Unique, lively, and fearlessly authentic, the Jews of New Orleans have carved out a multi-dimensional identity in a culturally crowded city. (A testament to the ethno-cultural group’s success: the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience is to open in the French Quarter this fall.) What does it look like to practice the Jewish faith in the Big Easy? Sometimes, it means conducting religious services outside a Saints football game. “Our clergy found space downtown, real close to the Superdome, and our Rabbis held Rosh Hashanah evening services right before the game for the New Orleans community. This allowed those people going to the game to worship,” says Philip Gaethe, Educator of the Gates of Prayer Congregation.
But before they were blowing the ceremonial Shofar outside of the Superdome, Jewish New Orleanians first had to establish themselves within the city’s societal hierarchy, a historically arduous task. “Anti-Semitism has been around as long as the Jewish people have been around,” says Gaethe. Unfortunately for the Jewish pioneers of the city, New Orleans was no exception. Luckily, “Jews throughout history have learned to adapt really well to the community that they live in, embracing the local culture while still keeping their Jewish identity,” says Gaethe.
Jewish immigrants had already established a small community in New Orleans by the early 1700s, seeping into the pre-existent culture in search of economic and religious opportunities, which Europe could not provide. But, as the wealth of the Jewish community blossomed so did the prejudice of city’s ruling class. Shortly after their immigration to New Orleans, Jews found themselves expelled from the city under France’s Code Noir of 1685, which ruled that Jews could not live in the French colonies. Accustomed to orders of exile, the followers of the determined faith managed to establish their own small businesses while assimilating to the predominant Catholic lifestyle.
By the end of the 1700s, the Jews had filled the streets of the Central City with kosher butchers and delis. Occupying Canal Street, once small, Jewish retail stores grew into popular department stores like Krauss and Handelman’s. However, forever fearful of their rising economic influence, the now Spanish government of New Orleans began to expel successful Jewish businessmen from the city. By the early 1900s, prejudices extended past business practices as Jews were banned from Mardi Gras Krewes and excluded from other social groups.
Yet, amidst recurrent anti-Semitism, in the following century the Jewish community enriched New Orleans with varying philanthropic projects and continues to do so today. “For a relatively small population, about 1% of the New Orleans region, the Jewish community plays a vital role in the quality of life for our citizens,” says Lee Sucherman, President of the Jewish Community Center (JCC). Jewish businessmen helped to fund major public works, benefiting all New Orleanians. Inclusive of Touro Hospital, Delgado Community College, and Woldenberg Park to name a few. “The philanthropy here by Jewish businesspeople and their foundations is extraordinary. Most people don’t know these groups are headed by Jewish leaders, they just see names on buildings like Goldring and Woldenberg,” says Sucherman.
Aided by the Jews’ perseverance and dedication to New Orleans, today the city is more tolerant than ever before, allowing the modern Jewish identity to thrive. “The Jewish community of New Orleans is a very close-knit and cooperative,” says Gaethe. Demonstrative of the community’s unique togetherness is its response to hurricane Katrina. The devastation affected all Jewish institutions, inclusive of the Gates of Prayer Congregation and the JCC. “Congregation Beth-Israel spent a year in our building while their synagogue was being rebuilt,” says Gaethe. “After Katrina, our Jewish population loss to other cities around the country was about 60%, if I recall. We had to work together to bring Jewish families back or convince other Jewish families to move here and to be part of the rebuilding of our community,” says Sucherman.
But the unity of Jewish New Orleanians is evident not only in the face of natural disaster. “We do a lot of joint programming in the summers; we rotate services. One month at Gates of Prayer Congregation, one month at Touro Synagogue, one month at Temple Sinai,” says Gaethe. In addition to their in-group cohesiveness, the Jewish community has formed strong bonds with the non-Jews of New Orleans as well. “At the Jewish Community Center the word community is just as important as the word Jewish,” says Sucherman. “Our membership is about 60% non-Jews and 40% Jewish. The JCC and similar institutions are the gateways for non-Jews to understand what Jewish culture is about. Though this inclusiveness, a stronger bond of trust and respect is created with all New Orleanians.”
