I stand with my family in front of a mass grave of siddurim on Christmas Day. Hurricane Katrina destroyed the 3,000 prayer books belonging to Beth Israel synagogue, and, as per tradition, they’re buried in a Jewish cemetery, next to the headstones of former congregants who looked to G-d in their pages. My father read from those same siddurim after he converted in the summer of 2000.
He’s a neuroscience professor, a man who prefers the Aristotelian logic of Maimonides to the mystical ephemera of Hasidic sages. After a few years’ consideration, Ian Arthur Paul, possessor of arguably the most Scots-Irish name ever strung together, wanted to become a Reform Jew. Despite the denomination’s leniency, he insisted we drive down from my hometown of Clinton, Mississippi, to New Orleans so he could properly bathe in an Orthodox temple’s mikvah. The ritual waters washed off any W.A.S.P. impurities—predilections for bacon no doubt replaced by a sudden, robust interest in gefilte fish and hot pastrami—and Ian emerged a full-fledged Member of the Tribe. He joined my mother, a woman raised in the faith, to impart on their two sons the same story inherently laden with struggle and questions. Entire nations tried to burn us away over the millennia, and now, staring at the memorial marker, it seems like nature had it in for us, too. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina drowned Beth Israel, the mikvah pool mixing with the sewer shit and tidal debris as it flooded the sanctuary with ten feet of water. The temple serving New Orleans’s Orthodox Jews for almost ninety years was completely destroyed.
There’s something about a lifetime in the South that can make a post-Shoah Jew feel both a freak and a fraud. As a kid in Clinton, Mississippi, I couldn’t explain theological differences to my third-grade classmates—I didn’t really know myself—so whenever they asked what being a Jew meant, I told them Judaism was “like Christianity, but without Jesus.” For the most part, they’d nod understandingly, a monolithic crucifix central and comprehensible in their lives. Once, a kid cocked his head to the side like a perplexed terrier. He’d never heard of Jews before.
In high school, I learned to use this to my social advantage. Self-deprecation made me approachable, friendly, the sidekick to any clique, so I condoned my lampooning to help generate a social life. My Judaism was an unsightly, suspicious creature I’d graciously dehorned for others to play with, ogle, poke and prod without fear of repercussion.
It never became outright anti-Semitism—thanks in no small part to my self-hate shtick—but Judaism was always getting in the way of things. I was the ninth-grade class president, but when I asked my principal why missing school for Rosh Hashanah counted as one of my six sick days, the spineless motherfucker told me the administration couldn’t be sure I would use the absence for religious purposes. I played tough in a shitty punk band, but you can only be so dangerous when drugs make you anxious and hot mics conduct electricity through your braces. I finally had sex before leaving for college, a feat I thought would be impossible for a Clintonian kike, but that relationship ended shortly after word got out to her Southern Baptist parents. I fell in love with another woman, and when we kissed I could taste the life G-d breathed into her at birth, but I still proceeded to ruin it within a year by fooling around with the first new beautiful woman who showed me the briefest flicker of interest.
Now, eight years later, eleven since Katrina, I’ve almost made peace with my choices— with the relationships that broke more than they mended; with the fact that, had I not taken this or that particular emotional misstep, I might not now incessantly seek a faith in something beyond and better than me. I’ve almost made peace with all this, as I also need to make peace with the possibility of Jewish life as a whole being a tragicomedy.
The entirety of Judaism now barely comprises about 0.2 percent of the world’s population. Of that, 40 percent live in America, 3.5 percent of which live in the South, meaning that only nine percent of American Jews call this region home. An estimated .028 percent of all world Jewry. About 392,000 souls, hardly two generations removed from the industrially efficient genocide that nearly ended us, tethered to a bastardized Israel forged in response to that same surgically precise, state-sponsored slaughter. I’m labeled the historically pernicious “Self-Hating Jew” for critiquing Promised Land policy. I’m decried as a zealot for anything less. If I can’t even find my place within the supposed homeland, then what chance do I have feeling truly at home here? I came to New Orleans to explore my faith and my past, both personal and historic; to come to terms with what, if anything, there is to being a Jew in the South. But by the time I might hope to unpack it all, will there be anything to say?
Maybe I was damned from the start. Damned by remaining natives if I did move here, damned by myself if I drank away my twenties back in Oxford, Mississippi—and if I was going to drink away my twenties, I should at least do it in a town with a shul where I could detox every few Fridays. But then I got here, and saw the new Jews were just like me, if only a few years older—young, hungry, lured by affordability. After the storm, the Jewish Federation of New Orleans offered incentive grants to commit a Crescent City Aliyah. It took, and although there are technically more Jews in the city now than pre-hurricane, it seems like we’re less interested in minyans than we are in mixers—a young, myopic horde sweeping the city of which I am now a part, contributing probably in no small way to this town’s rapid mutation into an artisanal Gomorrah, full of safe sin and craft cocktail happy hours. At the very least, there’s no denying I’m turning a blind eye to what is ostensibly the Sherman’s March of gentrification, poisoning the culture like salted earth in Savannah. We’re High Holy Day Heebs, showing up for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, then largely calling it quits until next year.
