The Jews of New Orleans

posted in: Articles, Personal Writings | 0

(Article originally published by The Algemeiner, March 18, 2011)

There’s an old saying in New Orleans, actually it’s a word — lagniappe. Lagniappe is a French/Cajun/Creole/only in New Orleans word that means a little something extra. It’s that maraschino cherry on top of the Gambino’s Bakery Charlotte Rouss ladyfingers that my grandmother used to always have for us. It’s a good description of how you make Gumbo: you make the roux, then throw in some okra, celery and bell pepper, then a ham hock, and you think you’re almost done, and then suddenly you see hiding behind something in the refrigerator, a big ripe Creole tomato. You had forgotten you had it, you hadn’t planned on cooking with it, but there it has appeared suddenly, and you know that it is that little something extra that’s going to make your gumbo even better than you had planned. Or, it’s hanging out in the French Quarter on a perfect sunny day, enjoying all the street scenes, walking around sipping your Mint Julip (as you can do waltzing down the streets only in New Orleans), and then unexpectedly, around the corner comes a jazz band – maybe it’s a funeral — with their big black umbrellas and their soulful moans of trumpets and trombones – the dirge if they’re on their way to the cemetery, and the jubilation if they’re celebrating the final rest having been accomplished. When this happens, the day has gone from perfect to sublime. It’s gilding the lily. It’s lagniappe.

The thing about lagniappe is that you can’t look for it. It just appears unexpectedly. New Orleans is founded on the principle of lagniappe. New Orleans is a town that’s always pushing to the edge of the envelope. With the driving age at 15 and the drinking age at 18, it’s never satisfied with being ordinary. It wants to be a little bit more than any other town. It works at creating lagniappe — unexpected little extra treats — by creating a frenzy. For instance, the holidays start, like everyone else’s, with Thanksgiving. Then we get into Christmas when homes are actually moved out of because the Christmas lights and decorations are so exaggerated that the homes are rendered uninhabitable. The rest of the country settles down then with post-Christmas blues. But not New Orleans. It’s just gearing up for Mardi Gras, which is not a week long of reverie, as most outsiders think. Rather, it’s months of balls and parades, only culminating on the day of Fat Tuesday known to the rest of the world as Mardi Gras day. And, if that’s not enough, then the town gets into its Jazz and Heritage Festival weekends, now expanded to two weekends because the original one weekend just didn’t satisfy the New Orleans spirit for more, and more, and then even yet more.

The culture that I grew up in – in the 50’s and 60’s – had its complexities. New Orleans, as a town, is nothing if not a lesson in contradictions. First there’s the question of never quite being able to decide on its identity. Maybe it’s French, maybe it’s Spanish. You think it’s French, its reputation is French and its food is a (some feel improved) perversion of French. Then you get there and realize that all its old architecture is Spanish. And, with its location at the mouth of the biggest river in the land, it should have become one of the biggest cities around. It, in fact, was once, the sixth largest city in the country before the Civil War. But then, it shrank. It’s actually geographically of small, nestled in the crescent of the river, and closed up for expansion by a huge lake, Ponchartrain, on its other side. Its European roots are still evident, and give it, at times, an air of sophistication and worldliness. You come to expect a kind of cosmopolitan attitude. Then you look at the newspaper, the one newspaper in town, and you see that local news is about all that anyone cares about. A lot of the news is about what’s happening with the zoo, and the ponds and the social scene. The townspeople threaten yearly to not support its symphony orchestra; and the art museum, until the 1980′s, was so nondescript that it could hardly justify its existence.  Next to the French Quarter’s den of inequity on Bourbon Street, where hawkers on the street try to suck you in to watch plastic boobs bobbing up and down, one block away — literally a single block over — is a stretch of road named Royal Street that carries among the most exquisite and precious antiques found anywhere in the world.

And of course there’s the race issue. Most will say there’s never been any real problem. The blacks are pretty accepting of their life there – they cherish their home town. Their staying in town through Katrina wasn’t just about not being able to afford to leave, nor about having no place to go. It was about, too, their standing on their plot of land, and screaming out to nature that this is their home, and they have a right to stay, and defend it (even against the ravages of nature herself). Some of the uptown neighborhoods are integrated in a way that doesn’t exist in any other city in America. One block that is completely gentrified, all homes prettified with some delicate color of pastel, lived in by white folks; and the next block is exactly the same kind of house, a shot-gun cottage — named so because its linear architecture allows one to stand at the front door of the house, shoot a shotgun, and a nanosecond (or so) later the bullet will exit the back door– not renovated, still looking just as it did 100 years ago, and occupied by blacks. The neighbors, black and white, all say hello to each other; they’re friendly, their hellos are genuinely warm. For many of the young professionals who have gentrified the neighborhood, black nannies raised them as surely as did their moms, so living with or next to black people seems entirely normal. Yet, this is the town that when integration was legally mandated in the 60′s, it decided to close Audubon Park Pool rather than share it with the blacks. The town decided they’d rather have seals than blacks in its public swimming pool. Later, in 1993, thirty years after enforced integration, the town’s judicial system, now with a decade long history of black mayors, ordered its Mardi Gras parades to integrate. The premier parades, the ones that represented the cream of New Orleans high society, decided they’d rather not parade than have blacks join them. Comus, Momus and Proteus, parades that had been part of the town’s history for over 100 years, no longer walked the streets of New Orleans.

