Interview with John Yarmuth, May 10, 2017

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

 

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00:00:02 - Introduction and family background

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Partial Transcript: This is Carol Ely. I'm the Louisville liaison for the Jewish Heritage Fund for Excellence Jewish Kentucky Oral History project.

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth describes how his grandfather brought his family to America from Russia in the early 1900s. They settled first in New York, then later moved to New Jersey. Then in 1943, Yarmuth's father came to Fort Knox with the military and settled in Louisville, Kentucky. He briefly discusses his father's and uncle's entrepreneurial inclinations. He notes his Jewish background as more orthodox on his father's side and reform on his mother's.

Keywords: 1910s; Bronx (N.Y.); Family; Fort Knox (Ky.); Kosher; Latvia; Long Island (N.Y.); New Jersey; New York; Russia; Sons of the American Revolution

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

GPS: Latvia
Map Coordinates: 56.879, 24.603
00:07:29 - Jewish experiences as a child in 1950s Louisville, Kentucky

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Partial Transcript: And, uh, so what, what kind of religious household, or not, did your, did your parents create?

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth describes growing up more culturally than religiously Jewish and living in a primarily Jewish neighborhood, in the Outer Highlands. He became bar mitzvahed more for his grandfather's sake than his own, and his family also celebrated both Hanukkah and Christmas, as a commercial holiday. He participated in sports and social clubs at the Jewish Community Center throughout his adolescence and consequently made many Jewish friends he met outside of Sunday school.

Keywords: Adath Jeshrun; Atherton High School; Bar Mitzvah; Christmas; Haftorah; Jewish Community Center of Louisville; Lakeside Swimming Club; Pi Tau Pi; Seder; Seneca Golf Course; Shabbat

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

GPS: Jewish Community Center of Louisville
Map Coordinates: 38.225, -85.650
00:18:24 - Father's ventures in the car business from the 1950s to the 1970s

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Partial Transcript: And uh, your grandfather and your uncles and father were all involved in, uh, I believe initially in the car business, and that transitioned into banking into a Fortune 500 company. Can you, can you tell that story?

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth describes how his grandfather on his mother's side, Sam Klein, started his successful businesses, such as the Royal Bank (later the Royal Bank of Louisville, eventually BB&T) and Humana. Yarmuth also talks about how his father started out working for Klein and eventually took over the car lot. His father expanded the business, opened an auto parts business and a finance company, eventually blooming into a conglomerate called National Industries that owned and centralized numerous varied smaller businesses.

Keywords: BB&T; Bank of Louisville; Fortune 500 Company; Humana; National Industries; Oak Ridge Atom; Royal Bank of Louisville; United Jewish Communities; Yellow Cab Company

Subjects: Entrepreneurship; Families.; Jewish businesspeople; Jewish families.; Louisville (Ky.)

GPS: Corner of Eighth and Broadway
Map Coordinates: 38.246, -85.764
Hyperlink: BB&T Website
00:25:59 - Jewish life and discrimination against Jews in Louisville during the 1950s-1960s

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Partial Transcript: So when you were growing up, were your parents active in the Jewish community?

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth talks about playing golf at the Standard Club, a Jewish golf course, and Seneca Golf Course, a public golf course in his youth; Jews weren't able to join any of the other country clubs in Louisville at the time. He also talks about how his parents were redlined from buying a house on River Hill Road, but ended up moving to Glenview, where they were welcomed by other families in the neighborhood.

Keywords: Audubon Country Club; Big Spring Country Club; Champion's Park; Glenview; Hunting Creek Country Club; Louisville Country Club; River Road Country Club; Seneca Golf Course; Standard Club

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Discrimination.; Jewish families.; Louisville (Ky.)

GPS: Champion's Park
Map Coordinates: 38.269, -85.711
00:30:39 - Race relations in Louisville during the 1950s-1960s

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Partial Transcript: So, uh, when you were growing up, were you really aware of racial segregation in Louisville and the civil rights movement was starting to happen?

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth recounts significant racial segregation in his elementary, junior high, and high school years during the budding civil rights movement. He remembers only having one black student in his grade at a time. While segregation was the norm, his family was progressive. His father, although not very racially sensitive, frequently did business with the African American community, and his mother was a member of the Human Relations Commission in the area, an organization that worked against discrimination.

