Interview with Benjamin Baker, May 13, 2016

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

 

Transcript
Toggle Index/Transcript View Switch.
Index
Search this Index
X
00:00:00 - Family history

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Alright. It's May 13th, 2016.

Segment Synopsis: Ben Baker describes his family's history, primarily focusing on his mother's side. His maternal grandfather, who was originally from New York, owned a clothing store in Lexington on the corner of N. Mill Street and E. Main Street, which remained open until sometime in the 1950s. He also traveled around the southeast United States and managed stores that were closing. He came to the Lexington area in part because he had relatives living in Paris, Kentucky.

Keywords: Baker family; Barbara Francis Baker; Barbara Strauss; Entrepreneurship; Family values; Gloria Baker Feinstein; Jewish businesses; Michael J. Baker; Migration; Moving; New York (N.Y.); Peddlers; Peddling; Roos family; Small businesses; Traveling salesman

Subjects: Entrepreneurship; Families.; Family histories.; Jewish businesspeople; Jewish families.; Lexington (Ky.); Paris (Ky.); Small business--Kentucky; Small business--Ownership

00:04:17 - Family generational shift from Orthodox to Reform Judaism

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Um, I had the impression from interviewing your father that his parents were very, um, very open to change.

Segment Synopsis: Baker's paternal grandparents practiced Orthodox Judaism before immigrating from Poland. After arriving in the United States, however, Morris Baker helped found Ohavay Zion Synagogue in 1912. After his death in 1946, Baker's maternal grandmother attended Temple Adath Israel with her children, in part because it was difficult to maintain a more strict Jewish practice in a small Southern town.

Keywords: Bar mitzvahs; East European immigrants; Family values; Harold Baker; History; Jewish history; Jewish practices; Kashrut (see also Kosher food); Kosher food (see also Kashrut); Lexington history; Morris Baker; Ohavay Zion Synagogue (Lexington); Orthodox Judaism; Poland; Reform Judaism; Religious practices; Religious services; Small town life; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue)

Subjects: Emigration and immigration.; Families.; Immigrants--Kentucky--Lexington.; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

00:07:45 - Working at Baker Iron and Metal in 1964

Play segment

Partial Transcript: And what about your involvement, um, with the family business, when you were a boy?

Segment Synopsis: Baker describes working in the family business, from customer service and clerical work during the summer as a child in 1964 to helping run the business full-time after graduating college in 1972. His father, Harold Baker, continued to have a significant presence in the business and contributed to marketing, outreach to industrial accounts, and customer service.

Keywords: Baker Iron & Metal; Family businesses; Family values; Harold Baker; Jewish businesses; Jewish economic niche; Scrap metal; Shelley Dehr; Small businesses

Subjects: Childhood; Entrepreneurship; Jewish businesspeople; Small business--Kentucky; Small business--Ownership

00:11:25 - Celebrating Jewish life as a child in the 1950s and 1960s

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Going back to your family background and a bit-- you mentioned that it was important to you to have family here in Kentucky when you were, when you were growing up.

Segment Synopsis: Holidays were a highlight for Baker during his childhood because they always involved large family gatherings. In recent years, however, Baker has had to start inviting friends over for holidays because many members of his family are unable to attend due to location or disability. He also discusses his Jewish education and identity and how it affected his childhood experiences, from missing school during the High Holidays and being unable to attend events on Friday nights.

Keywords: Bar mitzvahs; Bat mitzvahs; Decline of Jewish population; Family life; Family values; Generational change; Hanukkah (also Chanukah and other spellings); High holidays (Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur); Jewish education; Jewish holidays; Jewish identity; Jewish life; Jewish population; Kheyder (see also Hebrew school, Sunday school); Passover (also Pesach); Public schools; Sunday school; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue)

Subjects: Childhood; Fasts and feasts--Judaism.; Holidays.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Worship (Judaism)

00:17:44 - Attending Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts from 1965 to 1968

Play segment

Partial Transcript: So when you went to Ashland, Cassidy, and Morton were your friendships across the board--

Segment Synopsis: Although the public schools in Lexington did not offer Jewish students excused absences for religious holidays, Baker did not experience much anti-Semitism in Lexington. He does remember an incident of anti-Semitism involving other students while attending high school at Deerfield Academy in Deerfield, Massachusetts where he was excluded from signing up for a dorm room with a group of students. This led to Baker seeking out a university with a larger Jewish population and eventually attending Northwestern University from 1968 to 1972.

