Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History

Interview with Lee Shai Weissbach, October 20, 2015

Louie B. Nunn Center for Oral History, University of Kentucky Libraries


Toggle Index/Transcript View Switch.
Search this Index
00:00:00 - Family and upbringing

Play segment

Partial Transcript: So my name is Janice W. Fernheimer.

Segment Synopsis: Weissbach explains how he was born in pre-state Palestine on May 14th of 1947. His father was born in Alexandria, Egypt and his mother in Norfolk, Virginia. They met in Tel Aviv, Israel in the 1930s. They immigrated to the United States in 1952 and settled down in Cincinnati, Ohio. His parents opened the Yavneh Day School which was the community Hebrew school of Cincinnati where they both taught Hebrew.

Keywords: Alexandria (Egypt); American Express; Ashkenazi; Balfour Declaration; Cincinnati (Ohio); Galil; Haifa; Hebrew; Hebrew Speaking Society; Israel; Kashrut (see also Kosher food); Maurice Weissbach; Miriam Weissbach; New York (N.Y.); Norfolk (Va.); Observant; Orthodox Judaism; Palestine; Pogroms; Romania; Tel Aviv; University of Haifa; World War II; Yavneh Day School; Yodfat

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Family histories.; Immigrants; Jewish families.

GPS: Haifa, Israel
Map Coordinates: 32.7940463, 34.98957100000007
00:13:45 - Immediate family and arrival in Louisville, Kentucky

Play segment

Partial Transcript: I'm gonna ask you more questions about that memoir in a little bit--

Segment Synopsis: Weissbach's wife, Sharon Goller (later Sharon Weissbach) was born in Lexington, Kentucky where her grandfather worked as a kosher butcher. Her family moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where she met Lee Shai while they were members of the Habonim youth group. The Habonim youth group was a Labor Zionist Youth Group. Their involvement in the youth group put them together for many years as youth before they began dating just before college. They both attended the University of Cincinnati as undergraduates and graduated together. They adopted two children, Jacob Zvi Weissbach and Maya Weissbach. Jacob works at the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philadelphia and Maya works at the Anthropologie store in Louisville. Lee Shai and Sharon both finished their PhDs in Boston. Lee Shai began looking for work at universities with active Jewish communities when he was offered a job at the University of Louisville.

Keywords: Anthropologie Store; Boston (Mass.); Boston College; Brandeis University; Cincinnati (Ohio); Conservative Movement; Habonim; Indiana University; Jacob Zvi; Kosher butchers; Labor Zionist youth group; Lexington (Ky.); Maya Weissbach; National Museum of American Jewish History; Nativ College Leadership Program; Ohavay Zion Synagogue (Lexington); School of the Art Institute of Chicago; Sharon Goller; Three Rivers (Mich.); University of Louisville; University of Pittsburgh; Wapakoneta (Ohio); Zvi Hirsch

Subjects: Education; Employment; Jewish children; Jewish families.

GPS: Cincinnati, Ohio
Map Coordinates: 39.1031182, -84.51201960000003
00:24:29 - Jewish life and the Jewish Studies program at the University of Louisville

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Yeah. So, wow, 37 years is a long time to spend--

Segment Synopsis: Weissbach discusses how he was hired at the University of Louisville to fill a French history teaching position. He had written his doctoral dissertation on child labor in nineteenth century France. He also began teaching Jewish history courses because he had an interest in it from his previous research in France. He eventually was given a state grant to hire someone in a Jewish Studies full-time position. One problem he discusses is the instability with a Hebrew language professor at the university. He discusses the Jewish community of Louisville and how they have maintained Jewish programming despite harder financial times with the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Federation in Louisville. He then describes the Jewish student life at the University of Louisville, which has always been small, and their Hillel program.

Keywords: American Jewish history; Bucks for Brains Program; Chabad; Conservative Temple; Hebrew language course; Hillel; Jewish Community Center; Jewish Federation; Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence; Jewish Studies; Jewish history; Louisville Jewish students; Natalie Polzer; Reform Temple; Soviet Jewish Immigration; University of Louisville

Subjects: College environment; College students--Religious life; College teachers--Social conditions; Judaism.; Universities and colleges--Faculty.; University of Louisville

GPS: University of Louisville
Map Coordinates: 38.21504520000001, -85.76015569999998
00:35:35 - Working in the field of Jewish history

Play segment

Partial Transcript: I know that you--you've talked a li--a bit about your graduate work at Harvard, in French history, and in fact, that's how you got the job at University of Louisville.

Segment Synopsis: Weissbach discusses how his research into French Jewish history became very comparative to research into small town Jewish communities in the United States. This revelation led him to finding communities with approximately 1000 Jews but he could not find census data that tracked people by religion. In order to find these communities he first set out to find all of the synagogues of Kentucky which led to his book "Synagogues of Kentucky: Architecture and History" in 1995. He later wrote the book "Jewish Life in Small-Town America" which focused on the case of the Jewish community in Lexington, Kentucky.

