Arab and Jew­ish Women in Ken­tucky: Sto­ries of Accom­mo­da­tion and Audacity

Nora Rose Moosnick

  • Review
By – July 25, 2013

Jew­ish and Arab women in Ken­tucky? Yes, that is the top­ic of Nora Rose Moosnick’s intrigu­ing book, Arab and Jew­ish Women in Ken­tucky: Sto­ries of Accom­mo­da­tion and Audac­i­ty. It was intend­ed to shed light on the lives of Jews and Arabs in out-of-the-way places in Amer­i­ca, and it mas­ter­ful­ly accom­plishes that objec­tive by pro­vid­ing an absorb­ing analy­sis of ten oral his­to­ries of Jew­ish and Arab women and what life was like for them in rur­al and small town Ken­tucky. This is a fas­ci­nat­ing and nuanced study of eth­nic and reli­gious iden­ti­ty, the flu­id­i­ty of that iden­ti­ty, and the fac­tors that influ­ence it, includ­ing eth­nic com­mu­ni­ty size, gen­der, fam­i­ly ties, vis­its to the ances­tral home, and the degree of ostracism by the larg­er community.

Ken­tucky presents a par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ing area of study for sev­er­al rea­sons. Ken­tucky, like oth­er states in Appalachia, is far less eth­ni­cal­ly diverse than much of the rest of the coun­try. The 2010 cen­sus revealed that less than 7.8 per­cent of the state’s pop­u­la­tion is black com­pared to the nation­al aver­age of 12.6 per­cent. Jews make up only .03 per­cent of the Ken­tucky pop­u­la­tion com­pared to 8.3 per­cent in New York State. Arabs con­sti­tute less than one per­cent of Kentucky’s pop­u­la­tion but it is a grow­ing pop­u­la­tion, as it is in the nation as a whole.

Much of the state is made up of rur­al com­munities, and it is in the rur­al areas and small cities of Amer­i­ca that Jews and Arabs have often shared sev­er­al com­mon­al­i­ties. In the late 1800s and ear­ly 1900s, it was the Jew­ish and Arab itin­er­ant ped­dlers who brought their wares to the small towns and then stayed to open small busi­ness­es pro­vid­ing goods and ser­vices such as run­ning movie the­atres and sell­ing cloth­ing, meat, fine fur­nish­ings, and shoes. Jew­ish and Arab women often ran those small busi­ness­es and main­tained fam­i­lies and com­mu­nal ties. It was their chil­dren and com­pa­tri­ots who became the local pro­fes­sion­als, such as doc­tors, lawyers, and teach­ers. Both groups main­tained strong famil­ial ties that over­lapped with their reli­gious and com­mu­nal net­works while at the same time build­ing strong bonds of friend­ship through their busi­ness asso­ci­a­tions. Both groups often encoun­tered expe­ri­ences that remind­ed them of their cul­tur­al and reli­gious dif­fer­ences from the major­i­ty group despite con­sid­er­ing them­selves to be proud Kentuck­ian Americans.

But Arab and Jew­ish Ken­tuck­ian shopkeep­ers also have decid­ed dif­fer­ences, evi­dent in their oral his­to­ries. Arab women talked about their fam­i­lies in their ances­tral homes and took trips to such places as Lebanon, Jor­dan, and Pales­tine to vis­it their home­towns and kin. The Jew­ish women and men did not have a strong sense of link­age to their ances­tral coun­tries. Those were places where their grand­par­ents and par­ents had faced ugly op­pression and even death. Instead, many of the Jew­ish women talked about their more new­ly cre­at­ed home­land,” Israel, and many women engaged in Zion­ist activ­i­ties, includ­ing rais­ing mon­ey and express­ing sup­port for Israel. In rur­al Ken­tucky, despite the polar­iza­tion of Jews and Arabs in the Mid­dle East, these Arab Chris­tians and Moslems and Jew­ish women and men remained friends.

I enjoyed read­ing this book for many rea­sons. It is a vibrant depic­tion of the com­plex­i­ty of hav­ing mul­ti­ple social iden­ti­ties includ­ing being a woman, an Arab, a Jew, reli­gious, a third gen­er­a­tion immi­grant, a rur­al Amer­i­can, and a vari­ety of com­bi­na­tions of these social tags. Moosnick’s live­ly, eru­dite com­men­tary, along with the inter­est­ing sto­ries of Jew­ish and Arab women’s lives, adds anoth­er dimen­sion to under­stand­ing the Amer­i­can Jew­ish expe­ri­ence. I also found Moosnick’s dis­cus­sion of the com­plex­i­ty of con­duct­ing and ana­lyz­ing oral his­to­ries and mem­oirs to be fas­ci­nat­ing read­ing espe­cial­ly in this peri­od of time when so many peo­ple are writ­ing mem­oirs and pre­sent­ing them as accu­rate social his­tor­i­cal documents.

Nora Rose Moos­nick, a soci­ol­o­gist, grew up in Ken­tucky and is the grand­daugh­ter of Jew­ish immigrants. 


Arab and Jew­ish Women in Ken­tucky: Sto­ries of Accom­mo­da­tion and Audac­i­ty from UK Col­lege of Arts & Sci­ences on Vimeo.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

Discussion Questions