Keywords: Colleges; Deerfield (Mass.); Deerfield Academy; Friendship; Gentile-Jewish relations; High schools; Jewish friends; Jewish identity; Jewish population; Lexington (Ky.); Northwestern University; Prejudice; Public schools; Secular; Universities

Subjects: Anti-Semitism.; Antisemitism.; College students--Religious life; Education; Jewish children; Jews--Identity.

00:24:15 - Returning to Lexington in 1972

Play segment

Partial Transcript: And what happened while you were there that made you realize you wanted to come back and be involved with the family business?

Segment Synopsis: Baker returned to Lexington after he graduated from Northwestern University in 1972 to help run Baker Iron & Metal. He notes that many children of parents in the Lexington scrap metal business ended up returning to Lexington and working in the family business as well. He also discusses the importance that Judaism played in his life during college, becoming involved with Temple Adath Israel, and meeting his wife, Ruth Gordon Baker.

Keywords: Baker Iron & Metal; Board of directors; Cohen family; Conventions; Family businesses; Jewish businesses; Jewish communities; Jewish economic niche; Jewish identity; Jewish marriage; Jewish networks; Jewish practices; Jewish tradition; Leadership; Lexington (Ky.); Migration; Religious practices; Scrap metal; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue)

Subjects: College students--Religious life; Entrepreneurship; Jewish businesspeople; Jews--Identity.; Religion; Small business--Kentucky; Small business--Ownership; Worship (Judaism)

00:26:49 - Evolving role of Judaism in Baker's life

Play segment

Partial Transcript: When you were in college did you maintain a Jewish practice? Sense of Jewish ritual?

Segment Synopsis: While attending Northwestern University, Baker admits that it was difficult to maintain Jewish practices and that he was more concerned with college life. He and his family are avid fans of the University of Kentucky's (UK) men's basketball team, and he describes the only basketball game he attended while in college - the UK Wildcats versus the Northwestern University Wildcats. He became a member of Temple Adath Israel when he returned to Lexington in 1972 and quickly took on a leadership role. Although the role of Judaism in Baker's life was initially to meet other Jewish contemporaries, it has evolved into a spiritual force in his life.

Keywords: Basketball; Board of directors; College life; College sports; Community; Community involvement; Courting; Harry Gordon Scrap; Jewish communities; Jewish friends; Jewish identity; Jewish life; Jewish marriage; Jewish networks; Jewish practices; Lexington (Ky.); Northwestern University; Religious practices; Ruth Gordon Baker; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue); University of Kentucky

Subjects: College students--Religious life; Jewish leadership--Kentucky--Lexington; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

00:33:38 - Changes in Reform Judaism as a reaction to assimilation and intermarriage

Play segment

Partial Transcript: So how did you, um--how did your own practice of Judaism differ, how did it, how does it differ from that of your parents, if at all?

Segment Synopsis: As Jews became more assimilated and married gentiles at a greater rate in recent decades, most Reform congregations became more conservative in their religious services in order to maintain a sense of Jewish identity and community. Baker discusses how Temple Adath Israel has followed the national pattern of leaning more conservative in recent years. Changing practices include incorporating Hebrew into services and increased congregation participation. He also discusses Temple Adath Israel's growing openness to including non-Jewish spouses in services and rituals such as bar and bat mitzvahs in order to keep mixed-faith families as a part of the Temple's congregation.

Keywords: Assimilation; Bar mitzvahs; Bat mitzvahs; Board of directors; Congregations; Decline of Jewish population; Generational change; Intermarriage; Jewish identity; Jewish population; Jewish practices; Jewish religion; Jewish tradition; Reform Judaism; Religious practices; Religious services; Temple; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue)

Subjects: Jewish families.; Jewish leadership--Kentucky--Lexington; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Religion; Worship (Judaism)

00:46:24 - Service on the Temple's board of directors in the 1980s and 1990s

Play segment

Partial Transcript: And when you started being involved in the board, um, I read that, I read in the history book, um, the, the Centennial history book, uh, on Temple Adath Israel, that came out in 2003 or 2004--

Segment Synopsis: Baker served on Temple Adath Israel's board in many different positions for twelve years and he explains the line of succession for the Temple's board. He discusses how he believes that his service, which detracted time from his family, negatively influenced his children's views of Judaism. He also talks about the causes for the generational decline in Temple attendance which includes the economic stagnation in Lexington, the out-migration of young people, and a focus on family activities as opposed to social activities.