When the next Katrina hits, perhaps this city will be better equipped to weather it. Maybe there won’t be quite as large an exodus, but at that point, who’d care? What, exactly, will be the culture of the children and grandchildren of High Holy Day Heebs? Will there even be a Jewish culture left to wash away? Two or three generations from now, if New Orleans isn’t underwater, will anyone at Beth Israel be able to tell you about the scent of the Canal Street sanctuary’s pews? I barely remember it myself.
There’s guilt in even asking these questions, in recounting these stories, because I know I’ll never endure true persecution. I trump up my history because I know I’ll never possess an adequate backstory. I have no Warsaw Uprising. There are Jews who’ve been raped in the streets, chased by dogs, violated physically and spiritually. Some of them are still alive. They endured a darkness, not me. I respect them, and I respect the dead. I respect the names I’ll never know, because they, along with the bodies they represent, are buried, unmarked, under bloodied dirt. But in a landscape that’s increasingly devoid of its own past, what else is there to anchor me? Does that mean my life will be nothing but a walking kaddish, a prayer for the dead? How am I supposed to be anything else in the South, when my path is eclipsed by both a fog of human ash and the shadow of the Cross?
At eighty years old, Jackie Gothard can fit more words into one breath than I can at twenty-five. She speeds past any stereotype of slow-tongued Southerners, rattling off familial history, historical fact, as well as invitations to her house, the shul, and Beth Israel’s cemetery.
“I know exactly where they’re buried,” she tells me over the phone, referring to the Torahs I couldn’t find on my first visit to the cemetery. “When we finish our conversation, I’ll tell you—no, I’ll meet you there! That’ll be better.”
It’s taken about forty minutes for Jackie’s story to catch up to Hurricane Katrina. I initially reached out to learn about her synagogue’s seemingly impossible resuscitation from the near-death following the storm. Even a decade later, the months after the devastation are as tragic as they are unclear. The stories conflict as to just what happened and when—about who, if anyone, was responsible for the shul’s safety, as if even recent history is unreliable upon the faintest scrutiny.
Until now, the preamble reached as far back as 1900, to her grandparents’ kosher butcher shop on Dryades Street. At that time, around 5,000 Jews lived in New Orleans, primarily in communities around that area. Not long before, in 1872, the first king of Mardi Gras, Lewis Salomon, was even a Jew. As global anti-Semitism rose, however, they began to be excluded from the more prominent historic krewes and clubs. Still, the Jewish merchant class catered to a racially diverse city, even though multiple shuls—Litvak, Polish, and Galitzianer among others—operated without access to a permanent location. In 1904, these small subsects combined to form the first Beth Israel Orthodox congregation. Jackie’s spent her entire life a Beth Israel congregant, and had watched its development until the storm hit in 2005.
“After Katrina, it was a struggle. … We knew that, early on, there was no way we would be able to bring that building on Canal Boulevard back to life. Certainly, it was going to be too big for us even to maintain or try to salvage it.”
Jackie and her husband, Sol, were in Washington, D.C., for a wedding when the storm made landfall. Her son, Eddie, let them know the city wasn’t safe, and, after securing their home, made his way to meet them in Dallas. There, like the rest of the congregants scattered across the States, they waited until it was possible to return to whatever home was left standing. Every night, Jackie would lay in bed thinking about the 17th Street canal levee breach, just blocks from her synagogue, and the waters that no doubt now filled the halls and sanctuary. It became a mathematical mantra, adding up the inches it would take to reach the Torahs in their ark.
“But the thing is, when you went into the synagogue, the main sanctuary had a step down. The men’s section was below the women’s section. And the bimah area was at a higher level,” she says, referring to the pulpit. “I would try to think, even if we have six or seven feet of water, we have that recessed area in the synagogue. That’s about three feet below ground level, so that’ll take about three feet of water. The bimah itself is raised up, so that’s at least another two and a half, three feet. And then the Torah scrolls standing on their spindles—that’s another six inches.”
She tallies the numbers again for me as if still trying to convince herself of the impossibility of ten feet of floodwater. A few days later, Jackie got a call from Zaka, a Jewish-run disaster relief organization; if a bus bomb detonates in Tel Aviv, they’re the ones called in to collect what’s left of victims’ remains. By Jewish law, a body is to be buried as complete as possible.
Every day, Zaka members helicoptered in from Baton Rouge, using the New Orleans minor league baseball team’s stadium as a landing pad. Rescue teams patrolled neighborhoods for stranded families stuck in attics, abandoned pets, and anyone else who might need aid. Eventually, the group made it to the ruins of a still-flooded Beth Israel, where a Zaka volunteer offered to retrieve the scrolls. Jackie told him to wait until she arrived back in town.