Keywords: African-Americans; Atherton High School; Belknap Elementary School; Civil rights; Highland Middle School; Human Relations Commission; National Jewish Council of Women

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; Civil rights movements--United States; Discrimination.; Jewish families.; Louisville (Ky.); Race discrimination.; Race relations--Kentucky; Racism; Segregation in education--Kentucky

GPS: Highland Middle School
Map Coordinates: 38.223, -85.706
00:34:32 - Experiences at Atherton High School in Louisville

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Partial Transcript: Um, okay, let's, let's get to high school now.

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth talks briefly about Kentucky Country Day, a private school in Louisville, the perception that students there were “problem children,” and why he never considered private schooling for himself. In high school at Atherton, Yarmuth talks about being involved with student government along with a large number of Jewish students, including his brother, Robert, at one point. Yarmuth even recalls that he was elected vice president and then became student body president.

Keywords: Atherton High School; Behavior problems; Jews; Kentucky Country Day; Parochial schools; Private schools; Public schools

Subjects: Education--Kentucky; Jewish children; Jewish families.; Louisville (Ky.)

GPS: Atherton High School
Map Coordinates: 38.214, -85.688
00:37:05 - Life at Yale University, 1965-1969

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Partial Transcript: So, uh, then you left Louisville for a little while; you went to college at, uh, Yale. Why Yale?

Segment Synopsis: Before considering going to college in Wisconsin, Yarmuth attended Yale with help from a recommendation from a family friend who used to be the assistant dean, J. Howard Marshall. Yarmuth notes no significant Jewish life on campus besides the Hillel Society, but he still had many Jewish friends. He joined Beta Theta Pi, a fraternity with more Jewish life than most, and eventually majored in American Studies.

Keywords: American studies; Atherton High School; Beta Theta Pi; Eastern Time Zone; Fraternities; Hillel; J. Howard Marshall; Jewish student life; Lake Mendota; Madison (Wis.); New England; New Haven (Conn.); Pi Tau Pi; Robert Cook; University of Wisconsin; Yale University

Subjects: College students--Religious life; Education, Higher; Higher education; Jews--Identity.

GPS: New Haven (Conn.)
Map Coordinates: 41.308, -72.927
00:45:50 - Anti-war protests at Yale during 1969

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Partial Transcript: So you were there during the height of the Vietnam War protests and campus activism, were you involved at all in those movements?

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth talks about how he and his friends were Republicans when they were in college, specifically during the Vietnam War. They did not support the protests, but didn't support the war either. Yarmuth mentions a shift in his political views that took place during his senior year; there was a debate on campus in 1966 between William Sloane Coffey and William F. Buckley, Jr. The result surprised Yarmuth, Coffey beat Buckley, and made him consider a new perspective; that perhaps the states' rights view on government intervention in civil rights may be flawed.

Keywords: 1969; Bill Scranton; Campus activism; George W. Bush; Protests; William F. Buckley Jr.; William Sloane Coffey; Yale University

Subjects: African Americans--Segregation; African Americans--Social conditions.; Civil rights movements--United States; Politics and government; Race discrimination.; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Protest movements; Vietnam War, 1961-1975--Public opinion

GPS: Yale University
Map Coordinates: 41.316, -72.922
00:50:44 - Start of his political career

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Partial Transcript: In, uh, late 1971--la, late 1970, I got a call from a guy named Mitch McConnell.

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth recalls Mitch McConnell, upon his return to Kentucky, inviting him to go to Washington, D.C. to be Marlow Cook's legislative assistant, to which he agreed. After Cook lost his re-election, Yarmuth stayed in Louisville to create a publication, Louisville Today. While still running the paper, Yarmuth then ran and lost the race for district commissioner.

Keywords: Central High School; John Heyburn; Louisville Board of Aldermen; Louisville Today; Marlow Cook; Mitch McConnell; Republicans; Rockefeller Republicans; Roe v. Wade; Vietnam; Washington, D.C.; Watergate

Subjects: Kentucky--Politics and government; Louisville (Ky.); McConnell, Mitch; Politicians--Kentucky; Washington (D.C.)

