Thursday, November 8, 2012

Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky

New this June from University Press of Kentucky's oral history series comes a compelling work from Nora Rose Moosnick entitled Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accommodation and Audacity. Moosnick reveals in the preface that she came to this project as a way to honor two men she loved, her father, Monroe Moosnick and her adopted grandfather, Mousa Ackall, whose Palestinian family became melded with her own Jewish family through a mutual knowledge of fabrics.  The author speculates that the Moosnicks and the Ackalls might have been drawn together out of an appreciation of their likenesses and an understanding of the odd position they held as Jews and Arabs in Kentucky.

As Nora Rose Moosnick set out to honor these two important men in her life through chronicling the stories of other Arab and Jewish merchant families in Kentucky, she found that women's stories in particular offered an appreciation of Arabs' and Jews' lives in their new surroundings through the overlap between them.  As a sociologist, Moosnick acknowledges that Kentucky harbors a larger story about immigrants settling in places not usually associated with them.  And strangely enough, the author suggests that it may be in places like Kentucky where Arabs and Jews are most apt to discover their likenesses.

Grounded in oral history while informed in research practices, the book is not intended to be an academic work.  Moosnick tells the stories of ten Arab and Jewish women while aiming to confound simplistic notions that states--like Kentucky-- in the Appalachian region lack diversity. The author asserts that the stories of these women tend to speak to larger themes. They tell similar tales about public service to communities, mother-daughter relationships, the agility required to work, mother and be an active community member, and what it meant to be an Arab or Jewish mother nearly a century ago.

In the chapter entitled "Publicly Exceptional," Moosnick looks at the lives of Jewish fashion entrepreneurs Sarah and Frances Myers  who sold high-end women's clothing in Hopkinsville in their family shop, Arnold's. Although socially rebellious--the sisters were known for holding poolside cocktail parties on Sundays during the 1960s--their shop was a gathering place for many in Hopkinsville who described it as a "salon." Socially prominent women frequented both their parties and the shop.

This chapter also inspects the life of former Lexington mayor, Teresa Isaacs, whose political career is firmly rooted in her family, the family business, and her Arab American identity. Her family legend includes enterprising Lebanese ancestors who settled in coal country to work as shopkeepers and peddlers until Isaac's grandparents established a theatre business. Isaac's political bent was probably influenced by her father's term as mayor of Cumberland in the 1960s, but community service loomed large in her family's history in Appalachia.  As a Christian Arab, she has sometimes been accused by political opponents of being a terrorist.  Since Isaacs completely embraces her Arab heritage and her Christian roots, she finds easy allies in both the Muslim community(with whom she shares "blood ties") and the Jewish community(with whom she shares the Old Testament.) In fact, when her political enemies attacked, it was members of the Jewish community who came to her aid, distributing flyers that disputed any connection with extremists.

Moosnick's book also examines Arab and Jewish mothers in the 21st Century and how they balance their working lives with child rearing. She dedicates much discussion to how some Jewish and Arab families established businesses to elevate their children to the professional class, only to dissolve those businesses when their children achieved the desired success. She concludes the book by comparing two family stories of archetypal women from the distant past named "Rose" one of whom is her own Jewish grandmother and another who is Rose Rowady, who left Lebanon in 1909.  Both stories were related to Moosnick by the women's elderly sons.

In the preface of Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky,  Nora Rose Moosnick has this comment about her work:  "in some sense, I am going through an attic. I  hope you find gifts, as I have in what I have uncovered."  The real, examined lives of Arab and Jewish women in Kentucky--who share more in common than we may have imagined--are gifts to the reader for understanding the complexities of our stories.

(This review aired on Around Cincinnati on October 14, 2012.  Here is an audio link for listening to the review:

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