“I was worried about several things. If he found the scrolls, and they were okay, where was he going to put them? Also, I was concerned about insurance coverage, you know? If he took the scrolls out, is he going to jeopardize them, or what?”
A single sefer Torah—one handmade by specialized rabbinic scribes—can easily cost upwards of $60,000 and take a year to finish. The next day, Mrs. Gothard got a call from a friend on the West Coast.
“My friend says, ‘Isn’t the name of your synagogue Beth Israel?’ I said, ‘Yes, it is. Why?’ He said, ‘Aren’t you the ones that got flooded out?’ ‘Yes, we did.’ ‘Well there’s a picture of your rabbis carrying out your Torah scrolls. It’s on the front page of the LA Times.’”
Jackie can’t help laughing.
“I said, ‘What!’ I went to a computer, we pulled up the LA Times, and sure enough … there it is.”
A second call came not long after, this time from Zaka.
“He said, ‘I got your Torah scrolls.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I know. I just got a phone call about that.’ And he said, ‘Where do you want me to put them?’ I said, ‘Oh my G-d, rabbi, I’m driving home from Dallas, and I don’t know what to tell you, but I think I know a friend that can help.”
The Gothards’ rush home only intensified after that. Jackie got in touch with Beth Israel’s longtime secretary, who agreed to look after the scrolls, thinking that would buy them enough time to figure out what to do next. If nothing else, the Torahs would be safe for the moment. Later in the day, however, another phone call—this time from the secretary.
“She said, ‘Jackie, I took the covers off. He didn’t unwrap them, he didn’t even take the covers off … They’re rotting. They’ve been in the water for so long.’”
Jackie’s nightly floodwater mathematics came up short.
“The water had risen, like, a third of the way of the scrolls. She said all of the parchment is melting away,” Mrs. Gothard remembers. “She said, ‘It smells like rotten animal skin.’ Which it is.” (Torah scrolls are traditionally written on parchment made from kosher animal hide.) “She said, ‘It’s probably biotoxic. I can’t even bring them indoors. I’ve opened them all, I’ve unrolled them all, I’ve taken off all the covers, I have them on the back patio drying out.’”
After speaking with Stuart Shiff, Beth Israel’s rabbi at the time, they decided to temporarily bury the scrolls in the secretary’s backyard until further preparations could be made.
During this time, yet another blow befell the congregation. Meyer Lachoff, their longtime gabbai—the Jewish caretaker of a temple’s daily affairs—died while being evacuated by bus from a nursing home during the storm. In addition to his more than three decades serving at Beth Israel, Lachoff was also Jackie’s cousin.
“Meyer lasted two days here in the hospital, and he died. He lasted two days after Katrina,” she remembers.
Beth Israel couldn’t seem keep its congregants in New Orleans, either temporally or spiritually. Even Rabbi Shiff left, although the exact specifics of why appear lost on her.
“We were ready to re-up his contract! He was so good a rabbi, so sweet, a fabulous pulpit rabbi,” Jackie says, as if remembering the dearly departed. “He could have stayed forever, it seemed. His wife was so spooked … of staying in New Orleans, and Rabbi Shiff moved on, and we really lost him. It’s a shame. He keeps in touch with us, and …” Jackie trails off. “Well, anyway …”
Clean-up efforts continued through March as a congregation reduced to a few relatives and close friends of the Gothards sorted through what remained of their synagogue. The bimah had been lifted by the floodwaters and deposited on the rotting wooden pews of the women’s section. Dishes and cutlery, meticulously separated and kept clean according to kosher law, had to be donated elsewhere or given away. Over 3,000 siddurim were collected. These would also need to be buried, along with the Torahs still lying in a nearby backyard. Jackie and others returned to Lachoff’s gravesite. The neighboring plot was unreserved.
“No name was on it, and it was not being used. It was empty. We thought, ‘This is a perfect place to put the seven Torah scrolls.’ Because Meyer looked after the scrolls for most of his adult life,” Jackie tells me.
Even with phone lines still down, the Gothards managed to spread the word, and over 100 people made it to the ritual burial of the Bibles and siddurim that month. Rabbi Shiff returned to lead the service.
“Jewish families, and people who were volunteering all over the city, came out to the cemetery,” she says. “We had our burial, Shiff moved on, we were here. We just didn’t know what to do.”
Temptations is a Bourbon Street strip joint and onetime home of a particular New Orleans Jew named Judah P. Benjamin, who just so happened to serve as the Confederate Secretary of War. I only learned of this by happenstance during a random late-night Internet search of New Orleans Judaic history. Few seem to know about Benjamin’s past residence or his role in one of the most formative and horrific institutions that molded the South, and even fewer are aware that a ten-foot oiled pole stretches from floor to ceiling of his private study. For weeks, I intend to make it out to Beth Israel’s Friday night Shabbat services—I haven’t been in years, and I should see the results of their recovery efforts—but my morbid curiosity about the nudie bar gets the better of me.
