I just have to read what I wrote one week after Katrina, or during that first year when I was living in exile in Baltimore, to churn up the emotion and passion that is life in New Orleans these days. It is precisely this intensity that keeps me here.
I am a New Orleans Jew. The values of those identities fuel me like the smooth-yet-caffeinated drink that is the trademark of my hometown. I embrace the changing communal calendars and the rituals for their observances of joy and tragedy. These have taught me what it means to be human and how to extract eternity from the changing seasons.
Wars, like hurricanes, tend to expose flaws in societies. In Israel, the recent war with Hezbollah revealed lack of preparedness for this kind of war against an elusive enemy, mediocre
conduct of the operations, deficiencies in equipment, shortages of shelters for the civilians and more.
Before Shelly Collen lost almost everything, her life had just fallen into place. Then Hurricane Katrina struck.
Accepting life's ambiguity has gotten me through a lot over the years, particularly this year, as the extremes of experience challenge any vestiges of hope I have held for things to have predictable outcomes. Say what you will about Katrina and cancer, they can be excellent teachers.
Think of New Orleans music and you don't usually think of Hebrew or Yiddish song. But Hebrew, Yiddish and English tunes filled the ears of nearly 1,000 music lovers last weekend as a variety of acts -- ranging from New York pop singer Gershon Veroba to Moldovan crooner Efim Chorny -- converged on New Orleans for a two-day benefit concert.
You want to see a scary movie? Not creepy, jump-out-of-your-seat scary like "Saw" or "Final Destination" but melt-your-face, make-you-almost-cry scary? Then wait until Court TV screens, "On Native Soil."
The Palestinian Authority (P.A.) appears to be on the verge of a long-awaited security reform in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Frankie Muniz, star of the TV show, "Malcolm in the Middle," had little idea what he was making as he glued colored cotton balls and beads onto a metallic container with a slot on top.
The following is an excerpt from the speech President Bush gave on Sept. 14 at the national dinner celebrating 350 years of Jewish life in America at the National Building Museum in Washington, D.C.
I have been reading for quite some time now the articles published in various papers (such as the Russian weekly, Panorama) by Richard Chesnoff about France and Europe.
A Reason to Obey
This Shabbat we read the portion of Ki Tavo. In it, Moses tells the Israelites that if they obey all the commandments, they will be blessed with good food, good weather and a good life. But if they disobey the commandments, they will be cursed with misfortune.
As Hurricane Katrina barreled through the Gulf Coast, Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin got a frantic call from a woman in Long Beach who had lost touch with her brother, a Chabad rabbi in Metairie, a suburb of New Orleans.
It was less than a month before the annual Chabad Telethon -- that quirky TV fundraiser studded with dancing rabbis and Jewish celebrities -- and Cunin, the director of West Coast Chabad, was busy scrambling to put together the program for the 25th anniversary show. For the last quarter-century, the telethon has raised millions of dollars each year to support the 200 Chabad centers, its schools and programs on the West Coast.
But when Rishi Greenwald called Cunin that Monday, he decided he had no choice but to drop everything and try to locate Rabbi Yossi Nemes, one of the five Chabad emissaries in Louisiana.
Philanthropist and game show icon Monty Hall took center stage last week at Temple Shalom for the Arts when he stepped up to the bimah to read from the Torah at his bar mitzvah. Hall embraced the ancient tradition of a second bar mitzvah surrounded by an overflowing group of friends and well-wishers who turned out to share this "second" special life moment.
It was hard to be in Los Angeles in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, perhaps the biggest natural disaster in our history. I had some previous Red Cross training, and, with some additional fast-track prep on disaster response, I was on my way to Louisiana -- first by plane to Houston, then by car to Baton Rouge.
Lodging on one of the first nights was the floor of a church gymnasium. At times, I felt like I was part of a sad "Amazing Race," hurrying throughout Louisiana to provide some assistance to some of Katrina's victims.
The United States turned down offers of expert assistance from Israel and other nations in the crucial first days after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans.
Instead, the United States solicited material assistance from Israel that was probably superfluous by the time the shipment arrived on the evening of Sept. 8.
The reasons behind the decisions are unclear. Experts have offered a number of explanations, including the bureaucratic difficulties involved in absorbing thousands of foreign first-responder personnel, the belief that the existing first-responder infrastructure in Louisiana and Mississippi was well equipped to handle the crisis and the potential political fallout from asking foreign nations to help the world's greatest power save lives on its own turf.
Critics have long derided Jewish federations as functionally outdated and overly bureaucratic -- the organizational equivalent of dinosaurs on the brink of irrelevance, if not extinction.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina's devastation, though, the array of Jewish organizations under the umbrella of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles have shown that they are far from moribund. They have raised large sums of money, moved critical resources to devastated areas and coordinated Jewish agencies to address victims' needs.
After a catastrophe like Hurricane Katrina, sometimes an aid worker helps by delivering a baby, sometimes the job is just delivering a cheeseburger -- or perhaps a thousand cheeseburgers. And sometimes the simple act of providing a yarmulke to an old man can provide solace.
