The Rex parade entered the city at the port, the procession stepping from a lavishly decorated boat that drifted down the Mississippi and docked at the foot of Canal Street. It was afternoon on Mardi Gras Day, 1872. Historian Ned Sublette describes the scene in his history of the city, “The Year Before the Flood: A Story of New Orleans.” Lewis Solomon waved from atop his horse, to the crowds. Adorned with crown and scepter and draped in robes, he looked the part of Rex, the first King of Mardi Gras. The theme of that inaugural parade was “the Arabs,” so his dukes and other krewe members were swathed in long, flowing robes as well, to fit the theme, although in an interview decades later, Solomon described the outfits as less Bedouin and more “Ku Klux Klan.”
Solomon dismounted his horse to address the crowd, which he had summoned in an edict, printed on pamphlets and in the papers that had circulated for the past few weeks, encouraging New Orleanians and tourists alike to flock downtown and take part in the greatest party the country had ever thrown. This was, after all, the Reconstruction-era Deep South, a struggling economy devastated by the collapse of the slavery system and the loss of the Civil War. Solomon, a banker for the city’s prominent cotton merchants, was the krewe’s fundraising chair and worked with the rest of the new members to stir up as much excitement (and thus funding) for the city’s first official Mardi Gras festivities as they could.
And draw a crowd they did. Solomon greeted the parade’s special guest, Grand Duke Alexis of Imperial Russia, with a warm welcome to the city of New Orleans. A collection of bands burst into the Russian national anthem before breaking into the Rex krewe’s theme song, “If I Ever Cease to Love,” a popular tune from the musical “Bluebeard,” which was finishing up a run in New Orleans. After all this fanfare, the parade made its procession through the choked streets of downtown, among revelers in homemade costumes. The parade kicked off a full day of debauchery that didn’t shut down until midnight, when Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season officially began, plunging the city into an uncharacteristic few weeks of sobriety.
The city of New Orleans was founded by the French in 1718, and six years later colonial leaders began enforcing the Code Noir, or Black Code, of 1615, which expelled all Jews from the colony and established Roman Catholicism as the only recognized religion. But as has always been typical in New Orleans, the law was loosely enforced (and sometimes ignored outright) until 1762, when the French ceded the colony to Spain. The Spanish, with their history of anti-Semitism and the Inquisition, initiated a campaign of confiscating Jewish assets and kicking the few Jewish residents out of Louisiana. It wasn’t until 1815, when the United States acquired New Orleans as part of the Louisiana Purchase, that Jews were legally allowed to live in the territory. One of the first Jews to move to New Orleans at this time, Judah Touro, quickly made his mark — prominent Touro Synagogue (the oldest synagogue west of the Mississippi) and Touro Hospital still bear his name.
As happened in cities all over the United States, a flood of German Jews arrived, a population that quickly built a community of lawyers, doctors, bankers, businessmen, and other professionals. They assimilated, for the most part, and in New Orleans they established their community uptown, among the gentiles. Then, at the turn of the twentieth century, the Orthodox immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived, carving out a spot downtown, in what is now majority African-American Central City. This population was, in general, not as wealthy or as assimilated as their fellow Jews a couple miles uptown, and the German Jews often looked down on the newer arrivals, a dynamic not unique to New Orleans.
The 1872 Mardi Gras parade was not the very first — there were smaller, less organized parades that meandered through the city’s streets for several years. There was a handful of krewes, including one called Comus, that dressed up as masked royalty and parades in the streets for the non-krewe members to witness. As Sublette notes, crowds could watch the royalty but not take part themselves: “The burlesque of the Reconstruction carnival was directed not at satirizing the concepts of kingliness and aristocracy but rather at mocking people who failed to respect these concepts.” The krewes took themselves very seriously, and when Rex formed, it was no different. The difference, Sublette argues, is that Rex had business in mind when they formed — they wanted to turn Mardi Gras from a quirky New Orleans spectacle into a financial opportunity. And Solomon, put in charge of fundraising, put that plan in motion.
Rex still rolls every Mardi Gras morning, directly after Zulu, the African-American krewe. Although the King and court no longer enter the city by boat, Rex is still the iconic Mardi Gras parade; krewe members throw tricolor beads adorned with little crowns, and doubloons (plastic coins painted gold, green, and purple). By Fat Tuesday, many revelers (myself included) have been going strong since Thursday night, and the neutral ground (which in the rest of the country is called a median) on St. Charles Avenue, as well as both sidewalks, is filled with charcoal grills providing daylong nourishment for one the last push of celebrating.
In the 1980s, when a few carnival krewes came under legal fire for discriminating in their membership practices, three went underground rather than let minorities into their ranks. Rex was not one of the krewes accused of discrimination, and they continued to roll, bands still playing “If I Ever Cease to Love,” King of Mardi Gras still waving from his throne, now a float instead of a horse.
