Cultures intersect in new book 'Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky'

Book looks at the lives of Kentucky women of Jewish and Arab descent

Contributing Faith WriterJuly 13, 2012 

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

    By Nora Rose Moosnick. University Press of Kentucky. 208 pp. $40.

Nora Rose "Rosie" Moosnick spent five years working on her new book, Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accommodation and Audacity (University Press of Kentucky, 208 pages, $40), which chronicles women of Arab or Jewish ancestry who've lived in the commonwealth.

Kentucky often is "maligned and stereotyped" as a place not open to ethnic or religious minorities, said Moosnick, who teaches part time at the University of Kentucky.

The facts, she says, tell a different — and more complex — tale: "Unexpected populations live here, and our stories are by and large ones of success. But they're also complicated stories."

Five years is a long time on any creative project. But to Moosnick, 47, a Lexington native, her research never became ho-hum.

"It's my identity, so it's my passion," she said.

The granddaughter of a Jewish immigrant from Lithuania, Moosnick grew up in Lexington. Through her father, a professor at Transylvania University, she met and still maintains a close friendship with a family of Palestinian Christians who also had settled in this area.

"It sort of just became my life," Moosnick, below, said of her cross-cultural experiences.

Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky profiles 10 women, including Teresa Isaac, who is of Lebanese Christian descent. Isaac grew up in Eastern Kentucky, where her family owned elegant movie theaters and other businesses. She was mayor of Lexington from 2002 to 2006.

She's proud of her Arab heritage and of her Appalachian roots as well.

"Arab-Americans and the people of Eastern Kentucky shared a love of family and a strong work ethic," she said in an email. "We felt right at home in the mountains."

The book also includes Manar Shalash, a Palestinian Muslim who came to America as a young bride and has since joined with various family members in Lexington to run a grocery, a Subway restaurant and, currently, a cellphone company — while negotiating the challenges of raising four children.

Like Shalash, many of the women have played important roles in family businesses.

Two Jewish sisters, Sarah and Frances Myers, owned Arnold's, a high-fashion women's clothing store in Hopkinsville. They dressed Frances Breathitt for her husband Ned's inauguration as governor.

"Arnold's was like a Saks Fifth Avenue but in this little country town," the sisters' nephew, Howard Myers, recalls in the book.

Despite notoriety and connections, the sisters struggled in Hopkinsville.

They never married. While more traditional (and Christian) women attended local churches on Sundays with their husbands and children, the Myerses held cocktail parties around their swimming pool, attended by single women with "society ties" — who, Moosnick writes, "didn't fit prescribed models of femininity."

The Myerses were from Mississippi originally but always viewed themselves as big-city people. They longed to retire someday to a metropolis such as New York.

"They would tell their nephew, 'Howard, (we) don't want to die in Hopkinsville,'" Moosnick said.

She writes: "It might have been that the rural stage was too confining for them, or maybe appearances mattered too much. Whatever the cause, the result was an intricate backstage existence that involved financial strains, mental illness, and the interplay of family dynamics, Judaism, and relationships with other women."

Another challenge faced by some women Moosnick studied: Jews, Arab Christians and Arab Muslims view themselves as distinct groups, but their Kentucky neighbors frequently confuse them with one another — and even get them mixed up with immigrants from other parts of the world.

Jews and Arabs often look very much alike, Moosnick said. They tend to have "similar names, like Isaac, Abraham."

She writes that one woman always wore a highly visible cross so people would understand that, even though she was an Arab, she wasn't a Muslim.

Shalash, a Muslim, said even other Arabs have misidentified her.

"I get a lot of people think that I'm Hispanic, Mexican," she tells Moosnick. "I got a lady today. She's from Iraq, and she goes, 'You look Italian.'"

In an interview for this article, Shalash said she and her family feel greatly blessed to be in the United States. The Palestinian Territories has been wracked by social and political turmoil that might have made her children's lives much more stressful.

"This life is a little bit easier to live," she said. "It was easier to raise them here."

But she's faced the same dilemmas as other American parents.

"I tried my best to take care of the kids more than take care of the business," she said.

Despite those efforts, sometimes she spent more time working than she meant to, and felt guilty.

It's also been challenging to imbue her children with an appreciation for Arabic language and background, and to maintain contact with family overseas.

That's why she's arranged regular trips back home.

"So we don't lose each other," she said. "We'll always be connected."

Paul Prather is pastor of Bethesda Church near Mount Sterling. You may email him at pratpd@yahoo.com.

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