Keywords: Board of directors; Decline of Jewish population; Family life; Generational change; Jewish communities; Jewish friends; Jewish identity; Jewish life; Jewish population; Jewish society; Population growth; Succession; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue)

Subjects: Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jewish leadership--Kentucky--Lexington; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Worship (Judaism)

00:51:05 - Declining Temple attendance in the 2000s

Play segment

Partial Transcript: I, I think that, uh, in the se--when I was--when I came back from school in the seventies and eighties, uh, socially there--this was a way for me to, uh, meet young families, young, young couples and so Ruth and I were very excited about this possibility...

Segment Synopsis: Attendance at Temple Adath Israel reached its zenith during the seventies and eighties due to young people moving back to Lexington after college and the economic boom in the area. Baker and his wife, Ruth Gordon Baker, attended the Temple and were able to meet other young couples and they remain active members of the Temple. In recent years, however, the Temple's congregation has shrunk due to an aging congregation, the out-migration of young Jews, and economic stagnation resulting in fewer people moving to Lexington. Baker is dedicated to fighting for a Reform Jewish presence in Lexington for the next generation but is grappling with the challenge of increasing Temple membership and stabilizing Temple finances. He does not foresee a viable solution to this problem at the moment.

Keywords: Board of directors; Civic involvement; Community; Community involvement; Decline of Jewish population; Generational changes; Jewish communities; Jewish friends; Jewish life; Jewish networks; Jewish population; Jewish tradition; Migration; Population growth; Reform Judaism; Role of communal institutions; Ruth Gordon Baker; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue); University of Kentucky; University of Kentucky Hospital

Subjects: Judaism.; Lexington (Ky.); Religion; Worship (Judaism)

01:03:37 - Working in the scrap metal industry from the 1970s to 2002

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Well, let's go back and talk, y--more about the ir--scrap iron business, iron and metal business.

Segment Synopsis: Baker talks about his time working for Baker Iron & Metal. The employees at Baker Iron & Metal were very supportive of Baker when he first started working, and in turn he supported them by trying to find them work at the business during economic downturns and hiring several children of current employees. He explains the obstacles that the business faced, from a cyclical economy to losing contracts due to geography and location. He also describes the competition and camaraderie that he shared with other business owners and the eventual selling of the company to the Cohens in 2002 due to health concerns.

Keywords: Antisemitism; Baker Iron & Metal; Blues family; Building businesses; Business obstacles; Cohen family; Discrimination; Economic interdependence; Education; Family businesses; Gentile-Jewish relations; Jewish businesses; Jewish communities; Jewish economic niche; Jewish networks; Jewish practices; Klempner family; Mansbach family; Prejudice; Religious practices; Scrap metal

Subjects: Entrepreneurship; Jewish businesspeople; Lexington (Ky.); Small business--Kentucky; Small business--Ownership

01:18:04 - Gentile-Jewish relations in the family scrap metal business

Play segment

Partial Transcript: I'm, I'm interested in what the atmosphere was like at the, at the conventions, and at the meetings, if you have Jewish b--if you have businesspeople from all over the place who, the majority of whom were Jewish, was there any particular, um--would, would somebody who just walked in have noticed, in some way, that there was a--

Segment Synopsis: Scrap metal has historically been a predominantly Jewish industry, and Baker describes his experiences as a Jew dealing with gentiles in the business, from attending national conventions and competing for contracts with gentile businesses, to relations with his gentile employees. He also remembers working with his father, and his father's continued involvement in the company until they sold it in 2002.