So it was for Rabbis Chaim Kolodny and Tzemach Rosenfeld of Hatzolah of Los Angeles, an organization of emergency-medical volunteers with particular expertise in assisting members of the Orthodox community. When they decided to embark for the stricken Gulf Coast in the wake of Katrina, they wanted to be available to help Jewish victims who could benefit from their knowledge of religious practice. But they also were prepared and eager to help anyone they could, and they had no trouble locating storm victims and relief workers who needed all sorts of assistance.
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.
Prominent rabbis have been urging their congregations to give generously to Hurricane Katrina relief funds, the most prominent being one set up by The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, which had raised more than $500,000 by early this week.
Earlier this summer, Shana Leonard gave up her Fairfax District apartment to move to New Orleans and be near her 82-year-old father, legendary jazz photographer Herman Leonard. But late last month, the 33-year-old single mother, who also cares for her wheelchair-bound 10-year-old daughter, India, found the three of them among the thousands racing to escape from New Orleans.
President Bush and Congress talk a good game when it comes to homeland security, but the tragic truth is that the country is less able to cope with disasters than before Sept. 11, 2001. The proof is on the flood-ravaged streets of New Orleans, where an unprecedented natural disaster quickly produced violent anarchy and a flaccid government response that multiplied the suffering.
For all the money thrown at preparing for massive terror attacks and other disasters, the new Department of Homeland Security looked more like a Third World bureaucracy, as armed gangs roamed the city and people died for lack of food, water, sanitation and medical supplies.
We will be admonished not to make politics out of tragedy, but we have a responsibility to figure out what went wrong with the response to Hurricane Katrina.
Today, far too often, tragedy is employed as an incantation to ward off responsibility. (Try Googling the phrase, "The events of today were tragic, but ..." to get a taste of what I mean.)
Tragedy is an idea we get from the Greeks -- human life as a grand, hopeless struggle against our own flaws and unloving celestial forces that conspire to bring us down. Tragedy is a spectacle, provoking a catharsis composed, in Aristotle's phrase, of "pity and terror" in the spectator -- but not outrage. To call something tragic is to take a stance of elegiac distance. The world view that produced the idea of tragedy also produced great thinkers and artists, but it did not produce prophets.
The dumbest question asked by any reporter anywhere in response to Hurricane Katrina came last Monday in Houston.
Former Presidents Bill Clinton and George H. Bush had just finished announcing a special relief effort -- the Hurricane Katrina Fund -- when someone in the press pool blurted out, "What do you think of reports that the levees were intentionally broken?"
The two men were already walking away at that point, but you could see the question register on Clinton's perennially exhausted face. Uncertainty -- did she really say that? -- then anger -- how dare she say that? -- then sadness -- what a sick, sick world where someone could even think that.
Are You watching, God?
Have You seen the innocent swept away?
Are You listening, God?
Have You heard their cries?
Be with them, God.
Be their strength and their comfort.
Let them know You are near.
Work through us, God.
Teach us to be Your messengers on earth.
Wake us up, God,
Show us how to help.
Use us, God, shine through us,
Inspire us to rebuild the ruins.
Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning.
Open our arms so we can extend our hands to those in need.
Shake us out of our complacency, God.
Be our guide,
Transform our helplessness into action,
Our generous intentions into charity,
Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.
In New Orleans, the Jews are the only ones buried in the ground. Others, if their mourners have any means at all, are laid with the expectation of eternal rest in stone crypts to protect them from rising waters. My mother used to say, "Someday, we Jews'll all be floatin' down the river."
Just as in California, where we know that one day "the big one" will come, in New Orleans, we knew that someday the water would overtake us. But the denial overtakes the wisdom, and we stay and build lives. I think of Pompeii. New Orleans was so beautiful.
Stepping up to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina, Jewish day schools opened their doors to evacuees, families welcomed strangers into their homes, Jewish rescue squads searched through the storm's wreckage and Jewish organizations raised millions of dollars for those whose lives were turned topsy-turvy by the deadly storm.
Houston has quickly become a major haven for victims who have been left, for the moment at least, without homes. The Jewish Federation of Greater Houston quickly jumped into action to aid the beleaguered evacuees, Jew and non-Jew alike.
The gut-wrenching scenes of human suffering witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are not only the result of the levee failures at Lake Pontchartrain, but also the failure of a nation numbed to the growing division between "haves" and "have-nots."
What is appearing on television sets across America is the inevitable impact of decades of ignoring a stark difference in economic realities. While wealthy, predominantly white Gulf residents -- and most Jews -- were able to leave the region or escape to higher ground, it was poorer, largely black, elderly and sick Americans who were left behind to fend for themselves.
In the case of New Orleans, high poverty rates already existed before the storm: More than 30 percent of the population lived below the federal poverty line. These are, in most cases, the victims whose bodies we saw floating in the Mississippi River and dying for lack of basic necessities at the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome.