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Experience rich Southern Jewish culture in New Orleans

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The Touro Synagogue in New Orleans. It is named after Judah Touro, a Sephardic Jew born in Rhode Island in 1775. (Heather Rosen photo)

The six glorious days I spent in New Orleans recently yielded incredible sights, sounds and tastes, as well as the chance to learn about Southern Jewish culture, a subculture that’s largely unfamiliar to many Canadians.

Jewish life in the South dates back roughly 300 years. A 1998 documentary, Pushcarts and Plantations, highlights the history of the Louisiana Jewish community, beginning in the 1720s with the early Sephardic traders who refused to accept anti-Semitic legislation and ultimately thrived. A century later, German Jews began arriving in Louisiana from Alsace-Lorraine, setting up communities and businesses in the northern part of the state, including Lake Charles and Shreveport.

Southern Jews quickly became an integral part of communal and civic life in the South, with many holding positions of authority. Judah Philip Benjamin (1811-1884), a Sephardic Jew born to British parents, was the first Jew to hold a cabinet position in North America. He passed the bar in Louisiana, served as a United States senator, became a cabinet officer of the Confederate States and, following the Civil War, became a barrister in London.

Benjamin was also a planter and slave owner, as were many other Jews at the time. As shocking as the idea of Jews owning slaves may seem to us, this was not an anomaly. A recent episode of Finding Your Roots, a popular PBS genealogy series, revealed that Seinfeld co-creator Larry David had relatives in Mobile, Ala., in the mid-1800s, some of whom owned slaves and also fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War.

My first Jewish “encounter” surprised me: my hotel, the Best Western Plus St. Charles Inn, displays a plaque beside the front door stating that the structure had been built by Gustave Lehmann Sr., a German-Jewish immigrant and businessman, in 1893. It remained his home for a number of years before subsequently becoming a boarding house, a hotel that housed Second World War servicemen and then a medical clinic. In 1974, it was purchased by Best Western.

The Touro Synagogue and Touro Infirmary are named for Judah Touro, a Sephardic Jew born in 1775 in Newport, R.I., whose father was the hazzan of the original Touro Synagogue there. Touro moved to New Orleans and became a successful merchant, exporter and philanthropist who supported public libraries, many Jewish congregations and other places of worship. He founded the modern Touro Synagogue, which is now located on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans. His largess also included funding the infirmary, to care for people of all incomes, races and religions. Today, it is a highly respected, full-service hospital.

The Touro Synagogue historical plaque (Heather Rosen photo)

Many Jews in early New Orleans were retailers, and this tradition continues today. Exiting the St. Charles streetcar, I noticed Rubenstein’s, a large menswear store at the corner of St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street. On Royal Street, Naghi’s Antique Shop caught my eye because of the large silver menorahs in the window. The owner, I learned, is Iranian-Jewish. On the same street, I passed by James H. Cohen & Sons, a 121-year-old shop that sells antique weapons, coins and war memorabilia.

Today, New Orleans is home to a vibrant Jewish community and celebrates its strong Jewish presence through a series of plaques and memorials, many of them near Riverfront Park, on the banks of the Mississippi River. These include: a permanent Holocaust memorial; a plaque in Woldenberg Park commemorating the late entrepreneur Malcolm Woldenberg’s support of various charities, the worldwide Jewish community and the arts; and a monument to immigrants with donor plaques from local Italian, Jewish and other communities.

The local Jewish food scene includes Stein’s Market and Deli, Goldberg’s Fine Foods, Rimon at Tulane University’s Hillel and Shaya, an award-winning eatery that marries modern Israeli and Southern cuisine. Nearby Metairie, La., which a growing number of Jews now call home, boasts the Kosher Cajun New York Deli and Grocery.

Dining is high art in New Orleans. Some of the city’s best gourmet restaurants serve fabulous, reasonably priced Cajun and Creole fare at dozens of booths during the French Quarter Festival, an annual music and food extravaganza. I also treated myself to an elegant three-course lunch for US$20 ($26) at Antoine’s, the famous 179-year-old restaurant in the French Quarter. If you go, be sure to check out the private green dining room that was profiled on Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown.

New Orleans and its suburbs suffered terrible devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The pre-Katrina Jewish community numbered some 12,500, but by 2006, the number of Jewish residents had shrunk considerably. That year, a Louisiana State University survey determined that roughly 20 per cent of all Jewish survey respondents had fled the city and not returned. Today, the New Orleans Jewish population sits at roughly 8,000, with the capital, Baton Rouge, home to the second-largest Jewish centre in the state.

Other highlights include the private Historic New Orleans Collection, a museum filled with artifacts from the pre-Louisiana Purchase period, up to the present day.

The steamboat Natchez

Since I love being on the water, I enjoyed a delightful Sunday jazz brunch cruise on the Mississippi River, aboard the classic steamboat Natchez. The next day, I bravely boarded a boat aptly named Swamp Creature for a bayou tour at Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, where our guide introduced us to Spanish moss, alligators, turtles, egrets and other wildlife.

READ: WEINFELD: JEWISH LIFE BELOW THE MASON-DIXON LINE

No trip to New Orleans is complete without a visit to the historic 19th-century French Market, which includes the original Café Du Monde, numerous shops, a flea market and a farmers’ market. There, one will find many souvenirs and other goods, including Cajun spice blends, hot sauces, pralines, coffee, T-shirts and the ubiquitous silver fleur-de-lis jewellery.

On my last full day, I opted to take a self-guided tour of the famous Garden District, with its stately 19th-century homes, magnificent wrought-iron balconies and gates, and lush, fragrant gardens.

Next year, Southern Jewish culture will get a major boost. The Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (msje.org) will finally reopen after being shuttered in 2012. The re-imagined museum will be housed in a larger, more accessible facility in downtown New Orleans, with a focus on Southern Jewish history, spanning three centuries and 13 states.

Guess I’ll have to brush up on my Southern accent before I return.

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