Driving west on I-10 out of New Orleans, you plunge almost immediately into a world made more of water than of land. First you cross the Bonnet Carre Spillway, which channels overflowing river water into Lake Pontchartrain. Later, in Baton Rouge, you rattle 175 feet above the Mississippi on a rickety cantilever bridge. And then, deep in the region called Acadiana, you cross one of two parallel highway bridges that rise above the eerie Atchafalaya Swamp. Sloping and bending, they stretch for 18.2 miles, past bayous and basins and a body of water called Whiskey Bay. “All the world is a narrow bridge,” I thought, “and the most important thing is not to fear at all.”
Perhaps the words of Ukrainian-born Hasidic leader Nachman of Breslov do not belong in a Louisiana swamp. But that could also be said of my destination: a small town that is known as “the gateway to the coastal wetlands” and as “the most Cajun place on earth”: Kaplan, La.
The existence of a town with my last name, or any Jewish name, 40 minutes southwest of Lafayette had intrigued me since I first read about it in William Least Heat-Moon’s autobiographical travelogue, “Blue Highways.” Vermilion Parish, where Kaplan is located, is not a place where one expects to find Jews; the area is known for its decidedly nonkosher food and its emphatically Cajun culture. The logo of the parish’s tourist commission is a crawfish sitting in a pot and playing an accordion, under the words “Ca Fait Chaud!” (“It’s hot!”) But there Kaplan is: a town of fewer than 5,000 people, with modest brick homes on a neat grid, vacant storefronts, a Piggly Wiggly and a Family Dollar.
Kaplan’s founder, Abrom Kaplan, was a poor immigrant turned rice mogul. Born in Most, Poland, in 1872, he arrived in New York when he was 15. Nearly penniless, he was abandoned at the dock by the acquaintance he thought would take him in. He wandered until he happened upon a rabbi and distiller who worked for his father back in Most. With this man’s help, Kaplan acquired a stock of trinkets and household items. He peddled them on the east end of the Brooklyn Bridge, then he traveled north and sold his wares along the back roads of Connecticut. He soon heard about a “new Southwestern country,” according to an article about him in a Vermilion Parish newspaper. By 18 he had relocated to Crowley, La.
Kaplan quickly became a financial success and a leading citizen, involved in practically every aspect of local commerce, with hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland to his name. He helped countless immigrants settle in America, and backed an array of local civic and religious institutions. He was an agricultural pioneer and a pillar of several communities, including the town that would eventually bear his name.
Jews have lived in Louisiana since the early 18th century, but most of them settled in New Orleans. A handful of Jewish merchants, bankers and developers had already reached the rural southwestern part of the state when Kaplan arrived in Crowley in the 1890s. Of all of them, however, Kaplan was the one who thrived; he had the widest interests and influences. He was the only one to have a town named after him.