Too, New Orleans is a town of differences. It’s got more diversity than anywhere except New York. For the most part its subcultures co-exist rather peacefully. It’s got all those Catholics who live in the 9th Ward Irish Channel and sound like they just got off a fast train from the deepest heart of Brooklyn. The town has so many Catholics, and they permeate the culture so much that you begin to think Catholicism defines New Orleans. Then, of course, you remember the blacks and jazz, and you realize that New Orleans ain’t New Orleans, and never has been, without them. Next, you find out about all the Protestants and Episcopalians who define high society and make the Garden District one of the prettiest sights in America. There’re the I-talians who own neighborhood restaurants that serve better food than the 4-star eateries in New York. There’s the Mafia, stronger than ever, undeterred by everyone’s unspoken awareness that it wields more power than government and that it was, so the scuttlebutt says, the New Orleans Mafia that did in JFK. Too, New Orleans has the Cajuns who no one else has, who no one even comes close to simulating, who still retain their own language, their own food and their own music and live as though 200 years ago were still here.

When I was growing up, Bucktown was still there – vibrant in its old world sensibility. It was a block long row of shanty shacks; no outsider would dare to venture, but native New Orleanians knew that Bucktown served the best and cheapest seafood in town. It was right on the waterfront of the lake, and the restaurants were mixed right in with the fishing boats. Restaurateurs happily tolerated the mix of the fish smells, the fishing boat smells, and they tolerated, too, the sounds of hard-driving/drinking of the fisherman. All this rough and ready sub-culture was tucked away in a nook far away in sentiment, but woefully close in distance from the anti-Semitic, anti-black Southern Yacht Club, perched on the same shoreline just a few blocks away.
And finally, New Orleans has its Jews, 1% Jewish, not many, but they constitute many of the lawyers, most of the doctors, and until the 70’s, virtually all of the department stores and merchants.

New Orleans and Jews have a real love/hate relationship with one another — always have. Here is a religion who metes out privilege and punishment in the same breath. Take for instance the story of the father of the first Jew of New Orleans, David Monsanto, a Dutch Sephardic Jew. He was apparently a rather prosperous man. He held important positions within his community in Holland. Eventually, however, he fell into hard times, and was forced to accept a monthly stipend from the same Jewish community in which he had once been a leader. His payment for his bad luck and for his state of need: he was required to serve as a minhanista, one of the guys who must attend religious services in order to assure the presence of a minyan, a mandatory quorum of ten men necessary for the performance of the religious service.

In other words, his punishment for being poor was that he had to pray. Interesting religion, one might say, to concoct such an idea. A religion with a twist, a kind of ironic twist. A rather generous religion too. A religion, perhaps, of meaningful morality.

New Orleans, from the beginning, wanted to hate the Jews and drive them out, like most of the rest of the world. But, in the end, it was a city that was, like the Jewish religion itself, a generous and moral. Too, it had a sense of irony. The city that care forgot actually cared.

Their history together begins in the mid-1700′s. In 1724 France passed a Code Noir (the Black Code), effectively banning all Jews from living in the French colony of Louisiana. Nevertheless, six brave Jews (one of them Issac Monsanto, David’s son) had apparently defied the edict, and settled in New Orleans. We know it was six because someone was counting. In 1759 the Commissaire Ordonnateur of New Orleans announced that

…Jews, who according to the edicts and ordinances must not remain in a colony more than three months, under penalty of imprisonment and confiscation of their property, are forming establishments here by the progress and the danger of which have been observed by the whole country. There are, at present, six of them here…

But that being said, for the record, so to speak, for the time that New Orleans remained under French rule, in their usual lax fashion, the French counted the Jews, and left them alone. When Louisiana was ceded to Spain, in 1769, the Monsanto family was expelled, and their monies and property were confiscated. They fled to Pensacola, then an English territory, and soon returned back to New Orleans. Even minus their possessions, the love affair between Jews and New Orleans had taken hold. For the rest of the history of the town, the Jews were left to prosper, which they did.

The town is proud of its lack of anti-Semitism. The Jews themselves will tell you that there is virtually no anti-Semitism in the town. They will tell you that the city is unique in how warmly the Jewish community has been embraced and treated respectfully. Yet, this is the town where the entire social calendar is built around Mardi Gras, one of the most anti-Semitic inventions of modern America. The local Mardi Gras, the Mardi Gras known only to New Orleanians, constitutes the debutante balls, the coming out place for New Orleans’ finest daughters who like lace and velvet. Word had it that my cousin, Amy, was the first Jew in New Orleans to make her debut. This, in spite of the fact that her father is an atheist who has never practiced a moment of religious Jewry, her mother was born and remains a practicing Catholic, and Amy herself has been raised Catholic. In the eyes of New Orleans society, in its long memory of family and ancestors as the only proper placement of an individual, she is considered a Jew.

