This article also appears on page 4 of the July 12 print edition of Ace Weekly.
Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky
The Story Behind ‘Stories of Accommodation and Audacity’
By Rosie Moosnick
Way back in 1994, I wrote about growing up Jewish in Lexington in Ace. I drew on
those words in writing Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky because this book is rooted in my own identity struggles—being Jewish and a Kentuckian is incongruous, so it seems—and how these negotiations have led me to reach out to the stories of fellow Jews and Arabs.
Of course, the subject matter is rich and difficult. It’s not hard for me to fall into a discussion about the strange experience of being Jewish and Arab today. Although I’ve enjoyed affluence and comfort in Kentucky, from my perspective, Jews and Arabs can’t be fully sure of their footing. The French terrorist who point blank killed children at a Jewish Day school this past spring leaves me aware that those children could have been mine. I also feel for Arab Muslim mothers who know that the act of one or a very few may have consequences for their children.
I’ve been asked multiple times, “How long did it take to write your book?” I don’t know how to respond because the beginning, in some sense, is intangible. Usually I say five years and am met by astonishment since devoting yourself to one project for years appears to be excessive. I also, though, met a fellow author who asked me the same question and to the citation of five years replied, “mine took fifteen, and this other one, twenty,” thereby revealing how my sloppy and hasty research practices are in comparison to his.
I’ve been giving the how-long question, and my response to it, some thought. If I look back at the articles I’ve done for Ace, I realize that my book, Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accommodation and Audacity, has been in the making for years. In this piece, Ace’s editor asked me to write about writing
. Doing this is, in my estimation, singularly difficult. I’ll make a stab at it drawing on my own experience writing about Arabs and Jews.
It’s 9/11, and I’m teaching a class at Transylvania. We are all in a little more than shock. The world changed around us, and in walks James Orbinski, MD. He was the featured speaker for the semester—erudite and accomplished as befits a former President of the Doctors Without Borders, who travels the world over doing good deeds. We want his life. Rwanda, Brazil, there’s hardly a place he hasn’t been, and it just so happens that he was in New York in a taxi just over the Brooklyn Bridge when the World Trade Towers came down and ran from the cab to help those in need. Students bombarded him with questions, and chief among the barrage was, “How can we have your life?” He simply said, “Follow your passion.”
Little did I think that chronicling the stories of Arabs and Jews would be my passion, but I should have seen it coming. Over the years, I have written about what I know, my identity.
I start in my own history to reach out to others and make wider connections. In doing so, I’m drawing on my ancestral history.
Maybe five years ago I was on my way to Frankfort with my uncle and aunt to hear a presentation by people from Jewish Genealogy. The trip was eventful. My ninety- something year old uncle drove to Frankfort and back without believing in car brakes. It was also remarkable because we walked into the session expecting to see members of the Jewish community and instead met regular Kentuckians. We were the honored guests because we, supposedly, had what the other participants were after, an identity.
We heard stories along the lines, ‘my grandmother was Jewish and I didn’t know it until we cleaned out her attic.’ I couldn’t help wondering whether the participants would want my identity. The Jewish Genecology representative told a story about a Polish village where all the Jews were rounded up and stuffed in a barn that was then lit on fire. This story is disturbing and it stirred me to my core because I could hear their screams in my bones. Even when I wrote in 1994 about searching my family home for a hiding place better than Anne Frank’s, I didn’t want to admit the extent to which my ancestors’ pain was a part of me.
I write about what I know intimately. It just so happens that part of me is not only being Jewish but taking my bone history and using it to reach out to Arabs. My biographical journey has intersected with Palestinians, as I discussed in 2002 in Ace. I was lucky enough to have a father who taught at Transylvania and reached out to students of all sorts. Among them were members of a Palestinian family, the Ackalls; our families developed a lasting friendship that carries on today. My Jewish identity and our friendship was the basis for the book.
Ace gave me a difficult task to write about writing. I have veered from the topic here, since I think of myself less as a writer than as a person working from my passion that stories need to be told about Arabs and Jews living in unexpected places and the intricate ways that Arabs and Jews interface not just in New York or the Middle East, but also in Kentucky. Friends said to me that they could never write a book, and my response was, Yes, you can. I’ve written about my identity and, for me, my identity and passion have coincided. The key is finding your passion, as Dr. Orbinski implored.
Now I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to peddle my book just as my grandparents peddled wares to carve out a living in their store in Versailles. I’m peddling their stories. Book fairs, book signings, even writing this piece are all part of my effort to make others interested. The hope is that passions are
infectious and that the releasing of my bone history brings forth yours. Sometimes one is lucky enough to see it happen. A woman approached me at the book signing at The Morris Book Shop to say that she had long thought that she was Jewish but recently found out that she was a Palestinian Christian. She embodied the point of my passion to reveal that sometimes the likenesses between Arabs and Jews escape discernment.
Nora Rose Moosnick, visiting scholar in the department of sociology at the University of Kentucky, is the author of Adopting Maternity: White Women Who Adopt Transracially or Transnationally.
University Press of Kentucky: In Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accommodation and Audacity, Rosie Moosnick reveals the parallel experiences of Jewish and Arab women who have immigrated to Kentucky. She writes in the book’s post script, “Studs Terkel viewed the recording of ordinary lives as an act that enlarges democracy…During his long career [He] reminds us of the uncommon beauty of regular lives and the power and authenticity of the everyday person’s narrative….The difficulty in this age of multimedia and Facebook and Twitter and viral media is uncovering and sharing authentic voices. Oral historians find themselves negotiating democratic ambitions in an age of hypervisibility and often empty visibility. The means exist to disseminate stories on a large scale, but the stories told may lack the critical insight to confront, for example, misconstructions of Arabs and Jews.”