LOS ANGELES, July 8 (JTA) — 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, danced the hora 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 droid 3CPAs 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 schlep where no one has shlepped before.”
New Orleans is one of the few cities in America where Jews feel secure enough to play off their stereotypes at the largest public event of the year.
Catherine Kahn, president of the Southern Jewish Historical Society and a fifth-generation resident of New Orleans, confirms the local Jews’ sense of comfort.
One of the many pleasant aspects of Jewish life here is “a sense of belonging,” 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,” adds Kahn.
The tone was set when the first wave of young Jewish men migrated from Alsace-Lorraine — then a disputed area on the French-German border — in the late 18th and early 19th centuries and found the prevalent French patois more congenial than the strange English language of northern cities.
The new immigrants were readily accepted by the Creoles — descendants of the early French and Spanish settlers — and married their Catholic daughters.
Bending Jewish law to fit local realities, the articles of incorporation of Gates of Mercy, the first synagogue founded in 1828, stated that “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 stands at between 10,000 to 12,000.
The roots of the community’s religious life are in the Reform movement — the first Conservative congregation was not formed until 1958 — and today there are three Reform shuls, including the Touro Synagogue, which has been in continuous use since 1909.
Shir Hadash is the flagship Conservative temple and Congregation Beth Israel is centrist Orthodox.
Even with all this congregational activity, the city’s 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 University 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,” says Kahn.
In return, Jewish philanthropists have endowed many of Tulane’s buildings, academic chairs and a Jewish studies program.
The uptown Jewish Community Center, following a $4 million renovation, is one of the handsomest in the country. The Jewish Federation has crated an innovative program, under which any Jewish child can receive 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 there is a Jewish “campus” with a new community center and a day school going up to the 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 incumbent, 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,” says Sandra Levy, executive director of the Jewish Endowment Foundation.
Generations of New Orleans Jews speak 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.
But in recent years, the demographics have changed, says Levy, with young Jewish men and women seeking career opportunities in the larger Southern and West Coast cities.