By Symi Rom-Rymer
During a mini-vacation to New Orleans this past weekend, I unexpectedly stumbled across a little piece of matzo in my jambalaya.
It’s easy to forget with so many Jews living on both coasts that Jews have strong communities in the South as well dating back to the 1700s. While the early immigrants to the region were traders and furriers, the majority—who came as part of the last big wave of Jews from Eastern Europe in the late 19th-early 20th century—made their mark in dry goods, opening so-called “Jew Stores” around the South. (For an excellent personal account of Jewish life in the South during this period, read Jew Store by Stella Suberman) While their Jewishness set them apart and restricted them from certain aspects of Southern life, it also helped them to successfully maneuver the thin line between the African-Americans and white communities. According to Susan Levitas, author of an essay about the Jews of Louisiana, there is a popular urban legend that exemplifies a more bizarre by-product of this phenomenon. In the course of her research for her article, many Jewish families told her “the story of a Jewish merchant [often said to be a distant relative] who was so accepted as part of the larger community, that he was asked to join the notoriously anti-Semitic Ku Klux Klan. The hero would politely decline the invitation, but he knew that he was selling white sheets to these same men who would use them as disguises.”
In New Orleans, according to a fellow traveler and former New Orleanian, (unfortunately I forgot her name, so I’ll call her Sharon), Jews were never fully accepted into the all-important aristocracy. Shut out of the major clubs that presided over the New Orleans social scene—Mardi Gras being the biggest example—they sought to influence the city in other ways. Thus, it is largely because of the Jewish community that New Orleans has its symphony, its opera house, and its art museums. Moreover, one of the top schools (or the top school depending on who you ask) in the city is the Isidore Newman School, founded in 1903 to provide an academic and trade education to the children of the Jewish Orphans Home. Throughout its history, however, it has welcomed Jews and Gentiles alike including the Manning brothers of football fame. Sharon feels that since Katrina, the aristocracy has lessened its grip on New Orleans and instead, as the city is trying to attract more tourists, it has begun to pay more attention to the cultural organizations making the Jewish contributions more important than ever.
Today, there are roughly one million Jews living in the South and 13,000 of them in New Orleans. Unfortunately during my visit, I didn’t get to meet any of them, although I did get to see two reform synagogues—Touro Synagogue and Temple Sinai–neither of which were affected by Katrina. The next time I visit the Big Easy, I definitely want to make an effort to meet more southern Jews. Perhaps, I’ll even go during Mardi Gras to cheer on Krewe du Jieux, the Jewish krewe established in the 1990s that throws out painted bagels along with their beads. You really can’t get more Jewish or New Orleanian than that.
Symi Rom-Rymer writes and blogs about Jewish and Muslim communities in the US and Europe. She has been published in JTA, The Christian Science Monitor and Jewcy.