Early one Friday, I opt to fortify myself at Siberia, a metal bar on St. Claude Avenue. There’s a Russian restaurant in the back, and I convince myself that, if I can’t make it to shul, the borscht and pierogis and potato vodka are a fitting tribute to my Eastern European Ashkenazi ancestors. My mother’s side of the family, the genealogically Jewish portion, hails from Lithuania. The Shoah made sure that’s the only information I have on them pre-1933. After a couple shots of Monopolowa, I stumble upon a Polish malt liquor called Lomza. It’s relatively cheap, relatively strong, something I like to imagine my great-great-grandparents drinking. L’chaim. To life.
I blink, and find myself trudging down Bourbon Street toward Temptations at that peak heat stench magic hour soon after sunset, when the day’s humidity slumps lecherously around the early evening drunks, the street-corner chain-smokers, the carbon copy, thrill-slumming trust-fund punks dragging along fashionable pit bulls.
Shabbat begins just before I make it into the strip joint. Inside, nursing an eight-dollar bottle of Bud Light, a dancer approaches and sits in the chair opposite me. I ask if she knows the history of the building.
“No, but you know who might?” she says.
She explains that dances cost forty dollars a song, and, if I want one, there are some interesting, historical rooms out back we could pass by. I take out my wallet, and she leads me to a cashier.
“So, these are our private dance rooms. They used to be the slaves’ quarters. If you look through the window, you can see the fireplaces where they cooked their food.”
I lean in, nose against the glass to cut through the neon light glare behind me, and see a pair of faux-regal couches facing a pole reaching up to the ceiling. An unused fire pit is set into the far wall.
“Do a lot of customers ask about this building’s story?” I say, cupping my hands around my eyes.
“No. Usually, they just ask to see my tits.”
“Back after Katrina, I stayed up in the top floor until they opened the hotels back up. One night, I was walking around, and I felt something grab my ankle from under a table. Could have been a muscle spasm, I guess. But I got the fuck out of there anyway.”
My guide leads me toward the larger room at the end of Temptations’ open-air back courtyard. We pass wrought iron patio furniture, the chairs occupied two to a seat—smiling dancers lounging in the laps of tired-eyed drunks.
“This was the carriage house,” she explains, ushering me inside.
I sink into a sagging couch opposite a swing anchored to the rafters and begin fumbling with my notepad, scribbling nonsense onto the page to look occupied.
“Oh, do you want that dance?” she asks as if just remembering, positioning herself in front of me.
“Oh, uh, no thanks,” I say.
She shrugs and sits next to me, producing her phone out of thin air. I look around the room, imagining the Secretary of War climbing into his ride before leaving out the courtyard’s exit.
“Do you know who this place used to belong to?” I ask.
“Nope,” she answers, looking up from her phone and smiling.
I tell her.
“Hmm. Never heard of him. But my dad is half-Jewish and half-black,” she says. “Jews seem to be able to tell just by looking at me.”
She’s reminded of something, and sets to work at her phone, typing away, and soon holds the glowing screen in front of my face to show a photo of crumbling cemetery headstones.
“I pass this Jewish graveyard when I go running. Just the other day, after that big storm front came through, I noticed these headstones had blown over. Isn’t that crazy?”
A woman with an Amazonian physique walks in and a short, beefy man trails behind her. They take a spot in the far corner of the room. Both begin to giggle. I write more lines of nothing in my notebook.
“We should go back inside, time’s up here,” my guide tells me.
The woman across from us is topless now, her legs bent improbably around her patron.
“You know, people say this place is haunted, though,” she says. “Want me to show you around upstairs?”
“Would that be alright?” I ask, already guilty about potentially wasting valuable time with far more eager clients.
“Sure, not a problem.”
The interior of Temptations still gives off an air of nineteenth-century bourgeois gentility. The high ceilings feature numerous crystal chandeliers, and the bar has a sturdy, dark wood finish. With New Orleans’s recent smoking ban, the air lacks its former cigarette haze, which, in this case, may not be a good thing. She leads me past a stone-faced bouncer, up the four flights of stairs to the VIP areas.
“That chandelier right there,” she says, pointing to one in a room with a pool table, “one night, it just started raining on me, so I went upstairs to see if there was a plumbing leak, but everything was dry. All the bathrooms are on the other side of the building.”
I peer up at the twinkling glass.
“I hate how they rearranged the chairs in here, anyway,” she says, herding me into another room with a small, cheap portrait of an antebellum lady.
“Her eyes follow you, swear to G-d.”
I pace back and forth, trying to outrun the Southern belle’s glare. Behind me, I hear the click of stilettos. When I turn around, my guide is peering over the staircase railing. I stand beside her, looking down at the three-story drop as vertigo sets in. Against my better judgment, I feel that instinctual urge to jump.
“A few years ago, this one girl tripped backwards and fell through the gap here.”
“Now you’re fucking with me,” I say, laughing.
“Nope. Swear to G-d. I was here when it happened. She broke her neck.”
My grin drops.
“Oh,” I say. “And she works here?”
