From the Middle East to Middle America

By Mack McCormick, Amanda Osborne, Whitney Hale

 

Outwardly, it would appear that Arab and Jewish immigrants comprise two distinct groups with differing cultural backgrounds and an adversarial relationship. Often ignored, however, are the similar immigrant paths these two groups face in the United States, particularly in non-urban areas lacking established immigrant or ethnic populations. In regions like Kentucky, where Jewish and Arab populations are nearly invisible and established cultural or immigrant circles are not prevalent, both groups must negotiate complex identities and often find that their new locations illuminate more similarities between them than differences.

In "Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accommodation and Audacity," University of Kentucky sociologist Nora Rosie Moosnick reveals just these parallel experiences of the Jewish and Arab women who have immigrated to Kentucky. Through in-depth interviews, she weaves together multiple life stories and follows a group of Arab and Jewish women through a narrative journey exploring their traditions, assimilation, and place in Kentucky’s cultural landscape. These women’s experiences as immigrants or the children of immigrants join around common themes of public service, intergenerational relationships, running small businesses, and the difficulties of juggling family and work.

Growing up in Kentucky as the granddaughter of Jewish immigrants, Moosnick observed this traditionally mismatched pairing firsthand. She found that Arab and Jewish immigrants had been brought together by their shared fears and shared customs, which though distinctive, are more similar to each other than to traditional American customs. In this collection of stories, Moosnick shines a light on the similarities shared by these two groups through the lives of women she has interviewed in her research. Taken together, these compelling narratives expose the unexplored experiences of Arabs and Jews in out-of-the-way places in America as well as challenge misconceptions about both groups.

Moosnick recounts the story of Sarah and Frances Myers of Hopkinsville, two Jewish women who operated a dress shop in their community and found success without conforming to 1950s norms that prescribed that women should marry and have children. She also interviewed Sawsan Salem, a Muslim woman raising four children in Lexington while working at Victoria’s Secret. She is devout, but uncovered and contemporary, managing work, kids and community obligations. Women in politics, like former Lexington mayor Teresa Isaac, are also featured. The daughter of an entrepreneurial Lebanese family, she embraced her Arab-American, Christian identity while in office and reached out to immigrant groups in the community.

The women whose stories Moosnick chronicles are neither typical Kentuckians, nor do they fit a singular mold for Arab or Jewish immigrants. "Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky" uses the lives of ordinary women to paint a remarkable and untold story. Moosnick’s exploration of the braided relationships and experiences of Arabs and Jews in a southern setting sheds light on how much these traditional adversaries have in common, particularly when they are removed from the tensions of the Middle East.

Moosnick is a visiting scholar in the UK Department of Sociology in the College of Arts and Sciences. She is also the author of "Adopting Maternity: White Women Who Adopt Transracially or Transnationally" and lives in Lexington.

The University Press of Kentucky is the scholarly publisher for the Commonwealth of Kentucky, representing a consortium that now includes all of the state universities, five private colleges, and two historical societies. Led by Director Stephen Wrinn, its editorial program focuses on the humanities and the social sciences. Offices for the administrative, editorial, production and marketing departments of the press are found at UK, which provides financial support toward the operating expenses of the publishing operation.    

For more information or to purchase "Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky" from University Press of Kentucky, visit the press online at www.kentuckypress.com

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