Foreign Relations: Lexington Friendships in the Arab and Jewish Communities

Foreign Relations: Lexington Friendships in the Arab and Jewish Communities

Ace coverstory May 16, 2002
Foreign Relations
Familiarity yields friendship in Lexington
by Nora R. Moosnick

Nora Rose Moosnick and Joanne C. Martha


I am a Jew.

I am fortunate to have known and loved Palestine’s son, Sedo (Arabic for grandfather).

Since his death, I have realized that Sedo’s Palestinian family and my Jewish one have worked to carve out an identity in the Diaspora. This has not meant settling in major cities, like many of our ethnic counterparts, but establishing roots in Lexington, Kentucky. It is here we became friends.

Our families have had similar histories. Initial settlers faced a community unaccustomed to foreigners. Although they embraced tradition and their looks betrayed them, they tried to fit in by distancing themselves from the stereotypes shrouding Arabs and Jews. My mother often relates that when she moved to Kentucky from Chicago she became more religious. “I never thought about being Jewish in Chicago. In my neighborhood everyone was Jewish.” Constantly being attentive to identity was no doubt tiresome. I can now appreciate why Mary, Sedo’s daughter, returned to Israel. Both Mary’s and my mother’s experiences are joined by the decisions made by Sedo and my grandfather.

Sedo and my grandfather followed similar immigrant paths. They arrived in this country via New York-my grandfather from Poland and Sedo from Ramallah, Palestine. Both hit the streets to make a living wage. When this appeared difficult, they continued south to Kentucky in the 1920s, my grandfather opting to peddle dry goods, Sedo choosing fine linens and rugs as his trade.

We descendents heard “good” stories about travels with thick accents and, in Sedo’s case, darker skin. Sedo proudly recalled teas at Southern mansions with clients who were taken with his linens. I learned of my grandfather’s incredible agility as he won over a small Kentucky town, even though he spoke with an accent, read a Yiddish paper, and prayed daily.

These fine men required that their families meet the demands of isolation while also maintaining custom.

My grandfather implored his sons to strictly observe Jewish holidays, an accomplishment in an area with scant a Jewish community. For Mary, Sedo’s attachment to custom required that a nice Arab girl decline school dances. Acclimation also necessitated academic success: Our families met at Transylvania University.

My father was a professor and administrator at Transylvania for nearly five decades. I am proud that countless former students credit him for inspiring them to become physicians. My pride nearly exploded at the gathering to honor Sedo’s memory, however, when Sedo’s family members told of my father’s kindness toward them at Transylvania.

Surrounded by members of the Ramallah community, Sedo’s nephew, Eddie, a 60-something man related that, “your father took me in. Here I was a fiery Palestinian, straight out of Ramallah and your father, a Jew. He took me in and made sure I made it through Transylvania.”

I can only speculate that my father aided Eddie, as he would any student, but with an appreciation for the similarities between Arabs and Jews in small town America.

These Arabs and Jews repeatedly encountered a question asked by urban Arabs and Jews, “What are you doing in Kentucky?” They became strange hybrids of Middle East traditions and in Southern manners. Unlike their urban counterparts, they also sought out those who looked similar. For my family, this meant Arabs.

I enjoy memories of our families together.

Moosnick & Sedo

As a resident of Israel, Mary has brought rich knowledge to many Kentucky Passover seders.

I cringe recalling how she adroitly disregarded my aunt from New York who remarked, “the only thing wrong with London is that there are too many Arabs.”

My aunt could distinguish Arabs and Jews in London, but not at the Passover table in Lexington. I still regard Sedo as the grandfather I never met. I would visit Sedo in his roomy apartment to sip tea and coffee. I can recite his stories of Lawrence of Arabia and of his motorcycle ride to Damascus during World War I.

I laugh recalling visits Dad and I made together. Sedo would direct Dad to a chair chosen just for him and order me to prepare refreshments for the cherished guest.

I was tickled when one of Sedo’s granddaughters jokingly told my sister that she should attend a Ramallah convention for matchmaking purposes. “You’ll be married in five minutes,” she proclaimed. These days, my sister might not be welcome at a Ramallah convention.

In Lexington, however, our families remain close friends. Ironically, I believe our families were drawn together because of their shared displacement.

Lexington allowed us to recognize our likeness.

Pride and Prejudice
One Palestinian’s perspective in Lexington Kentucky
by Joanne C. Martha

I am a Palestinian.

I was born in Ramallah, Palestine.

I have lived in the United States since I was 6-years-old. I was raised in Chicago in a predominately Arabic community.

I moved to Lexington, Kentucky in 1983 to join my husband who is an American-born Palestinian. I didn’t have a difficult time adjusting in Lexington due to a large Arabic population. I was pleasantly surprised to find a large group from Ramallah, my hometown. We are very active in the community, both Arab and American. My husband Charlie is president of the Lexington chapter of the Ramallah Club, a Christian organization that is very involved in the community. We recently visited the Shriners Hospital. Our current project is trying to open an Arabic School to teach our children to read and write the language.

My son attends a private Montessori in Lexington where I was privileged to meet Nora Rose Moosnick. She is Jewish. Even though our countries are in constant turmoil with each other, and technically we are supposed to hate each other, I felt a strong bond with Nora. It is funny how you make a strong connection with some people, regardless of how long you have known them. Nora asked me to write this article, and I felt compelled to portray the people of Palestine in a positive way.

In 1996, I made my first return to my homeland. This trip reminded me of the things that we take for granted here in the United States. Being raised here we assume that all people around the world have the freedom to succeed, make choices, and enjoy life to the fullest the way God intended us to live. Living in America, I have become very spoiled. When I first arrived in Tel Aviv, my sister and I were the only passengers pulled aside and searched and interrogated. Why? Because we were Palestinians. This was the welcome at the airport and the welcome of all Palestinians upon arrival. While in Palestine I was comfortable for the most part. I did encounter lots of prejudices anytime I was in Israel. I was always singled out and felt like I was being watched like a criminal. Can you imagine this as a way of life? I did meet several very friendly Jewish people while I was in Palestine, both in 1996 and in 1997. I am by no means trying to say that the people of Israel are bad. I am trying to convey the message that the policies of the governments teach the innocent citizens to hate and become prejudiced towards each other.

We have been living together peacefully here in the United States for years. Nora speaks of her adventures with her friends whom are Palestinian and I have never felt the effects of prejudices from Jewish, American, or anyone here in the United States. When I went back home I realized the difficult way of life the Palestinian people have. They are not free to enjoy the simple things of life. Visualize not being able to go to the grocery store, not being able to play in the yard, not being able to go to school, not even being able to go to visit with your neighbor. This was very hard for me because I was raised in freedom. Deep in my heart, I always felt and will continue to feel that there is a solution. I feel that the people of Israel and Palestine can become neighbors and coexist peacefully.