Keywords: Antisemitism; Baker Iron & Metal; Discrimination; Family businesses; Gentile-Jewish relations; Harold Baker; Jewish businesses; Jewish holidays; Jewish life; Jewish practices; Prejudice; Religious life; Religious practices; Scrap metal; Stores closing for holidays

Subjects: Entrepreneurship; Jewish businesspeople; Jews--Identity.; Small business--Kentucky; Small business--Ownership

01:25:20 - Connection with the larger Jewish community as a child

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Um, wondered, going back to your childhood and youth, just to pick up on a couple questions that I neglected to ask you earlier: did you connect at all with the larger Jewish community in Louisville or Cincinnati, such as, you know, through youth groups, parties, um, et cetera?

Segment Synopsis: While growing up, Baker was able to connect with other Jewish kids at a regional summer camp in Zionsville, Indiana, giving him a different Jewish experience than attending services in Lexington. Attending the summer camp allowed him to share experiences with the larger Jewish community, such as attending Shabbat services with other people his age.

Keywords: Bar mitzvahs; Conclave; Indianapolis (Ind.); Jewish communities; Jewish friends; Jewish identity; Jewish networks; Jewish organizations; Jewish population; Jewish practices; Jewish tradition; Reform Judaism; Religious practices; Religious services; Shabbat (also Shabbos, Sabbath); Summer camps; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue); Youth organizations; Zionsville (Ind.)

Subjects: Childhood; Jewish children; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.

01:31:22 - Israel's influence on Baker's Jewish identity

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Did you ever, at, at a certain point, get a sense of, um, Jewish--or get, get very interested in Jewish history and Jewish identity, sort of internationally...

Segment Synopsis: The Six Day War in 1967 was one of the first times that Baker identified with an international event as a Jew. Since then he has followed current events relating to Israel and visited the country with his wife, some friends, and his Rabbi, Jon Adland, in 1994. It was one of the first times that Baker was able to experience Jewish life as the default. Although some in the Lexington Jewish community feel a strong connection to Israel, Baker does not feel remorse for making his home in Lexington.

Keywords: Community; Holocaust; International relations; Jewish identity; Jewish life; Jewish practices; Munich Massacre; Munich, Germany; News; Political discourse; Rabbi Jon Adland; Rose family; Six Day War; Small town life; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue); Zionism

Subjects: Israel.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism

01:43:24 - Raising children Jewish in Lexington, Kentucky

Play segment

Partial Transcript: Uh, did you h, have anything to add about your approach to giving your children a sense of their Jewish heritage, and Jewish identity, and how you passed that along to them?

Segment Synopsis: Although their children were raised Jewish and Baker's daughter had a Jewish wedding and visited Israel with them in 1994, Baker's children do not actively participate in Temple Adath Israel. Baker and his wife gave their children the "tools" for Judaism but never forced them into it. Baker does not attribute his children's unwillingness to participate in Judaism to assimilation into a dominantly Christian culture.

Keywords: Child-rearing; Cultural acceptance; Cultural preservation; Family life; Family values; Holidays; Israel; Jewish communities; Jewish holidays; Jewish identity; Jewish life; Jewish marriage; Jewish practices; Jewish tradition; John Adland

Subjects: Families.; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.

01:48:30 - Temple relations with the Synagogue and the Federation of the Bluegrass

Play segment

Partial Transcript: And then d--have you had any kind of relationship with the Synagogue?

Segment Synopsis: In recent years, Temple Adath Israel and Ohavay Zion Synagogue have begun to develop a more friendly relationship. Baker attributes this to rabbinic leadership at both institutions and the more tolerant attitude of newcomers in the Lexington Jewish community. In a community as small as Lexington, Baker welcomes the budding relationship between the two congregations. He also discusses his relationship with the Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass, which was originally only a fundraising organization but has since expanded the number of services it offers. Baker explains that the competition between Temple Adath Israel and the Federation for community leaders and the schism within the Temple's congregation over a rabbi in 1986 shrunk the Temple's pool of young leaders.

Keywords: Bill Leffler; Board of directors; Community involvement; Generational change; Jewish Federation of the Bluegrass; Jewish communities; Jewish networks; Jewish organizations; Jewish population; Morris Baker; Ohavay Zion Synagogue (Lexington); Small town life; Temple Adath Israel (Lexington, synagogue)

Subjects: Jewish leadership--Kentucky--Lexington; Lexington (Ky.); Religion