My great-grandma had the most beautiful first name: Leona. Gosh. That is a word that rolls up the tongue and then unfurls it like a red carpet. And with a flick at the very end with that snap of consonant – like kicking up a leg or flipping you the bird with a smile. Leona. Leona Wilder. Lush whiplash of name. What a cat. I’ll bet she listened to jazz.
I have no earthly idea whom she happened to be in the world. But I swirl her red-carpet-name around the insides of my cheeks and love it and I remember how she looked at her funeral: like an old woman.
But I also know that about a million dusty decades ago – it may have not even happened – her father Joseph decided that his family was no longer Jewish, could not be so, would not, was never, erase this idea, we are not of this people anymore. End. And turned all the blood in his world to gentiles.
So. Here I am: I am not Jewish. I’m an orphan of ethnic identity in this world. I’ve stolen my names and hair color and eyes from countries and peoples and thick-blooded histories and been reborn as a Frankenstein, patch-work lightning strike monster of random arms and legs. Cherokee with green eyes. Irish with gold-brown skin in too-much-sun. German with a dark lion’s mane of Spanish hair. I might be making this all up. I may have been lied to my whole life because all of them that made me just had the weird Louisville lilt of southern accents at the end of the day.
I used to dye my hair red. It looked just as Right-In-The-World as black. Who am I Joseph Wilder?
Here’s the deal:
University of Louisville  history scholar, Lee Shai Weissbach, will talk about the unique Jewish communities formed in small-town America as part of the Naamani Memorial Lecture Series. Join him tomorrow, Tuesday, April 9th, at 7pm for a look at the complexity and diversity of these culture pockets from the 19th and 20th century.
Based on his published work, Jewish Life in Small-Town America, Weissbach will elaborate on the Jewish populations that operated in intimate groups of 100 to 1,000 individuals throughout the United States. Different from their larger counterparts in cities like New York, Jews in townships and villages patched together their own unique culture, concocting distinctive patterns of marriage, occupation and tradition that blended more established Jewish history with the customs of the local society.
Weissbach, who has been a Fulbright fellow at the University of Haifa in Israel, will present choice slides about the identities of these neighborhoods from some of the 490 communities documented in Jewish Life in Small-Town America at Chao Auditorium in Ekstrom Library. A question-and-answer, as well as dessert, will follow the free talk.
“Erin Day” is what they call me. “Leona Wilder” is what they called someone else once. She was a non-Jewish Jew in the world. She was an old woman that died in Michigan. She was a lot of things I’ll never know under a banner of red-carpet-name there on the tongue. I’ve been thinking about changing my name. Again. Because Frankenstein is a good monster. Because identity is not a given.
The University of Louisville Ekstrom Library is located at 2301 South Third Street.
Image: Courtesy of Barnes and Noble website www.barnesandnoble.com