GPS: Washington, D.C.
Map Coordinates: 38.907, -77.036
00:55:57 - Religious influences and change in partisanship in the 1980s

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Partial Transcript: It was--that was basically--that's the year that Ronald Reagan became president.

Segment Synopsis: While still working on the paper, Louisville Today, Yarmuth says that he changed his political affiliation from Republican to Democrat. He mentions the specific reasons for the switch, specifically President Reagan, Evangelical influence on policy, and Jerry Falwell's disparaging of Desmond Tutu. He recalls that his family didn't oppose his change of party.

Keywords: 1980; Abortion; Catholics; Desmond Tutu; Evangelicals; Jerry Falwell; Law schools; Marlow Cook; Political parties; Ronald Reagan; South Africa; University of Louisville

Subjects: Kentucky--Politics and government; Louisville (Ky.); Newspapers--Kentucky.; Politicians--Kentucky

GPS: South Africa
Map Coordinates: 30.559, 22.937
00:59:56 - Family life

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Partial Transcript: And at point in all of this did you meet your wife Cathy?

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth met his wife, Cathy, when he escorted her to the Hardscuffle Steeplechase, a charity event he attended in 1981 while running for county commissioner. She was Catholic, and when they married, they never discussed raising their children in a certain religion. They celebrated Hanukkah and Christmas a few times, and Yarmuth is currently a member of Temple Adath Jeshurun in Louisville. Yarmuth also talks about the difficulties of travelling back and forth from Washington to both spend time with his family and work as a congressman.

Keywords: 1983; Aaron Yarmuth; Adath Jeshurun; Air Force; Birth of son; Catholicism; Cathy Yarmuth; Children; Christmas; Hanukkah; Hardscuffle Steeplechase; Religious exposure; Republicans; Work schedules

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

01:05:10 - Louisville Eccentric Observer

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Partial Transcript: So--alright, back, back to your work life, you founded another publication, the, uh, Louisville Eccentric Observer, known as the LEO, how did that come about?

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth started the Louisville Eccentric Observer (LEO) when he noticed the success of alternative weeklies. He bought the Manly Messenger from its owner, Reiner Goldring, and created the City Paper. He eventually abandoned that and continued Louisville Today, which fell through a few years later due to a mistake in judgement, focusing on publishing the Louisville Today and not the City Paper tabloid they'd been publishing simultaneously. Yarmuth talks about the turning point being when the Courier was sold, and there was no alternative weekly or any local editorials. So he started the LEO on his own. And while he wrote progressive articles for LEO, he also had conservative writers on board.

Keywords: Alternative weeklies; Boston Phoenix; City Paper; Gun laws; LGBT rights; Louisville Today; Manly Messenger; New York Magazine; Rolling Stone; Village Voice

Subjects: Louisville (Ky.); Newspapers--Kentucky.; Publications.; Publishers and publishing.

GPS: Louisville (Ky.)
Map Coordinates: 38.252, -85.758
01:12:17 - Re-entering politics in 2005

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Partial Transcript: So you decided to re-enter politics.

Segment Synopsis: When Jack Conway decided he wasn't running against Anne Northup for Kentucky's 3rd district congressional seat in 2006, Yarmuth knew he needed to run. He ended up running against another Democratic candidate in a primary and won. The race between him and Northup was tight, but he won by picking up most of the undecided vote.

Keywords: 2005; 2006; Anne Northup; Black churches; Campaigning; Courier Journal; Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; Jack Conway; Jefferson County (Ky.); Jerry Abramson; Kentucky's 3rd Congressional District; Marc Murphy; Political polls; Suicide

Subjects: Kentucky--Politics and government; Louisville (Ky.); Politicians--Kentucky

GPS: Kentucky's Third Congressional District
Map Coordinates: 38.252, -85.758
01:21:26 - Work in Congress 2006-present

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Partial Transcript: So, uh, while you've been in Congress, you've, uh, been particularly involved with certain issues, one of them is healthcare--Medicare, Medicaid, women's health. How did your interest in that evolve?

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth always intended to tackle campaign finance reform, universal healthcare, and gun law reform once in Congress. While healthcare is a long and arduous process, he does say that campaign finance reform is being solved, in part, by the role of social media in elections as a leveler. Yarmuth also mentions fighting against "religious freedom" extending to discrimination based on religious freedom, specifically concerning gay rights.