Keywords: "Jewish Life in Small-Town America"; "Synagogues of Kentucky: Architecture and History"; AJS Review; Census; French Jewish history; Harvard; Kentucky Humanities Council; Small-town Jews; Synagogue; University of Louisville

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Jewish families.; Jews--Kentucky--Lexington.; Lexington (Ky.); Universities and colleges--Research

GPS: Lexington, Kentucky
Map Coordinates: 38.0405837, -84.50371640000003
00:45:41 - Researching small-town Kentucky Jewish communities

Play segment

Partial Transcript: All right. I want to pause a minute to--

Segment Synopsis: Weissbach discusses the various Jewish communities in Kentucky outside of Louisville and Lexington that he wrote about in his book "Synagogues of Kentucky: Architecture and History." The Jewish communities typically followed migration patterns into the state, with many of the first appearing along the Ohio River. The small Jewish communities of Kentucky adapted their own identities and often had to compromise between different degrees of observance in Judaism to exist. These various Jewish communities existed in the Kentucky cities listed in the keywords below.

Keywords: "Jewish Louisville: Portrait of a Community"; Ashland (Ky.); B'nai B'rith; Carly Ely; Cincinnati (Ohio); Colorado Springs (Colo.); Covington (Ky.); East European Jews; German Jews; Greater Cincinnati Area; Henderson (Ky.); Hopkinsville (Ky.); Jewish Federation; Jewish communities in Kentucky; Journal of American Jewish History; Lexington (Ky.); Locust Grove Historic Home; Louisville (Ky.); Main Street Merchants; Newport (Ky.); Ohio River; Orthodox Judaism; Owensboro (Ky.); Paducah (Ky.); Pittsburgh (Penn.); Reform Judaism; Southern Illinois Jewish Federation; Yiddish; Yud Schwartz; synagogue

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Family histories.; Jewish families.; Jews--Kentucky--Lexington.; Lexington (Ky.); Universities and colleges--Research; Worship (Judaism)

GPS: Paducah, Kentucky
Map Coordinates: 37.0833893, -88.60004779999997
01:02:12 - Kentucky Judaism

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Um, but, uh, I wonder if you could talk a little bit about--uh, you've mentioned some of this, you know, stability, and--and in--and mobility, but if there are some other key components to the narratives that shape the way that Kentucky Jews either think about themselves, or that others think about the narrative of--

Segment Synopsis: Weissbach discusses some of the factors that impacted Kentucky Judaism over time. These factors include proximity to a major city, the Civil war, Sephardim, degree of observance, and various businesses. Weissbach also makes an attempt to help Dr. Fernheimer with the Jewish Kentucky Oral History Project by suggesting names of people for her to interview in the future. He also discusses how Jews began to become involved in Kentucky politics.

Keywords: Anshei Sfard (Louisville, synagogue); Auerbach; Bernheim; Cincinnati Metropolitan Area; Conservative Judaism; Covington (Ky.); East European Jews; German Jews; Hasidic Jews; Heaven Hill Distilleries, Inc.; Hyman Family; Institute for Southern Jewish Life; International Business Machines (IBM); Jerry Abramson; Jewish Confederates; Jewish Federation; Kentucky Jews during the Civil War; Kentucky Jews in politics; Lexington (Ky.); Louisville (Ky.); Main Street Merchants; Mansbach family; Marnie Davis; Montgomery (Ala.); Morris Weintraub; Northern Kentucky; Paducah (Ky.); Rabbis; Reform Judaism; Rhodes (Spain); Sephardic Jews; Shapira Family; Shofar (journal); Simcha Kling; The Union; World War II

Subjects: Family histories.; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Politics and government; Religion; Religion and politics; Worship (Judaism)

GPS: Anshei Sfard Synagogue in Louisville, Kentucky
Map Coordinates: 38.2262282, -85.6483404
01:23:16 - Personal and Jewish community life

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Um, but it's interesting that you start talking about your own, uh, personal involvement in the community. And actually, that's sort of where I'd like to go next.

Segment Synopsis: Weissbach discusses the impact Kentucky Judaism had on his home family life, which he said was very little. He says the congregation at synagogue has been his and his wife's Jewish anchor, while the Jewish community found at Jewish summer camps served as such for his kids. Weissbach and his family have attended both Adath Jeshurun and Keneseth Israel synagogues off and on during the time that they have lived in Louisville. He talks about the disappearance of kosher butchers, the closing of the Jewish day school, and the contemplated merger of the two conservative synagogues. He also discusses Jewish programming through the Jewish community center and the Jewish studies department at the University of Louisville.

Keywords: Adath Jeshurun Synagogue (Louisville, Ky.); Camp Ramah; Chavurah movement; Crichton; Eliahu Academy; Eliahu Spivak; Etgar Keret; Gary Zola; Highlands (Louisville, Ky.); Jewish Community Center; Jewish Film Festival; Jewish Studies Program; Jewish counterculture; Jewish programming; Kenesseth Israel Synagogue (Louisville, Ky.); Levine family; Strathmore neighborhood; United Synagogue Youth Movement; Vaad kashrut

Subjects: Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

GPS: Keneseth Israel Synagogue in Louisville, Kentucky
Map Coordinates: 38.224086, -85.67484000000002
01:40:40 - Family's Jewish observance

Play segment

Partial Transcript: So I, I wonder, uh, can you talk a little bit about--these might seem like kind of strangely personal questions after these large questions--

Segment Synopsis: Weissbach discusses how his family has progressively become less observant with his children. Weissbach says he will not do any casual shopping on Shabbat but will spend money if necessary to enjoy the day of Shabbat such as paying an admission fee to the zoo. His son will spend money on Shabbat but still observes, while his daughter rarely will observe Shabbat at all.

Keywords: American Jewish history; Jewish observance; Jewish programs; Kentucky Jewish history; Lee Shai Weissbach; Rosh Hashanah; Seder; Shabbat; University of Kentucky; University of Louisville

Subjects: Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)