A new addition to the University Press of Kentucky Oral History Series, Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accomodation and Audacity reflects the not-so-hiddent diversity in the state, and also illustrates the power of oral history to document the human story. This project was proudly supported in part through a Kentucky Oral History Commission project grant. Author Rosie Moosnick shares this blog post as an enticement for her recent publication:
Arabs, Jews. Kentucky? Strong images surface when thinking about Arabs, Jews, and their religions and lands. Kentucky is not normally a state that comes to mind when talking about Arabs and Jews. It’s not New York or Michigan. The book, Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accommodation and Audacity, seeks to challenge misconceptions and to overcome neglect of Arabs and Jews in out of the way places in America by imparting the stories of ten Arab and Jewish women in Kentucky. The intention is to confound simplistic notions of Kentucky that offend and belittle and to reveal likenesses between Arabs and Jews.
Arabs and Jews have been largely discounted as residents of the region even though, as business owners, they have provided goods for residents across the State. Their stories are ones of immigrants who supply daily lives and have done so for several generations, the people who provide(d) movie entertainment, clothes, meats, fine furnishings, shoes, and cell phones among other items. Vibrant communities exist(ed) in Kentucky. According to the Arab American Institute, for instance, Kentucky’s Arab population “is among the fastest growing Arab populations in the country.”
Placing KY Arab and Jewish women side by side, moreover, shows intricate lives. Lives like those of the Myer sisters, who never married or had children in Hopkinsville, Kentucky from the 1930s to the 1980s but were movers and shakers in the community and in their elegant women’s dress shop, Arnold’s. These unlikely Jewish Kentuckians also longed for New York. “Don’t bury me in Hopkinsville, don’t bury me in Hopkinsville” was a refrain they repeated to their only nephew.
Or take the life of Teresa Isaac. She is a contemporary Arab American politician who was mayor of Lexington, the second largest city in Kentucky, from 2002-2006. In some ways she is like any other politician today, raising funds and shaking countless people’s hands. Unlike other politicians, however, she claims an Arab American identity, and unlike other Arab American Christians with long roots in this country, she does not shun Muslim Arabs, but instead reaches out to them publicly. She also owns her roots in the Appalachian mountains of Kentucky. “I identify very much with the mountains, very much with the mountains, and always when I meet somebody else from the mountains, it’s like there is an automatic connection.
Somebody tells me they’re from a county in Harlan, around Harlan, it will feel like an immediate connection even if I may not have ever met them before. I feel like an immediate bond, same way as I would feel if somebody came up and said that they were Lebanese, it’s the same feeling if they told me they were from the mountains.”
In a political environment where tensions are high between Arabs and Jews, even in America, women’s stories have the potential to bring the two groups together and to promote a deeper understanding of Arabs and Jews who have settled outside of the Middle East and urban locations in this country.
(Author Nora Rose Moosnick is a visiting scholar in the department of sociology at the University of Kentucky. She is the author of Adopting Maternity: White Women Who Adopt Transracially or Transnationally and lives in Lexington, Kentucky.)
(Images: Top, book cover. Middle, Arnolds Store in Hopkinsville, KY. Bottom, Teresa Isaac while visiting Pakistan - courtesy R. Moosnick)