Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish

March 12, 2019
Billy Crystal with members of Louisville’s Jewish community.

In June 2016, all eyes turned to Louisville to celebrate the life and legacy of the most recognizable face on the planet, Muhammad Ali. His longtime friend and “little brother,” Billy Crystal delivered a touching eulogy filled with funny stories and anecdotes marking their unique and remarkable friendship. Following the service, a few members of Louisville’s Jewish community introduced themselves to Crystal and asked for a picture. “There are Jews in Kentucky?” he quipped.

While a Billy Crystal comedic moment or not, his remark does raise an interesting point about the vitality of Jewish communities across America. True, Louisville is not New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago and most likely, never will be. However, it does not diminish the importance of the Jewish community here or anywhere else. Those unfamiliar with Louisville’s Jewish community probably do not know that we are represented in the U.S. House of Representatives by John Yarmuth, who will fondly recall his childhood playing basketball at the JCC. His childhood friend, Jerry Abramson, became Louisville’s “Mayor for Life,” later Kentucky’s lieutenant governor, and ended his career in public service serving in the Obama administration. Although Brandeis University in Waltham bears his name, Louis D. Brandeis, the nation’s first Jewish supreme court justice, is a son of Louisville. He bequeathed his papers to the University of Louisville Law School (now the Brandeis School of Law) and it is there, that is his final resting place. So, yes, there are Jews in Kentucky (and in every other state for that matter)!

As mentioned in a previous post, my husband and I relocated here from Baltimore, which has over ten times the Jewish population of Louisville. Although neither one of us is a Baltimore native, both of us grew up in urban areas (him: New York, me: Houston) with fairly large Jewish communities and it is fair to say that now working in Southern Indiana can be a bit jarring at times. I am one of few Jews at the small college where I work and have taken it upon myself to explain the reasons why I disappear for a few days each fall, and in the spring, while everyone is decorating eggs, I’m eating matzah and cream cheese at my desk. I even explain what matzah is.

In a larger Jewish community, it is very easy to take these things for granted. Growing up at a very large synagogue and going to a public school where all of my teachers knew even the basics of the Jewish holidays was a given. As a member of NFTY (Reform youth group), we frequently sang “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish,” a song whose lyrics ring true the older you get.

In my early days at University of Missouri, I learned an important lesson: I am terrible at ice skating. While I do not remember exactly how the conversation transpired, the sweet soul who took mercy on me and skated with me turned out to be a fellow MOT. We then began hanging out together at the building then shared by Hillel and the only Jewish congregation in Columbia, Missouri. It became my second home. I made a lot of Jewish friends, more than I had ever had before. I served on the Hillel board, traveled for study weekends, and eventually changed my major, deciding to become a Jewish professional. I even considered transferring schools when I realized what had been in my face the whole time: I did not need to be in a big city to live an active Jewish life. Sure, it was more challenging and required more effort and it is hard to be a minority anywhere. But, what I got out of it is a sense of pride and community, not to mention some of my best friendships.

One of those I met at Hillel was this bubbly girl from Chicago. A huge Disney fan who wore a Mickey Mouse cap to graduation. Always with a smile on her face. She now works for the Journal and a month or so ago, she put out a call for bloggers…

Lisa Rothstein Goldberg is a social worker and Jewish educator, currently working at Ivy Tech Community College in Sellersburg, Indiana. She and her husband, Matt, JCRC Director in Louisville, live in Louisville with their two young daughters.

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