Though the Jewish people have made remarkable progress since their immigration to New Orleans, developing a successful minority in such a fascinating city isn’t easy. “Because there are so many other things to take your time in New Orleans, Jews here really have to work hard to keep their Jewish identity,” says Gaethe. This maintenance of the Jewish faith in the greater context of New Orleans is well exemplified during Mardi Gras. Though originally excluded from Mardi Gras due to prejudice, today, the Jews of New Orleans proudly parade in the satirical floats Krewe du Jieux and Krewe du Mishigas.
Still, the modern Jewish identity has yet to be free of the anti-Semitism which burdens the Jewish community and halts religious tolerance. “Unfortunately, to me, it seems that Anti-Semitism is on the rise it has become more acceptable in recent years,” says Gaethe. Although anti-Semitism in New Orleans may not be as blatant as it is in other parts of the country or the world, it is important to recognize the shape it takes here. Up until January of this year, a result of public outcry, antique shops in the French Quarter advertised Nazi propaganda in their windows. This more passive form of anti-Semitism is dangerous as it normalizes anti-Semitism as an acceptable part of the New Orleans culture. The repercussions of which have not gone unnoticed.
“A well-educated woman, who is not Jewish, from New Orleans, and works with me in my office just the other day said to me that she had no idea that millions of Jews died in the Holocaust,” says Sucherman. A point of concern as employees of the Jewish Community Center should be somewhat familiarized with the history of the Jewish people. “You have to remember,” Sucherman adds, “we are in New Orleans, where maybe the Holocaust isn’t taught the way it was to us [a native of the Chicagoan suburbs]. It begged the question for me, ‘what is not being taught in our schools?’ ”
Gaethe, who works closely with the students of the Gates of Prayer religious school, points out anti-Semitism can also be found in the form of bullying or passing jokes. “Kids who I tutor will tell me something happened at school and they don’t know how to handle it. If needed, the rabbis or me would come to the school, to teach about Judaism and tolerance,” says Gaethe. The JCC also emphasizes the role of education in stopping the spread of anti-Semitism. “We have a Holocaust remembrance event every year, and we actually invite kids from schools to come to that and meet some of the Holocaust survivors,” says Sucherman.
Sadly, acts of anti-Semitism occur in far more destructive and fatal forms than conversational ignorance. “What we have had to respond to in recent months, even years, is security issues due to violence in Jewish community centers around the world. During the hours of our religious school we have an armed Jefferson Parish deputy on duty, as well as during shabbat services, and on high holidays sometimes two officers. This is something we were forced to do because of recent anti-Semitism,” says Gaethe. Representative of the unity of the New Orleans’ Jewish community, “a comprehensive alert network plan is being implemented, led by Jewish Federation of New Orleans, and involves all Jewish institutions and agencies. So if something does come up, we are all aware of it at the same time. Hillel, Jewish Endowment Foundation of Louisiana, Jewish Family Services, South-Central Anti-Defamation League, all the agencies,” says Sucherman.
As the proper security measures have been taken, and individuals like Gaethe and Sucherman work tirelessly to promote the Jewish New Orleans community, there is significant hope that anti-Semitism will no longer shade the Jewish identity of New Orleans with hate. “Anti-Semitism is born from ignorance and hatred. I don’t think people are born hating people,” says Gaethe. Recognizing hate is learned and not innate validates the possibility that hate can be unlearned. Even in the face of anti-Semitism the Jewish people of New Orleans continue to prosper. “New Orleans is not just a great place to live but it is a great place to be a Jew,” says Sucherman. And the future of the Jewish identity is looking bright as well. “I don’t want the pride of Judaism to be a defensive mechanism against anti-Semitism. I truly believe Judaism can be a light to the world; I hope that’s what I’m instilling in the kids,” says Gaethe.
Photo Credit: Pete Titmuss: Holocaust memorial art installation by Yaacov Agam, located in Woldenberg Park, New Orleans.