Keywords: Affordable Care Act (ACA); Citizens United; Congress; Freedom of religion; Gun laws; Medicaid; Medicare; Millennials; Political ads; Social media; Supreme Court; Universal healthcare; Women's health

Subjects: Discrimination.; Kentucky--Politics and government; Louisville (Ky.); Politicians--Kentucky

GPS: Yarmuth's Louisville Office
Map Coordinates: 38.248, -85.762
01:26:11 - Jewish caucus and stance on Israel

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Partial Transcript: Are you part of a Jewish caucus in Congress?

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth is a member of the Jewish caucus in Congress, and they usually talk about issues in Israel and Palestine. While their opinions are divided, they're determined to “stay together” because the caucus is shrinking. Yarmuth personally talks about his dislike of Netanyahu, how he feels Netanyanhu has been costing Israel support in recent years. Yarmuth also talks about his own ambivalence about the administration in Israel.

Keywords: American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); American Jews; Benjamin Netanyahu; Congress; Iran; Israel; J Street; Jerusalem; Jerusalem, Israel; Jewish Caucus; Jewish Community Center of Louisville; United Nations; United States of America

Subjects: Jewish leadership; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Kentucky--Politics and government; Louisville (Ky.); Politicians--Kentucky; Religion

GPS: Jerusalem (Israel)
Map Coordinates: 31.768, 35.213
01:29:56 - Issues with Israel and Zionism in the United States, 2010s

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Partial Transcript: Do you hear a lot from your constituents about Israel issues? Is it something that Louisville Jews talk to you about?

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth discusses how his constituents feel and communicate with him about issues related to Israel. He talks about holding a town hall with the Louisville Jewish community through the Jewish Community Center in 2015 to discuss the Iran nuclear deal and answer questions. He talks about how the meeting was productive, and how he gave them a fresh perspective on the deal because the people in attendance had only heard Netanyahu's side of the deal. Yarmuth also recalls explaining to then-President Obama how to better present the Iran nuclear deal to the public.

Keywords: American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC); Barack Obama; Benjamin Netanyahu; Iran; Iran Nuclear Deal; Israel; J Street; Jerusalem, Israel; Jewish Community Center; Louisville Jews; Obama administration; Steve Cohen; Zionism

Subjects: Jewish leadership; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Kentucky--Politics and government; Louisville (Ky.); Politicians--Kentucky; Religion

GPS: Jerusalem (Israel)
Map Coordinates: 31.768, 35.213
01:36:39 - Anti-Semitism in modern-day America and problems facing the Jewish community

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Partial Transcript: So, um, in America, we've recently had a kind of resurgence in anti-Semitic speech, anti-Semitic acts, um, from the high levels to the public streets.

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth discusses the current political climate, addressing aggressive attitudes towards immigrants, Jews, and other minorities. He proposes that finding a sense of commonality will help most in solving those problems. Yarmuth also discusses issues in the Jewish community, specifically assimilation; Jews are marrying outside their religion and letting go of their Jewish heritage. He attributes the loss of Jewish heritage to the declining popularity of Jewish spaces like the Standard Club and the migration of Kentucky Jews to bigger cities.

Keywords: Assimilation; Community; Disenfranchisement; Donald Trump; Immigrants; Jews; Kentucky; Standard Club; Urbanization

Subjects: Anti-Semitism; Antisemitism; Discrimination.; Jewish leadership; Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Kentucky--Politics and government; Louisville (Ky.); Politicians--Kentucky; Religion

GPS: Standard Club
Map Coordinates: 38.293, -85.597
01:40:55 - Conclusion

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Partial Transcript: So is there anything I've missed asking that you'd like to talk about?

Segment Synopsis: Yarmuth speaks briefly on the "gravitational pull" between Jewish people, and the lasting bond he's had with the various Jewish people he's met through the years.

Keywords: Jewish friendships; Steve Cohen; Washington, D.C.; Yale University

Subjects: Jews--Identity.; Judaism.; Louisville (Ky.); Washington (D.C.)

GPS: Washington, D.C.
Map Coordinates: 38.907, -77.036