Appreciating the similarities between Middle Eastern cultures in Kentucky
Traditionally, Jewish and Arabic cultures have not had many similarities, and their relationship has been, at times, a contentious one. But not many people consider one history the two do have in common—immigration paths to the United States and settlement in unexpected areas like Kentucky. Rose Moosnick ’86 tells some of those stories in her new book, Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accommodation and Audacity.
The sociologist and daughter of the late Transylvania chemistry professor Monroe Moosnick is the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, and she began to notice similarities in the histories of her family and a Palestinian family she got to know through her father.
“The idea for the book really started at Transylvania,” she said. “Dad would befriend numerous students, and one family, the Ackall family, kept sending kids to Transylvania. Mary Ackall (Khayat ’55) and I became really good friends, even though there’s an age difference. She and dad were close friends, and she would come in from Israel during the spring.”
Ackall’s father, Mousa Ackall, lived in an apartment near the University of Kentucky campus while Moosnick was in graduate school at UK. She visited him every Friday afternoon, and they would talk about a variety of topics, including their own families’ histories.
“He became like a grandfather to me,” she said. “I called him ‘Sido,’ which is Arabic for grandfather. I would go see him, and we’d have tea, and he’d tell me about taking a boat trip from Palestine to New York that took 30 days and how he fell in love with a Jewish woman.”
Mousa Ackall also told Moosnick about peddling linens and rugs throughout the American south, a common practice for Middle Eastern immigrants who came to the United States. Moosnick realized her Lithuanian-born grandfather did the same thing when he first immigrated.
“The families had really similar immigrant tales,” she said. “I realized there was a bigger story about Arabs and Jews going places where people don’t perceive us to be.”
She studied more about the cultures and found comparisons between the two that linked them.
“We looked alike, and we were non-miners in mining communities,” she said of her Jewish ancestors and Arab immigrants in Kentucky. “We were confused for one another. People thought the Arab Christians were Jewish. In the late 1800s into the 1920s, Arab Christians came to this area at the same time as the Jews did, mostly Lebanese. Families would peddle and open businesses in the hopes that future generations wouldn’t be shopkeepers—that they’d be professionals.”
So she found the stories of 10 women, five Arabic and five Jewish, and did extensive interviews with the women who were still living and the families of those who weren’t. She found several common themes, and she paired up one Jewish woman and one Arabic woman to illustrate each theme throughout the book.
One of those pairings was former Lexington mayor Teresa Isaac ’76, who has a Lebanese Christian background and whose family took up roots in eastern Kentucky, and sisters Sarah and Frances Meyers, Jewish women who lived in Hopkinsville, Ky. Moosnick grouped them under the theme “publically exceptional.”
“Both Teresa’s family and the Meyers sisters, there were very few like them in their communities,” she said. “They stood out, and they accomplished a lot—they really had a presence in those communities. The Meyers sisters ran a really elegant women’s clothing store called Arnold’s. Teresa’s family had theaters, and both the Meyers sisters and the Isaacs brought in New York architects to build their buildings.”
The families also shared similarities in that they often felt they belonged elsewhere.
“They were almost like actors on a stage—they had a dramatic presence,” Moosnick said. “The Meyers sisters were always going to New York. They liked Hopkinsville but longed to live in New York. Teresa’s grandfather would take his son, her uncle, to New Jersey to meet Lebanese women, but he eloped with a blonde in the mountains of eastern Kentucky.”
Moosnick hopes the book will enlighten readers on how Middle Eastern cultures have taken root in the U.S. and help them gain a new understanding of how those cultures affect future generations of those families.
“The book is really an attempt to show the likenesses between Arabs and Jews in out-of-the-way places,” she said. “A lot of people don’t appreciate that Middle Eastern political tension has political life here in the U.S., and those tensions will play out.”
Moosnick lives in Lexington and is a visiting scholar in the UK department of sociology. She also wrote Adopting Maternity: White Women Who Adopt Transracially or Transnationally.