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Jewish Journal

Bagels and Beignets

New Orleans' Southern comfort extends to its thriving Jewish community.

by Tom Tugend

November 15, 2001 | 7:00 pm

The theme of this year's Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans was "2001: A Space Fallacy," and the Jewish contingent, masked as the Cohenheads, hora-ed its way through the French Quarter behind the Mothership Yentaprise, tossing out a thousand Star of David-emblazoned bagels to the hungry masses.

Led by King David and Jewish American Princess Adama, attended by droids 3CPAs (a nod to "Star Wars" droid C3P0) and a klezmer band, the "Krewe Du Jieux" flaunted its mission statement:

"To kibbitz on strange new worlds; to seek out new life forms and sell to them retail; to boldly shlep where no one has shlepped before."

New Orleans may be the one city in America where Jews feel secure enough to play off their stereotypes at the largest public event of the year.

Catherine C. Kahn, president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society, Jewish community archivist and fifth-generation resident of New Orleans, confirms the prevalent attitude.

One of the many pleasant aspects of Jewish life here is a sense of belonging. "We have never felt as outsiders," she says.

"Historically, this is a city with a great sense of tolerance, the flip side being that we tolerate a lot of crookedness in our public officials," Kahn adds.

The tone was set by the first wave of young Jewish men who migrated from Alsace-Lorraine in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and found the prevalent French patois more congenial than the strange English language of the northern cities.

The new immigrants were readily accepted by the Creoles -- descendants of the early French and Spanish settlers -- and married their Catholic daughters.

The articles of incorporation of Gates of Mercy, the city's first synagogue, founded in 1828, bent Jewish law to fit reality by stating "No Israelite child shall be excluded either from the schools, from the Temple, or the burial ground, on account of the religion of the mother."

Today, the Jewish community of Greater New Orleans number 10,000-12,000 and boasts a full complement of religious, communal, service and educational institutions and organizations,

The roots of the community's religious life are in the Reform movement -- the first Conservative congregation was not formed until 1958 -- and today three Reform synagogues, including the landmark Touro Synagogue, predominate.

Shir Hadash is the flagship Conservative temple, and Congregation Beth Israel is centrist Orthodox.

Even with all this congregational activity, the old laissez-faire attitude comes through in an oft-repeated local gag:

"When do New Orleans Jews keep kosher?"

"When they eat raw oysters only in months with an 'r' in their names." (Which means, in practice, that they abstain only in May, June, July and August, when the oysters are out of season anyhow).

The dictum does not apply, of course, to the Chabad movement, which has established a presence on the Tulane campus.

Tulane, a private university, has a student body that is more than one-fourth Jewish, remarkable in a state where Jews make up less than half a percent of the total population.

One reason is that Tulane, in its entire history, has never had a restrictive Jewish quota, so in the early and middle decades of the past century, "a lot of smart Jewish kids who couldn't get into Northern universities came to Tulane," Kahn explains.

In return, Jewish philanthropists have endowed many of Tulane's buildings and academic chairs, and a Jewish studies program.

The uptown Jewish Community Center, following a $4 million renovation, is one of the handsomest and most functional in the country. The Jewish Federation has created an innovative program, under which any Jewish child can get a $1,000 grant to attend the summer camp of his or her choice.

The new focal point for Jewish building and programs is the upscale suburb of Metairie, a favorite of young Jewish couples with children. In the works is a Jewish "campus" with a new community center and a day school going up to eighth grade.

Well worth a visit is the Dispersed of Judah Cemetery, which displays some of the most elaborate tombstone sculpture of any Jewish burial ground.

Politically, New Orleans is largely run by African American politicians -- the population is 60 percent black -- though one of the two white incumbents on the seven-person City Council is Jewish.

Blacks, Jews and labor unions pulled together nine years ago, when Ku Klux Klansman David Duke ran for governor of Louisiana against the notoriously corrupt ex-governor, Edwin Edwards.

The less-than-rousing campaign slogan of the anti-Duke forces was "Vote for the Crook -- It's Important."

The slogan, and the fact that it helped Edwards beat Duke, says something about "the bizarre nature of Louisiana politics," notes Sandra Levy, executive director of the Jewish Endowment Foundation.

Generations of New Orleans Jews observed with pride that their children and grandchildren remained in their birthplace, and it is not unusual to find sixth- and seventh-generation Jews in the metropolitan port city at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

In recent years, the demographics have changed, Levy says, with young Jewish men and women seeking better career opportunities in the larger Southern and West Coast cities.

Next year the Krewe du Jieux will cavort in its usual high spirits at the upcoming Mardi Gras parade on Jan. 19, says Captain L.J. Goldstein.

The Jewish Community Center runs an Elderhostel program on Jewish New Orleans. For information, contact Leslie Fischman at (504) 897-0143 or e-mail Leslie@NOJCC.GS.net.

Cecil Levin can advise on or conduct walking tours of Jewish sites in the French Quarter and around the city. For information call (504) 821-0701.

Historian Irwin Lachoff is available as expert guide for a fee. He can be reached at (504) 483-7655 or by e-mail ilachoff@xula.edu .

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