In a February 16, 2010 article for Tablet entitled “The Krewes and the Jews,” Justin Vogt wrote about the Krewe du Jieux, a ragtag, whimsical Mardi Gras krewe that marches as part of Krewe du Vieux, a downtown parade that rolls a couple Saturdays before Mardi Gras and provides a satirical, informal alternative to the uptown parades that follow. When he describes the history of the city’s Jews, he acknowledges that they escaped much of the prejudice that other minorities faced: “Put in perspective, the barriers they [the Jews] faced paled in comparison to the monumental obstacles to equality placed in the path of black New Orleanians.” However, he goes on to say that when it came to the “very upper echelons of elite society,” Jews got shut out when Jim Crow prejudice finally extended to Jews during the 1910s, when the rise of the Second Ku Klux Klan and nativism swept throughout the South.
Calvin Trillin wrote about the Jews being shut out of the elite Mardi Gras krewes in a 1968 expose for The New Yorker, in which he claimed that although Jews had worked their way into almost every part of New Orleans society, they couldn’t break into the topmost societies and krewes. He even wrote about how some Jews left the city during Carnival, to physically escape the fact that their daughters were not allowed to attend the balls or that they wouldn’t be masking with certain krewes. One notable exception, mentioned by Vogt, is the Rex krewe, which, he notes, has always included Jewish members.
I moved to New Orleans to attend Tulane, which, for the four years I was there, was presided over by a Jewish president. He lived in a mammoth white-columned mansion bequeathed to the university by its first owner, a Jew named Zemurray who made his fortune importing bananas into the Port of New Orleans. I went to High Holiday services at Touro Synagogue, whose board includes a long list of the city’s philanthropists and economic elite. I caught plastic dreidels and beads studded with Stars of David from the Krewe du Jieux and Krewe of Mishigas on Decatur Street every year during Carnival.
When I moved back to the city after graduate school in New York, I was accepted into the Jewish Newcomers program, which gives financial incentives and other services to young Jews moving to New Orleans. Along with a discounted membership to the always-packed Jewish Community Center fitness center and coupons to restaurants and other Jewish-owned businesses all over the city, there are receptions and dinners where we get to mingle with the established Jewish community of New Orleans. At these events I’ve met consultants, education reformers, academics, nonprofit entrepreneurs, doctors, attorneys, students, businessmen and businesswomen, and retired philanthropist uptown types — basically, Jews from every part of New Orleans society. It is an incredibly far-reaching and inclusive community, and one that sticks together while also assimilating.
Jews influence even the most New Orleans aspects of all New Orleans culture: music and food. It’s a well-known tale here that it was a Jewish family that gave young Louis Armstrong his first trumpet. Many of the musicians and producers here are Jewish, and Jewish-influenced bands like the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars are trendy. Irma Thomas spends the Friday of the first weekend of Jazz Fest at Touro Synagogue for Jazz Shabbat, a packed event of the festival. And both Jewish deli and Israeli food has exploded in the city, as of late, from newcomers Humble Bagel, 1000 Figs, and award-winning Shaya to the older establishments like Stein’s Deli and Kosher Kajun Deli.
I am a writer and a public school teacher, so I’m not exactly trying to break into the elite Mardi Gras krewes or get kids into the elite schools, but I wonder if what Trillin and Vogt wrote about is true, that there is a level that New Orleans Jews were never able to break into. This feeling of not being allowed into the upper echelons fits into the peculiar role that the Jew has always held in the South, as a kind of other that could get away with some things that blacks never could, such as moving onto the private street Audubon Place (on which the Zemurray mansion, home of the Tulane president, is located) and gaining admission into Rex but still being considered not elite enough, not quite white enough, to make it to the very top of Southern society.
Non-Jewish Southerners have never understood us. Clearly they didn’t, back in 1872, when they had a Jew dress up as an Arab king and greet the duke of a country that would, in less than a decade, erupt in another burst of pogroms against his people. And they still don’t now, as noted by the bizarre questions posed to me by coworkers and, when I was at Tulane, classmates. We are exotic but not too exotic, white but not quite white enough, familiar but a couple degrees away from being just like our neighbors, even in the wealthiest pockets of Uptown. I wonder if Solomon felt this pushback and what it was like for him when nativism and Jim Crow began to close in. He moved to New York before his death, and I wish I knew if that move had anything to do with no longer feeling welcome in New Orleans. I also wonder how he explained that first Mardi Gras to the New Yorkers — a Jewish King dressed as a Klannish Arab, welcoming the Grand Duke of Russia from beside a horse on the bank of the Mississippi River. He was a private man who was little written about, and I haven’t found the answer, but I hope he didn’t leave because he felt discriminated against or left out, the inaugural King living in exile on Long Island.
Sophia-Marie Unterman is a New Orleans-based writer and essayist.