(page 4 of 5)
Some of this history was chronicled in the Musee de Kaplan, in the center of the town, which I visited on my trip to Vermilion Parish. There were exhibits on Catholicism; Attakapas Indians and Acadian settlers; farming and Mardi Gras, among other topics. A few scrapbooks contained newspaper clippings on Kaplan.
I asked the smartly dressed woman at the front desk how the town of Kaplan was faring these days. Shirley Schexnayder has lived here for 65 years, and she thinks the town has improved: She remembered when the streets were unpaved. But, she said, only one of her three children still lives here. There was no money in farming anymore, so many young people moved away. I wondered whether immigrants — maybe some of them ambitious strivers like Kaplan — had come to fill the void. There were some once, she said; the farmers brought them in. She didn’t know if they had stayed.
She was not aware of any Jews here, either. Maybe a long time ago, she said. She did not seem surprised that I asked (no one I met in Louisiana seemed easily surprised by anything), but I could tell it was an unusual question all the same.
I asked if Kaplan residents knew, or cared, about the town’s origins. If anyone does, it’s the younger generation, Schexnayder told me. But they’re too tired from commuting to make this town boom again.
There, in this typically declining American town, I suddenly understood why, as Broussard noted in his thesis: “Nothing has ever been written on Abrom Kaplan.” Neither of the two groups likely to appreciate his story, Louisianans and Jews, had reason to look into it. The locals took pride in their Cajun celebrations, like their famous Bastille Day festival, but not in their town’s origins. Jews seeking examples of successful immigrants could turn to the histories of major Jewish population centers. Learning about Abrom Kaplan required a trip to the archives. But even that opportunity was not available until the 1990s, when Kaplan’s papers were finally cataloged. It was that simple: He was obscure because no one knew about him, and no one knew about him because time had rendered him obscure.
I understood, too, that it would be easier to get a sense of Kaplan’s life beyond his namesake town. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the distinct municipalities of this region seem to have functioned, socially, like one vast community. When Kaplan died, for example, services were held at the Crowley Masonic Lodge, regularly used as a synagogue by the town’s Jews. He was buried 25 miles away, in Lafayette.
I went to Lafayette’s Jewish cemetery, where the gate was closed with a nail, allowing visitors to let themselves in and then shut themselves up among the graves and gloomy trees and sodden grass. I wandered around till I saw a large headstone that read simply, in capital letters, Kaplan. If this was his grave, it was fitting: prominent yet not showy; accommodating assimilation in the form of flower pots, yet standing in a Jewish burial ground.