The Jews, in fact, have been too busy creating their own place in New Orleans culture to worry much about who on the outside thinks what about them. They never needed to compete with Gentiles because there was plenty enough to contend with within their own community. As with the rest of New Orleans and its co-mingling of disparate groups, the Jews, too, had the high rollers and the low rollers.

The two groups came over on different boats in different influxes. The western European Jews, among them my mother’s great grandparents, were fleeing the violence and chaos of Alsace-Lorraine in the 1850′s as it passed from French to German hands. This violence, though, had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. They didn’t feel hated for their religion. They didn’t even care too much about their religion, except as a cultural grounding. These, then, were the first Jews of New Orleans, and they easily found a cultural homeland in a place where they already spoke the language. They fit right in. Some of them converted or married Gentiles without looking back, and within a short period of time they had established themselves as some of the city’s leading retailers and richest citizens.

The eastern European Jews, on the other hand, were being persecuted in Russia and Poland in the late 1880′s precisely because of their religion. When they left their homeland, they were running for their lives. If they were lucky, as were my father’s parents, they got rides from Poland/Russia/Latvia/Lithuania to Hamburg hidden in hay wagons, pulled by oxen or mules; the unlucky ones walked. When they had saved enough money to come to the New World, they brought over no precious heirlooms and no commonality of culture to their new home.
The western European Jews wanted to look indistinguishable from the community in which they were rapidly becoming acculturated. They embraced Reform Judaism: they threw off their yarmulkes and tallis; they sat through religious services conducted in English; organ music filled the rafters in the glorious synagogue (Touro) built in the best and most expensive Moorish tradition; and they did the unthinkable –they broke with strict tradition by having men and women sit together. Except for the small amount of Hebrew prayers, these services could have been in any Christian church in the land. Such was their aspiration: to look Christian; to stay Jewish, but look Christian.

The eastern European Jews kept their old-time religion. This was a religion of community and prayer. These were Jews who took life seriously because, with their history of persecution, they were, perhaps, never quite able to throw off their worries about which direction the next death threat was going to come from. Assimilation was the farthest thing from their minds. They stayed Orthodox; they didn’t wear fur coats (as the Reform Jews did) to Yom Kippur services because praying was serious business, not show-time. They didn’t send their children to private schools because it was unnecessarily elitist. They didn’t join the Jewish country club because Saturdays were for God.

Since Monsanto’s first settling, Jews have been an important part of the New Orleans heritage. Among the prominent Jews in the late 19th and 20th centuries were Isaac Delgado, who gave the city its art museum; Samuel Zemurray, president of the United Fruit Company; Captain Neville Levy, chairman of the Mississippi River Bridge Commission; Percival Stern, benefactor of Tulane and Loyola universities, Newman School, and the Touro Infirmary; Mr. and Mrs. Edgar B. Stern, who supported many institutions and schools and Sydney J. Besthoff III, whose extensive sculpture collection now graces the New Orleans Museum of Art. Jews have served as presidents and board members of practically all cultural, civic, and social-welfare agencies.

And then, in the 21st century, came Katrina, and brought with her a bit of unexpected Lagniappe to the Jews of New Orleans. In 2005, there were about 10,000 Jews – the smallest Jewish population of any major city. The city lost 25% of the Jewish population post-Katrina – its own kind of New Orleans Diaspora. Jews from all over the country rallied: homes were opened for displaced families; monies were raised to replace ruined Torahs; and, most interestingly, a recruitment call went out to Jews everywhere: come down y’all and live with us; help us to revitalize our Jewish community. Over 2,000 Jews responded, and have now relocated to New Orleans. They form a vibrant and significant part of the contemporary New Orleans Jewish population, and include the new Provost at Tulane, the new Dean of Tulane Law School, the new head of Hillel, new rabbis at 3 of the 5 synagogues.

Zoe Oreck, who left New Orleans to go to school in Georgia, as so many college-bound kids do, comments about the unique aspect of the association between New Orleans and the Jews: “I mean, the hours of my Sunday School were changed to better accommodate Saints games. The Jews of New Orleans could not be the Jews of any other city.” And, Zoe’s grandmother, Carol Wise, comments that unlike other cities, “We have NEVER had one section of the city that is primarily Jewish–we are a Gumbo–each of the parts makes us better.”

And every New Orleanian who has ever made Gumbo knows what makes the Gumbo the miraculous conglomerate that it is: it’s the Lagniappe – the unexpected treat that lies in the hidden alcoves of the refrigerator waiting to be discovered.