“Well, not anymore, obviously,” she says, holding onto the rails as she eases herself down the steps in her five-inch spike heels. “Eight years ago, a house mother killed herself, too. But I don’t think that actually happened in the club.”
She introduces me to the front-of-house cashier. The woman is eating a bag of potato chips, and in between chews, I can see she has braces.
“Do you know about,” my guide pauses, turns to me, “what was his name?”
“Nah, sorry,” she says, offering chips to her friend.
“But you did have that thing with the ghost, right?” she follows up.
“Oh, yeah. Back after Katrina, I stayed up in the top floor until they opened the hotels back up. One night, I was walking around, and I felt something grab my ankle from under a table.” Another handful of chips. “Could have been a muscle spasm, I guess. But I got the fuck out of there anyway.”
I decide not to waste any more of their time, and, unsure of strip club rates, take out another forty dollars from my wallet.
“Thanks for showing me around,” I say. “Really.”
My guide kisses me on the cheek.
“Of course. Don’t worry about it,” she says.
As she pockets the money, a giant, round man lumbers by with a clipboard in his hand.
“Oh, this is the owner of the place,” she tells me, stopping the behemoth. “Hey, what was this place before it was a strip club?” she asks him. He shakes his head.
“Always been a strip club,” he tells us, and walks away.
If Temptations’ history is largely said and done for, regardless of its accuracy, then I begin to wonder about the memories of Beth Israel’s very recent tragedies; if in hindsight the hurricane’s thunder will serve as the congregation’s tolling bell, or the ringing in of their new era.
Rabbi Shiff doesn’t want to talk about Katrina. It takes me a few days to convince him, and, now that he works with the Aish Center in New York City, a few more to align our schedules for an interview. I call him at 11 p.m. his time, per Shiff’s request, and catch him while he’s late-night grocery shopping.
“Thank you,” I hear him tell a cashier, away from the phone’s speaker.
There’s a tiredness in his voice that goes beyond a long day at the office—it’s the exhaustion born from difficult memories and the innumerable times he’s been asked to recall them. Every answer is preceded by a third trimester-sized pregnant pause, Shiff carefully navigating and ordering his thoughts before responding.
He explains his beginnings in Las Vegas as an assistant rabbi with an Orthodox congregation there before taking the New Orleans position in the spring of 2000. He’s proud of the first four years working with the Jewish community here, preferring to focus on strengthening Jewish pride and education rather than simply bolstering numbers.
“The concept of the synagogue being the only avenue to relate to one’s Judaism is not something that I really connect to,” he says. “To create the programming by which the community would be interested in, and connect with their Judaism … I think what we did was really, really amazing.”
A car door closes on the other end of the line as the rabbi explains that he and his family were some of the last to leave before the storm. In the past, when hurricanes travelled their way, they occasionally stayed with family friends in Memphis, the closest active Orthodox community. Initially, he thought they were going to stay in town for Katrina; Shiff, his wife, and their five children were becoming accustomed to weathering the storms. And, besides, the last he checked before Shabbat, Katrina was expected to hit the Florida panhandle, with New Orleans only receiving relatively minor damage.
“I got to shul on Shabbat morning, and one of the past presidents said, ‘So, rabbi, are you leaving?’ I didn’t know what he was talking about. … They were listening to the news on Friday night and Shabbat morning. I was not,” he says. “They came in and warned me that it had changed course and was heading to New Orleans.”
Like many evacuees, the Shiff family packed enough for only a few days and left for Memphis; they ended up staying there for more than three months. A few days was all it took to scatter the century-old congregation, and in that small window of time, every tangible, holy thing in their temple was ruined.
“I had no clue that what happened was actually possible. The whole concept of ten or twelve feet of water … I had no clue. That’s why I assumed the Torahs would be safe,” he says.
I recount Jackie’s version of the rescue attempts, asking if he travelled back down to help as well. He explains that he wasn’t there personally, but that he arranged for the Torah rescue through Zaka volunteers. I hear a car door open and close again, and a woman’s muffled voice.
“I admit to you, there was a real cognitive dissonance upon hearing that news. I really did not believe it, and I did not believe it for days,” he says.
“Jackie told me that your wife didn’t feel safe after Katrina, and you wanted a better Jewish education for your children. That’s why you left,” I say.
“That is not true.”
I pause. Shiff seems to sense this, and describes a conference call between the shul’s board of directors and him a week after the hurricane. By his memory, they said that the shul was done for, and they would be dissolving his contract, even though three years remained on it.
“Which is illegal,” he adds, not doubting their ability to pay at the time. “The shul didn’t go bankrupt, for goodness sake!”
While situating himself in Memphis, he had begun working with national Jewish organizations to raise funds for both the rebuilding of Beth Israel, as well as relief aid for the entire city.
“You know the story of Lot and his two daughters? The Bible story,” he asks.
“Um, the one with the angels?” I stammer.
