’t an expert on American Jewish history. But the museum rep persisted, so he agreed, sensing the project could turn into a major undertaking.
Sure enough, Schine’s research prompted him to call the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, an educational center founded in 1947 to preserve a “documentary heritage” of American Jewry. When he asked for records of Slate Valley Jews, a staffer photocopied an 1867 “Minutes” book from Poultney, Vermont.
Schine undertook a translation of the municipal records. “It was quite a work of reconstruction,” he recalls, noting that the book was written in German, Hebrew and Western Yiddish. Fortunately, he spoke all of the languages.
In March, Schine’s article about the Poultney Minutes book will run in the American Jewish Archives Journal. Next Tuesday in Middlebury, he will discuss the process of finding and translating the book, as well as its “social-linguistic” significance.
According to Schine, who consulted with a historian from Brandeis University, the 1867 Minutes book is noteworthy for several reasons. First, it predates an 1870s record of Burlington’s Jewish residents — which, until recently, was considered the oldest record of an organized Jewish community in Vermont. What’s more, the Poultney book offers what Schine calls “linguistic fossils”: records of how one group of uneducated, rural merchants pronounced Hebrew.
That point may surprise readers, Schine says, because historians tend to assume that 19th-century German-Jewish immigrants were intellectuals who settled in major U.S. cities. The “lesser-known fact,” he explains, is that a third of them settled in small towns.
“I don’t think there are too many documents like this,” Schine reflects of the Poultney Minutes book. “These Jews are not Reform Jews, they’re not urban, they’re not particularly well-educated . . . They were just trying to set up the basic structures of a Jewish community in this little slate-mining town.”
Schine has visited the Slate Valley to talk with history buffs. Has he found any of the merchants’ descendants? No, the prof reports, but he has encountered the “pack peddlers” themselves, or their remains: Poultney houses the oldest Jewish cemetery in Vermont.
Professor Robert Schine speaks on “Yiddish, German and Hebrew in Poultney? Vermont’s First Jewish Community” on Tuesday, January 13, at 4:30 p.m. in Axinn Center 103, Middlebury College, Middlebury. Info, firstname.lastname@example.org or 443-5671.