Although Jewish American culture is most commonly associated with East Coast urban metropolises, in actuality Kentucky has a Jewish history as rich and deep as the Bluegrass itself. Some of the people, products, and places most strongly associated with Kentucky have Jewish chapters in their histories. For example, the Gratz family of Lexington and the Simon family of Louisville were related and both served instrumental roles in the development of Kentucky's two largest cities. In business, the bourbon founder Jim Beam descended from Jacob Boehm (a German Jewish immigrant). The Jewish bourbon connection lives on today in Heaven Hill, one of the last remaining family-owned distilleries, revived after Prohibition by the five Shapira brothers. And, in humanities, the epic poem "Kentucky," written by Israel Jacob Schwartz, tells of Jewish acculturation within the state and remains a seminal work within American Jewish history and literature.
Kentucky is unique because Jewish heritage is everywhere but not always immediately visible. Because of this not-yet-fully-recognized ubiquity, students at the University of Kentucky are taught a broad range of methods and approaches to both Jewish topics in the commonwealth and beyond. Part of our shared scholarly adventure is to map the unchartered territory of Kentucky's Jewish heritage. Using oral history, archival, and rhetorical methods we work together to represent Kentucky Jewish communities' diversity and to integrate their perspectives with the more familiar narratives of Jewish identity, history, and culture in the commonwealth, the United States, and the world beyond. Students learn about this rich Kentucky "Jewgrass" heritage first hand in several ways. In collaboration with the Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History and local Kentucky Jewish community members, they work to both analyze and conduct oral history interviews. Students learn methods for uncovering, interpreting, and curating primary archival materials as well as creating and constructing new repositories of artifacts both digital and print. As a rhetorician, I find it helpful to use the tools of my trade (an understanding of audience, rhetorical purpose, and exigence) to help students engage the issues they encounter in the primary materials and our Jewish Studies courses and to better understand the texts they encounter. Our goal as a faculty is to not only teach the diversity of Jewish Kentucky history, culture, and heritage, but also to teach the tools for knowledge construction and understanding so that this heritage can be both preserved and generative.
At the University of Kentucky, we offer a minor in Jewish Studies, which means that (as of yet) there is no official course in methods. Instead, every course we teach must engage in some discussion of why Jewish Studies matters and how one best studies it. For the Kentucky Commonwealth students we meet in our classes, who are mostly non-Jewish students, Jewish Studies is important because it simultaneously offers a local context and a global passport to world history, literature, languages, and culture. And while some students may have never met a Jewish person or encountered Jewish ideas before arriving on campus, our courses enable them to put Jewish history, thought, and culture in both local and transnational perspective. Our minors graduate with first-hand experience accessing, analyzing, and helping to generate primary materials and strong research and writing skills that enable them to contextualize, interpret, and intervene in complex rhetorical situations both inside and outside of the classroom.