“They had to leave Sodom and Gomorrah, and they escaped to the mountaintop, the father and the two daughters. The two daughters did very heinous and immoral things. You remember the story?” he asks again. “But you know why they did heinous and immoral things? Because they thought that it was the end of the world, and they made a knee-jerk decision not based in reality, but based on this ridiculous …” A pause. “They made this decision to dissolve the contract and to fire me based on an irrational fear.”
According to Shiff, the panic that set in from the ruined community caused what remained of the powers-that-be to terminate their agreement.
“Well, did you threaten any legal action?” I ask, almost as if I were a parent suggesting to their child how to deal with a problematic classmate.
“There’s no such thing as a rabbi suing his synagogue,” he says. “You can’t do that.”
Rabbi Shiff turned down the remaining congregants’ request that he come back shortly after the storm to lead Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services, but he did return in time to lead the burial rites for the holy books.
I ask him if he’s still angry about it, if it’s something he can move on from.
“I don’t blame them, per se. It’s just very, very disappointing. I wouldn’t use the terms ‘moved on.’ I still think about them. I still care about them. But it’s true that I’m not in touch with them.”
“Have they ever apologized?” I ask.
“I don’t think that they believe that they did that. I think that, whoever it was that made the original decision, they’re living in an alternate reality where we left so that our children could have a better education, which is what they told everybody,” he explains.
“Do you want an apology?”
“No. It’s unnecessary.” There’s the rustle of unpacking groceries and the sounds of a family through the phone. “I don’t need an apology. Thank G-d we recovered, and are living our lives. I don’t hold anything against [them]. I really don’t. I really don’t.”
A few weeks later I’m waiting in the parking lot of a reconstructed Beth Israel synagogue, its new house of worship built on land bought from Congregation Gates of Prayer, a suburban Reform temple out in Metairie, the two sects at opposite ends of the Hebraic spectrum now sharing a playground for their children. I’m supposed to meet Gabe Greenberg—the temple’s newest rabbi—at 9 p.m., but he’s running late, having been called upon last minute to sit shiva, joining a mourning prayer circle for a recently deceased congregant. I pass the time by flipping through romantic prospects on JDate, but the app on my phone is glitching up. I keep getting the same four Nice Jewish Girls with nose rings and fashionable hamsa necklaces.
Greenberg pulls up in his sedan, and is soon leading me inside the darkened shul towards his office. He flicks on the overhead fluorescents, revealing a room furnished with the traditional rabbinic Feng Shui: paintings of wizened, Old World rebbes; bookshelves filled with leather-bound spines; a desk covered with the detritus of Jewish counseling—bar mitzvah practice sheets, notes for future sermons, a calendar scribbled with innumerable obligations. He sits at a small table in the corner to take off his shoes. There’s no rabbinic cadence to his voice, no punctuating the ends of every sentence with a question mark. He speaks slowly, as if corralling disparate thoughts, interspersing West Coast pauses among his finalized ideas.
“My grandfather was a very longtime Conservative rabbi. He’s, like, old-school.”
“A Jew’s Jew?” I suggest.
“Yeah, a real American Jew. I don’t feel like that myself, but, I mean, whatever. In my own way, I do it.”
One gets that sense looking at him. The rabbi doesn’t resemble the men in the wall portraits—there’s not one stray gray hair in his short, trimmed beard, and, at 33, he looks to be in better shape than I am. He’s opted for a J. Crew button-up and chinos, not the suffocating spun-wool suits of his forefathers. With his shoes set off to one side, I notice Greenberg’s pair of bright, fashionably striped socks.
“People had said, ‘You should be a rabbi.’ Which is something that I think, if you’re interested in Judaism and other people around you are less interested, then they say that.”
Greenberg took their advice, and was ordained in 2012. It turns out he’s only lived in New Orleans a year longer than I have, after a short gig at the UC Berkeley Hillel in California, and is also trying to figure out this city and his new congregation.
“There’s a lot of pride,” he reflects. “Like, in both New Orleans as a city, and in the Jewish community. In particular, people are very proud of the connection between Beth Israel and Gates of Prayer. People want to talk about that a lot.”
It’s a nice Hallmark story for Southern Jews already splintered and scattered by both geography and theology—two vastly differing groups coming together to build something new and holy.
“Which is interesting to me, because I don’t personally see it as a big deal.” He laughs. “I mean, of course, yeah, it’s a shame that it isn’t like that in other places. To me, I don’t see it as a big deal, personally. But, fine.”
While relatively inconsequential to Rabbi Greenberg, the schism is often more pronounced in regions where the amount of inter-congregational partisanship doesn’t need to be rationed like freshwater at sea. Many traditional Orthodox and Hasidic communities don’t even acknowledge the Reform movement as Jewish, and the denomination is routinely marginalized in Israel. In places like the Deep South, disparate communities find common ground, or they perish alone.
Unfortunately, Greenberg has little to say about New Orleans, or Beth Israel’s rebirth. Like me, he’s still processing the glut of regional and cultural information, including the operatic history of this temple. Instead, I find myself steering the conversation towards an impromptu counseling session. What began as a discussion between two recent New Orleans transplants has turned into Rabbi Greenberg helping me navigate my cosmic crisis.
