Blintzes and Grits. Bagels and Bluegrass. "Shalom, Y'all." The jokes come from the obvious contrasts between what we think of as Jewish culture and what we think of as Southern. But the reality is a much more complex blending of cultures and identities, creating a unique kind of Jew — the Kentucky Jew.
Jews were present for the very creation of Kentucky. The Virginia mercantile firm of Cohen and Isaacs hired Daniel Boone to scout out their Kentucky lands; and another merchant family, the Gratz family of Philadelphia, set up trading posts on the Ohio (including the river landing at Gratz, Kentucky) and joined the founders of Lexington.
These early Jews were Sephardic Jews, with roots in the dispersion of Jews from Spain to the rest of Europe and the New World. They followed Sephardic traditions of worship and law and were part of an educated and entrepreneurial transatlantic elite.
By the 1840s Jewish traders and peddlers appeared in greater numbers in Kentucky settlements, emigrating from political unrest, poverty, and restrictive laws in Germany. In most of Europe, Jews were not permitted to own land, so most Jewish immigrants did not expect to become farmers. Instead, small-scale retailing, either through door-to-door, town-to-town peddling, or in a small storefront, was the best opportunity open to them. When enough Jews gathered in one place, it was natural to think of formalizing their community as a congregation.
Among Jewish communities in the 19th-early 20th centuries were Louisville, Owensboro, Lexington, Paducah, Covington, Ashland, Henderson, Hopkinsville and Newport, and mentions the influx of German, Polish and Russian immigrants. Today, Ely states, the organized community includes Louisville, Lexington, Owensboro and Paducah.