Review: Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky
Nora Rose Moosnick. Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accommodation and Audacity. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2012. xviii + 210 pp. ISBN 978-0-8131-3621-9.
Nora Rose Moosnick’s book, Arab and Jewish Women in Kentucky: Stories of Accommodation and Audacity, grabs readers’ attention before they open the book. One does not immediately associate the words “Arab” or “Jewish” with “Kentucky,” nor does the combination elicit expectations of affinity. Yet this is precisely what Moosnick seeks to redress in this compelling look at the lives of ten Kentuckians whose lives, she argues, are triply overlooked. Moreover, the fact that Kentucky does not have anything like the immigrant populations of larger metropolitan areas allows Moosnick to broaden her argument. “Kentucky harbors a larger story about immigrants settling in places not traditionally associated with them,” she explains (xii).
Moosnick believes women’s lives in particular provide insight into, and appreciation of, Arabs’ and Jews’ diverse and overlapping lives in Kentucky. The women in this book span several generations; they are immigrants, first-, and second-generation Kentuckians. Contrary to contemporary notions of previous generations restricted to the home, immigrant women have long balanced the demands of family and work, while facing the demands of living in a land that is not their native home. Through their stories, Arab and Jewish women demonstrate common themes within their lives, including identity, prejudice, success, public service, mother-daughter relations, and gender.
As a sociologist, Moosnick grounds this oral history project in sociological practices, reflecting on the contexts of the stories and the process of gathering them. There are four chapters in which Moosnick presents these stories, and each is centered around a common theme. “Publicly Exceptional” describes Sarah and Frances Myers and Teresa Isaac, who visibly and dramatically excelled in their Kentucky communities and beyond. In “Maternal Echoes,” Elsie Nasief and Gishi Bloomfield’s stories address mother-daughter relations and expectations for Jewish and Arab mothers. Manar Shalash, Sawsan Salem, and Renee Hymson in the chapter, “Into Focus,” make maternal lives—both past and present—more visible. “Archetypal and Distant Figures,” presents the many newly arrived women for whom the success of their children was their primary focus. Moosnick weaves additional voices into these narratives through direct quotes and references, as well as observations she has drawn from informal interactions with Jewish and Arab acquaintances.
Taken together, these chapters go a long way toward challenging common stereotypes. For example, some Arab women in this book engage in their communities in roles that include business and politics, while negotiating their Arab identity, which for some is Christian. These narratives challenge the common assumption that Arabs are all Muslim who keep American society at arm’s length. Similarly, Moosnick addresses the notion that Jews and Arabs exist in perpetual tension with each other, as foes or enemies. While making the overlooked point that a person may be both Jewish and Arab, Moosnick also demonstrates that in Kentucky, Arabs and Jews have quite a bit in common, since both groups have negotiated a place for themselves in their new homes using similar tactics.
While this work is academically informed and utilizes methodological and analytical tools of qualitative research practices, Moosnick hopes to reach as wide an audience as possible, including academics and the general public. She unabashedly acknowledges that, “this work is truly a labor of love,” and her own story as a proud Kentuckian and Jew is interwoven throughout (xv). This in no way diminishes the rigorous analysis she draws from the narratives, and indeed expands it. Above all, Moosnick seeks to reveal—through these women’s tales—their overlapping lives. She accomplishes this handily, providing her readers a very engaging read along the way.