“How do you think Jewish identity has changed post-Shoah?” I ask, firing the big guns first.
“Dude … I could talk about this forever,” he says, smiling, as he adjusts his large yarmulke. “I think that this story really begins two hundred years ago, post-Enlightenment—that’s where the schism of modernity begins. And that trauma to Judaism was, like, still being worked out as another schism happened, which was America.”
This isn’t simplifying things. My leg begins to twitch compulsively.
“America is a whole new thing. America is unique—and I’m not an American exceptionalist—but America is unique in one way, and it’s the fact that there is no dominant ethnic group. So for Jews, that is such a weird, new place—we’re not defining ourselves in opposition to anything. There is no Unified Other.”
Okay, so only a couple new things to take into consideration.
“And then the Shoah happens. And then the State of Israel happens,” he says, referring to the number of modern cultural considerations necessary for us to consider, “… and, like, I think you’re adding a five or six with the South, and maybe New Orleans, within that.”
“So, mainstream, American Judaism—professional Jews—are trying to stay ahead of the curve and coming up to describe new ways of, like, ‘What are we?’” he says.
Greenberg says he’s skeptical of any argument in favor United States Jewry sharing some vague sense of identity.
“Frankly, I think, to me, we don’t, actually.”
I understand where he’s coming from, but a compounded “us versus them” mentality is always factored into growing up Jewish in the South. Alienation squared. A sizable portion of Southerners still cling to the Rebel Glory Days of their shit-kicker great-grandpappies, all Stars and Bars and spite. It’s an ostracized community that wants little, if anything, to do with my own ostracized clan. Add in a healthy dose of 700 Club evangelism, Chick-fil-A-sponsored prayer breakfasts before school, chaste church sock-hops, and you get a Protestant white-flight suburb like my hometown of Clinton. All this less than an hour and a half from where they dumped Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner’s bodies by a dam in Philadelphia, Mississippi.
How can a Jew—a mainstream, American Jew in the South—live with this history, along with millennia of additional hatred, and not be defined by it?
“The sword of anti-Semitism hangs over all our necks. Thankfully, we’re in a generation where it hangs very far away,” Greenberg says.
“It’s not hard to squint and see it,” I say, then force a laugh.
“Yeah! And although I don’t live in constant fear, it’s true. It’s true. The thing that goes part and parcel to that is, like, when things are good for us, people stop being Jewish.”
“So we need the opposition?” I ask.
“We do need it! It’s what keeps us together.” He pauses, both of us staring at each other in a way that guiltily acknowledges the paradox.
It’s late, and the rabbi has a newborn son to attend to. Leaving, he tells me I should check out some of what the larger community has to offer, maybe even swing by for Shabbat services this Friday.
“I feel like my mission as a rabbi is to ensure that people have positive Jewish experiences that are meaningful,” he says, “to remember that this thing can be more than just Us against Them. More than, ‘They occasionally try to kill us,’ and then us in reaction to that.”
I arrange to meet Jackie one more time, hoping to straighten out the stories. Two weeks later, I drive again out to Metairie after my new day job. Parking, I can see Jackie through Beth Israel’s open doors, filling a water pitcher in a foyer sink used for ritual hand washing before prayers.
“I noticed the plants outside were a little thirsty,” she says as I walk in.
This is the first time I’ve seen the synagogue during the day, a clean and well-lit place in the setting summer sun glow. The building was dedicated in 2012, but it still smells new, a sinus-clearing scent of lumber mixed with gallons of carpet cleaner and thousands of pages’ worth of prayer books. After watering the patio ferns, Jackie sits with me in the temple’s small conference room for our final meeting, showing me a stack of photos taken by Zaka volunteers during their first forays after the storm into the old Beth Israel.
“It was ninety-five-plus degrees, and for two months after Katrina, not a drop of rain. No rain. The heat was just letting the mold grow.”
She points to the water line in each photo that delineates the flood swell’s height. Rot eats away anything below it. One picture shows a row of sanctuary pews covered in hues of grayish sickness, another features a pile of muddy tallitot, the woolen prayer shawls disintegrating in swamp heat. A third photo focuses on the rubber rafts used to float into the submerged synagogue.
Once the waters receded, Beth Israel consisted of Jackie and a small portion of her immediate family in the initial recovery months. Some congregants slowly made their way back to the city, joining in the clean-up process, but it was clear early on that their building was a lost cause.
“Our numbers were much smaller. We may have lost anywhere from a quarter to a third of the congregation. They moved off,” she says. “We couldn’t use that building. It was too big. We didn’t have anything, and we had to start from scratch.”
While the city’s other four synagogues needed repair as well, they weren’t in nearly as bad shape as the Orthodox temple. Soon, they all opened their doors to Jackie and the returning flock. She eventually chose to partner with the Gates of Prayer in Metairie, borrowing their social hall and a side of their kitchen for kosher cooking as they worked towards raising funds for their own house of worship.
