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Faint rays of personality shine through Kaplan’s workaday prose. I could imagine him as he appeared in one of the few photographs I encountered, wearing a high starched collar and a funny little striped bow tie, addressing a business associate in his peculiar manner, such as in one diary entry: “Frank, there is as much probability of their releasing the mortgage as my jumping through the window.”
As I read, I searched for any reference to his Jewishness, wanting to get a sense of how Kaplan viewed his religious or cultural heritage. He saved an announcement for a talk by Rabbi Jacob Rader Marcus at Temple Sinai in New Orleans on the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492. He clipped a few news articles about Hitler’s rise to power. He noted in a diary entry on Thursday, March 8, 1915, that he’d been to a New York “farming settlement. Settled altogether by Jews between 50 and 60 families and about 10 or 15 Italian families.” At the school, which is “maintained by the Jew settlement,” “Strange as it seems, I distinguished everyone [sic] of the Italian children from the Jews.”
Kaplan appeared to have maintained lifelong ties to Jewish people and institutions. He was an officer of the Jewish Cemetery Association of Lafayette. His first wife belonged to the Crowley Chapter of the Order of the Eastern Star and to the Jewish Sisterhood at Congregation Gates of Prayer, in New Iberia. (I later found that humble brick synagogue just off the town’s carefully restored historic Main Street.)
But there was no hint of what Kaplan thought or felt about being Jewish.
And in all the fragile letters, the leather booklets full of promissory notes and insurance information, and the telegrams, telegraphs and hotel bills, I got no sense of what Kaplan felt about the trajectory of his own life. He had traveled so far, to what must have struck him at first as an alien landscape. As a foreigner, a religious and ethnic minority speaking a language learned in his late teens, he had built a life — an empire — on understanding complex technologies and social situations for which his upbringing provided no preparation. I found these achievements remarkable. If Kaplan did, too, he did not show it.
Today, the most visible proof of Kaplan’s reach is the town he built. On June 9, 1902, the New Orleans Daily Picayune announced, “Another Town Added to SW LA.” In 1903, Kaplan officially became a village. It was exactly 100 years after the 1803 Louisiana Purchase and the dissolution of Code Noir, the French rule that prohibited Jews from living in French-owned territory and regulated the lives of slaves and non-Catholics.
At enormous personal expense, Kaplan persuaded railroad officials to extend the tracks from Gueydan to Kaplan and Abbeville, facilitating the area’s development. From a tent city, Kaplan grew to a shipping hub and acquired a post office, a Catholic church (built on land that Kaplan donated), a school, a telegraph company, a newspaper and a mayor.