Indiana’s rich culture, history are surprising

(June 30, 2014)

Many slogans have been used to market Indiana — from “Crossroads of America” to “Honest to Goodness. I’d like to suggest another: “Be Surprised!” That is what you will be, if you pay attention to our history and our present. Summer vacations invite us to learn and explore the treasures of our state.

Our state environment once was ripe for mammoths, bison and bears. Over time the soil supported hardwood forests, limestone quarries, factories and farms.

Indianapolis formerly was swamp and marshland. Malarial fever claimed many lives. But the swamp gave way to a city. Now when you “Catch the Fever,” you are referring to a championship WNBA team. Be surprised!

Some of what found a home in Indiana, we recall with regret. The Ku Klux Klan dominated state and city government in the 1920s. The John Birch Society was established here in 1958. The old Riverside Amusement Park restricted the attendance of blacks for 50 years. Now near the location of that park is the Major Taylor Velodrome, named after a world champion bicyclist who was African-American.

There is much we remember with Hoosier pride. We were home to an Underground Railroad and strong religious opposition to slavery. From 1900 to 1920 Indiana ranked second among the states in the production of bestselling books. Culture flourished, producing nationally known musical composers and the Hoosier Group of landscape painters. The Circle Theatre once was a silent movie house. Some of the musicians who accompanied the movies helped to found our world class Indianapolis Symphony. The Indiana State Museum showcases the artifacts of these events, indelible marks left in time, a living history with a continuing presence. Be surprised!

When my husband, Dennis, and I came to Indiana we could not have imagined the creative Jewish life that flourished here. Neither could we have imagined that this would be the only state to boast an annual citywide arts, religion and humanities festival, Spirit and Place. Be surprised!

We are nearing our state’s bicentennial. We have reason to take pride in the Indiana State Museum, Indiana History Center, Indianapolis Museum of Art, the Eiteljorg, Conner Prairie, the Kurt Vonnegut Library, the world’s largest Children’s Museum and more. Theater, music, art galleries, university campuses, walking trails and parks are part of the sounds and sights of the state.

Indiana has traveled from mammoths to monuments, from Ku Klux Klan to Cultural Trail, from insularity to growing inclusivity. Some events and people come easily to mind, but there are stories that remain hidden and problems that still beg for solutions — educational, economic and environmental. We need acts of willed remembrance to ensure that those stories are told and issues addressed. Travel around our state, and see Indiana as it was, as it is and as it can be.

It is human imagination that gives meaning to time. Seasons come and go, but we are the ones who divide months into weeks, the year into sacred moments and years into historical ages and epochs. The physicist and writer Alan Lightman reminds us, “We come and go quickly; we want something to last.” As we approach our 200th anniversary, the question is: What of ourselves do we want to last, what do we want Hoosier to mean? What surprises are yet to come?

Our son was 1 year old when we came here in 1977. Our daughter was born at Methodist Hospital and gave birth to her children at IU’s hospital. We are now proud to call ourselves Hoosiers. This is surprising Indiana, the place of our memories, our future and our hope.


Sasso is rabbi emerita of Congregation Beth-El Zedeck and director of the Religion, Spirituality and the Arts Initiative at Butler University.