“The thing is, it wasn’t long before we realized that Beth Israel was not just the building, it was the people. It was a hundred years of history. My grandson, who was about to make bar mitzvah, would have been the fifth generation in our family there. I don’t want to just let my history go down with the water,” she says, pausing on a pre-storm picture of the old sanctuary.
“We had to prove that we still had a congregation that wanted to be Beth Israel. When we started having services over there, we started having them every three weeks or so. We didn’t know if we could make a minyan—it was that kind of challenge. And then it was working.”
One year later, on the anniversary of the storm, a West Coast congregation donated Beth Israel’s first new Torah.
“Church bells were ringing all over New Orleans. We were dancing in the streets. We met at the airport, they came in with the Torah. We had a klezmer band, and we were dancing the horah outside with the Torah in the middle,” she says. “That was our celebration for Katrina, getting our first Torah as a gift.”
The new Beth Israel reopened in 2012. Now, they have five Torah scrolls in their own sanctuary ark. They’re housed in a smaller room, with about half as many seats as the former building could hold. Not that the old structure could house Shabbat services anymore. The community only managed to sell their old building within the last year, the space now housing an outpatient treatment medical clinic. A Star of David-shaped dome still tops the roof, filtering sunlight down on its new inhabitants.
“One of these days I’m going to visit it,” she tells me. “I’m going to go knock on the door, and tell them, ‘I’m not a patient. I’m used to being here.’”
As we gather our things to leave, I bring up Rabbi Shiff’s memory of events—the contract annulment, the disappointment, the sense of blame. Jackie looks confused and shakes her head resolutely.
“We were ready to re-up his contract,” she repeats, echoing our last talk almost verbatim. “He is an amazing pulpit rabbi. He led a beautiful service, gave a great sermon. We were so happy with him. I’m sure not being a native New Orleanian, and to have a newborn baby just two weeks old—he wanted his family to safety.”
“Is there any blame about the ruined Torahs?” I ask.
Jackie shakes her head again sharply, a strong no. “He didn’t think about taking the Torahs out,” she says, but in a way that suggests no one did, and I remember what she said a few days earlier: No one was here to think about the Torah scrolls.
After locking up the building, Jackie gives me a small tour of their back patio. Wooden picnic tables shine brightly from their lacquered finish in front of two party-sized grills. A large urn fountain sputters water over its brim in the middle of a manicured flower and herb garden. Like the rest of this Beth Israel, it all feels too new, giving off a sense of tense expectancy, as if waiting for a history to imprint upon it. Births to be celebrated, lives to be lived, deaths to be mourned. Storms to be weathered.
Jackie points to a large shrub in a corner.
“What?” I ask.
“Rosemary, you want some for cooking?”
“Oh, sure,” I say.
Jackie snaps off a bushel’s worth of herbs for me.
“I don’t know if I need this much,” I say, laughing.
“Oh, please. Take it. I brought this thing here after it got too big for my house. Now it won’t stop growing.”
We say our goodbyes. I offer to walk Jackie back to her car, but she says she’s going to stick around for a little while longer. She’s got new flowers to plant, and there are weeds that need pulling.
I visit Beth Israel’s cemetery alone that weekend, and, per Jackie’s directions, find the second grave, this one home to the decayed Torahs. It’s been six months since I last visited here with my father. It’s much hotter now. A man across the street is hunched over an open car hood, working on its engine as the stereo speakers blast New Orleans bounce music. Five minutes outside, and I’m schvitzing through my shirt. Meyer Lachoff’s headstone neighbors the Torahs he cared for—he and the scrolls died almost the same day.
There’s the story of a rabbi from Prague, fearful of the European pogroms, who builds a protector out of clay, a golem, to save his people from persecution. To bring it to life, he inscribes the Hebrew word for truth, emet, on its forehead. There are variations of the tale, but it usually ends with the golem becoming as serious a threat to the persecuted as to the persecutors. An unbridled, thoughtless, destructive behemoth, the embodiment of Judaic prideful passion run wild. Realizing this, the rabbi lures the golem back to the town’s synagogue. He rubs away the letter aleph from the beginning of emet. Now, it simply reads met, death, and the golem falls to pieces, crying out for his abba, his father.
Ian Arthur Paul, eager to impart Jewish culture on his firstborn, first told me this story before bed when I was ten years old. It kept me up all night. The pain of the golem, a creature who didn’t ask for its heritage, who only wanted safety and justice for its people, remains with me. Sometimes, when I’m alone and can’t sleep, I think about the rabbi’s golem, and I wonder what would happen if it were constructed from Southern soil. Would the Yazoo clay let it live a malleable life, to mold to its surroundings with ease? Could it give up its incessant need for self-righteous, violent opposition? Could it love this world thrust on it, or would it crumble away in the floodwaters, washing downstream, crying out for its Creator to reconsider?
I say kaddish, and go home.