September 15, 2005
Getting Out Before Katrina Still Painful
It's hard for Gideon Daneshrad to imagine himself on the receiving end of tzedakah (charitable giving). In the 30 years since he arrived from Iran to study computer science at North Louisiana University in Monroe, Daneshrad, 56, has built himself a full life -- with four children, a lakefront home and New Orleans' only kosher restaurant.
"Just close your eyes and imagine that you wake up in the morning and you are stripped of your identity," Daneshrad says. "You are nobody. You are nothing. You have no money coming in. You don't have clothes. You don't have food. And all the people you knew are scattered around the world."
Daneshrad and his family have been in Los Angeles for more than a week, and he still finds himself imagining this is all a nightmare.
"Every night I go to bed and think I'll wake up and everything will be fine," he says. "It just hurts so much."
The Daneshrads left New Orleans early Sunday morning on Aug. 28, just before Hurricane Katrina came whipping through. They threw a few things in an overnight bag, expecting to be home in a day or two. Daneshrad didn't take more cash than he happened to have on hand, put his three cockatoos up on a table to keep them dry, filled up his tank and loaded his family in the car.
Their lakefront house -- recently remodeled with mahogany floors throughout and six blocks from the Lake Pontchartrain levee break -- disappeared under 18 feet of water. Their restaurant, Creole Kosher Kitchen -- the only kosher establishment in the French Quarter -- is most likely a murky mess of rotting meat and shorted appliances.
The shul where Gideon was gabbai, Beth Israel, is under water, along with eight Torah scrolls. Their small, close-knit Orthodox community is dispersed.
It may be months before the family will be allowed to go back to survey the damage and collect anything salvageable -- jewelry, photos that may have survived on the second floor, maybe the teddy bear their daughter keeps asking for.
"I am the dad," Daneshrad says. "All of a sudden, the person who makes everything OK is powerless. I can't do anything."
He sleeps on the floor of his sister's three-bedroom home in Reseda, when he can sleep at all. His wife, Rut, doesn't talk much about what happened during an interview; she just sits quietly wiping away tears.
Their girls, ages 5 and 8, wake up with nightmares. They want to go home, and they don't understand why their mother didn't pack their stuff.
The Daneshrads opened the Creole Kosher Kitchen on Chartres Street near the convention center in November 2000. This year was the first the restaurant, which Zagat rated as "excellent," turned a profit.
The restaurant was "a place for Jews who are suffering in New Orleans with all the nonkosher pork and shrimp and crawfish and lobster and crab -- so they could get a little Creole taste," Daneshrad says.
Daneshrad was obviously not among the thousand of subsistence poor in New Orleans; he had operated successful gift shops in the French Quarter before starting his restaurant. He knew he had money in the bank when he left town. But he also had business loans with the same bank -- for a restaurant that no longer exists. And he had no flood insurance.
What he has left financially, if anything, will be worked out over the next months. And he hasn't a clue what happened to the cockatoos.
When the family arrived in Los Angeles, Daneshrad's youngest sister, who has three children and runs a day care out of her home, took in Daneshrad, his wife and his two daughters. The Daneshrads' oldest son is at Brooklyn College, and their 15-year-old boy had already been attending the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Dallas.
The girls go to classes at Emek Hebrew Academy/Teichman Family Torah Center in Sherman Oaks. Aside from covering tuition, the parent body, lay leadership and administration of the school has provided uniforms and shoes for the girls, cash and transportation, while coordinating with Jewish Family Service's Aleinu Center for help with long-term needs, such as jobs and a place to live.
"We may have lost all our belongings, but we didn't lose what belongs to us, which is Judaism," says a grateful Daneshrad.
His watch is still set on New Orleans time, but it would be hard to go back. He thinks that maybe the time is right to bring hand-rolled Andouille sausage, jambalaya and gumbo to Southern California, if he can find investors willing to stand behind a Creole Kosher Kitchen in Los Angeles.
His optimism is somehow still intact: "What keeps us going here, right now, is that God has given human beings the best gift of all -- the ability to forget pain and sorrow."