The Conspiracy

Discovering My Judaism in Bowling Green, Kentucky

I hail from the city of Louisville, Kentucky. Louisville is a river city built on the banks of the Ohio river. That river is the only thing that separates the metropolis from being swallowed by the cultural mass of the Rust Belt, which begins with expanses of southern Indiana. As such, Louisville remains a part of Dixie. Not to be characterized as solely a border state, Kentucky asserts her Southern nature with the equine gambling pageant, the Kentucky Derby. Not to be defined as a parade of small town people in eccentric hats exchanging money over the clumping of hooves, she has given birth to many grand hometown heroes, including the greatest boxer in modern times, Muhammad Ali, her favorite son – God rest his soul.

“I grew up divorced from the Louisville Jewish community.” | [CC-BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Louisville has absorbed many diverse communities over the years, Jews among them. Our tribe spawned in fact spawned city leadership that left their mark locally and nationally. Louisville can boast the first Jewish Supreme Court justice and “the people’s lawyer,” Louis Brandeis. Louisville “Mayor for Life” Jerry Abramson, whose approval ratings soared as high as 90 percent, worked as a civil servant for over twenty years, including a position in Obama’s White House. Not to mention John Yarmuth, the former publisher of the city’s only alternative newspaper, the Louisville Eccentric Observer (LEO), who now represents the congressional district that encompasses the city. The Jewish population of Louisville numbers 8,300 out of the total population of 741,096. Yet the community has punched outside its weight class with its surprising, long-lasting impact on a Bible Belt city.

I grew up divorced from the Louisville Jewish community. My mother comes from a line of Jewish women who married Protestants, with this trend going back to my great-grandmother if not further. From my recollection, my mother informed me that my great-grandmother told my grandmother to not speak of our Jewish background. My mother made me aware of my Jewish heritage, but never told me that meant I was a Jew.

As I grew up, she raised me as a loosely-defined Christian. I wasn’t baptized, and she never stressed the idea of the trinity to me or forced me to attend church. She defined Jesus as a Jew and a feminist, as a revolutionary against Roman occupation. She always interpreted him in her own Jewish context and as a living man. By the time I reached adolescence, she caught wind of my irreligious nature and began emphasizing miracles and the divine birth. But by then, I had already interpreted Jesus as a secular figure. My mother’s emphasis on Holocaust awareness and her reminders of my Jewish roots made me curious to dig deeper into Judaism as I entered high school. When I found out that Judaism was passed down through the maternal line, and I came from an unbroken line of Jewish women, I understood that made me a Jew. I openly and emphatically embraced this discovery.

By that time, I was on the way out the door to college. I questioned my mother about why she didn’t tell me about this piece of Jewish law. She told me that she hid it from me because my father’s relatives were conservative Christians and would have cut off support had they known. Aside for my paternal grandmother, my father’s family had no issues. But my stepfather frowned heavily on my newfound Jewish identity, denying my status and telling me I wasn’t raised a Jew, therefore it wasn’t my culture. My mother never stood up to him. Despite living in a city with a strong Jewish culture, I couldn’t be a part of it. I had no car, therefore relied on my parents to travel. I had no real ability to explore my identity and was suffocating under shadow of parental authority. I left Louisville for Bowling Green, a city with a Jewish population of less than 100, to pursue my degree in journalism at Western Kentucky University.

In Bowling Green, I found a Jewish population struggling to exist. The Jewish Student Union is dead. The Reform congregation has gone through its share of turbulence. The local newspaper confuses the city’s Jewish population with the local Messianic Jewish church (for Christians who have adopted Jewish practices). Since the 1800s, most of the Jewish population has left for Nashville, Tennessee. But this community’s struggle for existence and identity mirrors my own. I could finally explore who I was, free of oversight. I could be a Jew in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

Spencer Wells is a junior studying journalism at Western Kentucky University.

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