The French Quarter in New Orleans.
We spent the last night of our road trip through the Jewish South in New Orleans — not really part of the South at all. The Big Easy is more like the northern extension of the Caribbean. And its Jewish life reflects that.
The pattern we saw here differed from the patterns noted on our previous stops. The first Jews arrived earlier, when Louisiana was still a French colony. These were Sephardis, often crypto-Jews, escaping religious persecution in Europe and looking to do business in the New World. But even here, they didn’t advertise their religion: intermarriage and assimilation were the norm.
The first recognized synagogue in New Orleans, Shangarai Chasset (Gates of Mercy), was founded in 1827, after the Louisiana Purchase. As in the rest of the South, organized Jewish communal life developed towards the 1840s, with the arrival of German Jewish merchants. This meant fewer concessions to assimilated Jews as Ashkenazi rituals supplanted Sephardi customs; by 1841, intermarried men were barred from Shangarai Chasset membership.
As two Sephardis, we went on a quest to find the original home of Shangarai Chasset. We arrived at the corner of St. Louis and North Rampart Street. It was Friday evening, and had the shul still been there we would have been just in time for Shabbat services. Unfortunately, only a plaque now marks the spot. A Catholic church with voodoo ties looms across the street, as does New Orleans’ oldest cemetery, nicknamed the “City of the Dead.”
Malkie Schwartz stands in front of the Institute of Southern Jewish Life in Jackson, Mississippi.
Turn off Highway I-55 N at Frontage Road in Jackson, Mississippi and you’ll come across a non-descript squat brown building. Inside is a trove of Jewish learning.
The Institute of Southern Jewish Life (ISJL) delivers rabbinic services, educational programs and cultural events to small Jewish communities spread across 13 states. Their community engagement director is Malkie Schwartz, whom New Yorkers know as the founder of Footsteps, a nonprofit organization that supports Jews seeking to transition from ultra-Orthodoxy into the mainstream. Schwartz left Crown Heights’ Chabad Lubavitch community in 2000. She moved down south five years ago.
Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel caught up with Schwartz in Jackson, the latest stop on their road trip through the Jewish South.
Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel: What made you decide to move to the South and work at ISJL?
Malkie Schwartz: [ISJL President and CEO] Macy Hart and I would meet frequently at events put on by mutual donors and Jewish organizations. When I said that Footsteps was getting a new executive director, Macy had this idea to help me transition — and it included coming here and helping to start the community engagement department, now five years old. The idea was that we would build a department that recognizes the Jewish legacy of social justice in the South.
Jews pop up in unexpected places in Memphis, Tennessee. Here are six things that surprised us in the Blues City.
The biblical Joseph is stalking us in the South. We first came across him in Alabama, when we drove through Dothan, a town with a fledgling Jewish community. The town’s name comes from a verse in the Torah: When Joseph goes out to check on his shepherd brothers, he’s told that they’ve gone to Dothan. When he gets there, the brothers — jealous of him for being the family favorite — sell him into slavery. We have no idea why the early settlers of Alabama thought it would be a good idea to name their town after this obscure biblical hamlet — but the choice of name is painfully ironic: it references a story about slavery, and we all know what part Alabama played in that dark chapter of history.
Joseph showed up again in Memphis on our visit to the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in 1968. A plaque marking the spot quotes that exact same Joseph story: “They said one to another, ‘Behold, here cometh the dreamer. Let us slay him and we shall see what will become of his dream.’”
The Lorraine Motel is now part of the National Civil Rights Museum, which traces the struggle of African Americans from slavery to civil rights. Jewish references are everywhere. Take the rabbi who visited Parchman Prison in Mississippi to counsel the Freedom Riders incarcerated there. When the warden warned him not to give the prisoners any information about what was happening in the outside world, he replied, “You mean, I can’t tell them that Roger Maris just hit his 62nd home run?” When the warden said no, the rabbi kept up the back-and-forth, listing more and more things that he couldn’t say — all within hearing distance of the prisoners. How Talmudic.
Walking into the Freedom Summer exhibit is like flipping through a Jewish summer camp photo album. Many of the white college kids who came down to Mississippi to help register black voters in 1964 were Northern Jews — and it shows. Three famous faces stand out: Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, two Jewish volunteers, were brutally lynched by the Ku Klux Klan along with James Chaney, a black activist from Mississippi.
Editor’s Note: As part of the Forward’s Our Promised Lands project, which will cover 50 states in 50 weeks, Anne Cohen and Sigal Samuel are setting out on a Southern adventure. Over the next eight days, they will travel to Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi and Louisiana, so keep an eye on this blog to follow their shenanigans. To get you in the mood, here’s a brief history of Jewish road trips.
He may not represent the tribe anymore, but Jesus hails from some pretty hardy Jewish road trippers. Mary and Joseph trekked the 80 miles (a 33-hour walk according to Google Maps) from Nazareth to Bethlehem with only a donkey to lighten their load. In case you’re wondering, that’s roughly the distance from New York to Philadelphia.
Dubbed the “Jewish Marco Polo,” Tudela was a medieval Jewish traveler who visited Europe, Asia and Africa in the 12th century. In what began as a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Tudela traveled through France, Italy, Greece, Constantinople, Syria, Lebanon and what is now Israel before reaching Baghdad. After a stop in Persia, he cut through Egypt and North Africa to return to his homeland of Spain. The things you can get done when you don’t have to go through airport security!
A week ago, I spent part of the day scrambling in ditches in the south of Israel as rocket alarms sounded when I was on the road. Today, the situation is calm and the children are back at school. But residents are left wondering who will foot the bill.
They aren’t talking about the cost of Operation Pillar of Defense itself, but of the financial cost that they suffered as a result of it. Many families had their homes or property damaged, and while public compensation funds are available, they take a long time and lots of form filling. But even in families where homes and cars are fine, the bank balance often isn’t.
Lots of people missed almost two weeks of work for the military operation and preceding rocket fire, and while some will be getting paid as normal, it depends on their employment arrangements and many won’t. For small businesses, the conflict spells financial woes.
It’s unclear exactly how southerners will be reimbursed for lost income and how long it will take. But the political context is important. Labor, which is the main challenger to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Beytenu list, has just put the issue on the campaigning agenda, releasing a five-point socioeconomic rehabilitation plan for the south. which prioritizes compensation.
The last thing that Netanyahu will want is Labor having poster boys and girls from the south saying they are still suffering economically from the war that he started. The fact there’s an election coming up seems to mean that they stand a better chance than normal of getting things sorted out promptly.