Friday, May 25, 2012

Kaplan, Louisiana.

The other day, a correspondent sent me a letter noting that the famous Indian actor, Iron Eyes Cody, whom you might remember from his litter and pollution advertisement in which he sheds a tear for the defiling of our beautiful country, was actually Italian, or, more precisely, Sicilian.  He titled the letter עלמא דשיקרא, World of Lies, and linked to the relevant article on Wikipedia.  Iron Eyes played the role so thoroughly, I think he ended up believing it himself.

I wrote back "At least he wasn't Jewish."

My correspondent replied "He was born in the city of Kaplan; that's close enough"

This remark reminded me of something I had recently seen, and I checked the ISP list of people who had recently accessed this blog, and I found that, amazingly enough, just yesterday someone had used a link at Shirat Devora to come to Havolim, and his ISP was The Kaplan Telephone Company, from Abbeville Louisiana, which is indeed where the town of Kaplan is located.  This was an awesome coincidence, and too remarkable to let it pass.  You can't be here for almost sixty years and never hear of a place, and then twice in one day have it emphatically placed right in front of you.  This is not a 'hint.'  This is more like being grabbed by the lapels and shaken.  I'm sure that something is going on on a spiritual level, but I can't know what that is until it unfolds.  But for right now, I wanted to know how on Earth a town in the bottom of Louisiana got the name Kaplan, so we went to work.  This is what I found:  Kaplan was founded by a man named Abrom Kaplan in 1902, as described in this Wiki article.

More interesting, and with a picture, is this history of the town and the family.  Here's the link, but I wanted to put the whole thing here.  For one thing, Abrom looks eerily similar to my uncle, my father's brother.  And another, it makes you think about the strange and winding road we have walked since the beginning of the Galus- and even before that, as Avraham Avinu wandered from his home to K'na'an.  I direct your attention in particular to the fourth paragraph of the article.

What follows is copyrighted by the Goldring-Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, reprinted with permission.

HISTORY DEPARTMENTEncyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities
Kaplan, Louisiana
Kaplan signConsidering its location among some of Louisiana’s oldest municipalities, Kaplan boasts a relatively short history. Situated twenty miles southwest of Lafayette and ten miles west of Abbeville, this small town lies at the epicenter of a lucrative rice industry that has transformed the region from swampland into an agricultural hub. Abrom Kaplan, a local Jew and agriculture tycoon, founded the town in 1902 after purchasing the land from a plantation that had recently closed. To attract an active workforce to the area for his rice mills, he gave away parcels of this fertile land to families. The Jews who made their homes in Kaplan, including the Jack Kaplan and Tartak families, became active members of Congregation Gates of Prayer in nearby New Iberia. Yet despite Abrom Kaplan’s important role in the regional Jewish community, most residents of the town over the past century have not been Jewish but rather French-speaking descendents of Acadians.Abe Kaplan

In the twenty years before the town’s incorporation, Abrom Kaplan had become a pioneer in Southwest Louisiana’s rice industry. He emigrated from Poland in 1885 after having spent his adolescence working in cigar and furniture businesses. After settling in Crowley, Kaplan opened a small store and speculated in real estate. He developed land, established local banks and credit unions, financed the excavation of irrigation canals, and, most importantly, opened rice mills across the region. By the turn of the century, Kaplan had established himself as the foremost industrialist in the region, owning and operating rice mills in Crowley, Abbeville, Gueydan, and several other towns westward of the Mississippi River.

Kaplan Rice MillsAs Abrom Kaplan built his fortune, he began to bring his relatives to Southwest Louisiana. In 1915, Abrom paid for his nephew, Jack Kaplan, to immigrate to the United States from Poland. Jack worked under the tutelage of his uncle Abrom for two decades and by 1935, Jack and his brother-in-law Abe Tartak bought Liberty Rice Mill, one of Abrom’s many mills in the region. At the time of Abrom’s death in 1944, the Kaplan family owned the largest rice irrigation system in the world.

Despite the lack of Jews, Abrom Kaplan strived to create an active religious climate in this town. Only a handful of Jews ever lived in Kaplan and thus the town had neither a synagogue nor a Jewish cemetery. He, however, helped fund the creation of several churches in the town, including the Kaplan Baptist Church. His grandson and son-in-law helped fund the town’s Holy Rosary Catholic Church in later years.  Kaplan’s small Jewish population was well integrated in the larger community.Connie Kaplan A Kaplan descendant, Connie Kaplan, served as the editor of the local newspaper for several decades in the late 20th century.

Today, Kaplan, Louisiana is known affectionately as the “gateway to the coastal wetlands” and occasionally as “the most Cajun place on earth.” Few if any Jews still live in the small town of 4,500 residents, many of whom still work for the rice industry. The town instead celebrates the French-Cajun heritage of its populace. Each July since 1906, Kaplan has hosted the largest public celebration in Louisiana of Bastille Day, the French national holiday celebrating the famed uprising on the eve of the 1789 French Revolution. Events at the festival include greased pig chases, political speeches, Cajun fais-do-do dances, and a re-enactment of the storming of the Bastille. The presence of Kaplan family has abated significantly; however, Abrom’s grandson Ben Kaplan continues to operate Liberty Rice Mill, which produces three million barrels of rice annually for export worldwide. Moreover, the legacy of Abrom Kaplan lives on. Several years ago, Jack Kaplan donated the land to build the Abrom Kaplan Memorial Hospital of Kaplan, one of the most modern medical facilities in Southwest Louisiana.


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