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Finding Refuge From the Storm, in the Nick of Time

There’s always been a special kind of pride among the Jews of New Orleans. One of America’s oldest Jewish communities, they are a bundle of paradoxes with a genius for survival. Fifteen thousand strong at last count, they thrived for 300 years in a city whose staple foods are shrimp and crab, part of a crazy-quilt culture in which eight synagogues and a prodigious network of Jewish philanthropy coexisted with jazz, voodoo and French Catholicism.

Perhaps it was pride, or faith in that genius for survival, that kept me from wanting to leave the city. I stayed nearly until late Sunday afternoon, well after Mayor Ray Nagin had issued the mandatory evacuation orders. The hurricane hit early Monday. I should have known what was coming by Saturday morning, when a friend of ours called to say that my kids’ play date that day was canceled. The woman, who works for the Army Corps of Engineers, had fled the city.
Soon afterward, I got a call from an Israeli couple, Gil and Rakefet Stav of Beersheva. Rakefet teaches Hebrew in my department at Tulane University, where I chair the Jewish studies program. Gil is a postdoctoral student in public health, specializing in the mosquitoes that abound in our former tropical paradise. They were being evacuated from the graduate dormitory and wanted to know if they could come stay with us. Although we — my wife, our three kids (including a newborn boy) and I — have the smaller half of an old two-family house, we were happy to have the company. They came over Saturday afternoon. We spent Saturday in a kind of Israeli American symbiosis. We ate watermelon, cooked chicken soup and noshed on mandel chips that we get from the kosher Cajun store in suburban Metairie. That’s where everyone goes for Israeli food items, including Bamba, mandel bread and hummus. We spoke about everything and nothing.

No one was nervous. We decided to stay and weather the storm together. We’d seen the press hype up too many storms that eventually passed without leaving a trace. This, we concluded, would be another nonevent. Nevertheless, we decided to prepare ourselves. The recent pictures from Gaza had put us in a sort of military frame of mind and pricked a desire to be active and useful. We moved all the plants and furniture from the backyard into the shed and boarded up the windows.

At 2:30 Sunday afternoon, my wife began crying. We had only three cans of tuna, a watermelon and some fruit for 10 people, she said. What would happen if we had no toilet for a week, no water, food or diapers? That should have been enough to make me leave, but it wasn’t.

I got a call from the mother of one of my students. She invited us to come stay in Houston. In fact, she demanded that we leave. Late Sunday afternoon, we gave in. We gave ourselves 20 minutes or so to pack up and get out of the city. We left everything — insurance papers, birth certificates, our clothing — and jumped in the car with my two daughters, our 6-day-old son, Benjamin, the cat and the turtle. Gil is a smart guy, and he took us along back routes. Still, even there we soon found ourselves stopped in traffic.

The rain started to pour, and he could hardly see. We wondered if we would get out in time. After a while, we got out onto a larger road and stopped at a gas station. The scene was incredible: Cars were lined up at the gas islands, but not for gas; there wasn’t any. People were just seeking shelter from the rain. More cars lined up behind us. We got out to tell them there was no gas.

We all had to urinate, but there was nowhere to do it. Outside, people were starting to urinate in public. Unsettled by the breakdown in civility, we drove on a bit. Finally we pulled off and used an empty parking lot as a bathroom.

Rakefet wondered if we had made the right decision in leaving New Orleans. She gave me a peanut butter sandwich, which I gave to the kids. The going was slow. Gil’s back roads were being closed off, and we were forced onto Interstate 90 West, which was moving at a crawl. After we had driven for 10 hours and had gone perhaps 100 miles, I said we should stop and find a hotel. We got off at an exit in the Lake Charles area. I called for hotels. There was one single room — just one — in a hotel 20 miles north. I took it, praying that once we got to Kinder we might find another room. In the worst case, we decided, the children would sleep in the bed and the parents would try to get some rest in the cars.
Along the way we stopped at every hotel. No vacancies. When we arrived at Kinder and signed in for our room, several couples ran in after us and asked for rooms. There were none. But as I was signing in, an old man and his daughter asked me if I needed a room. Their relatives had decided not to come to Kinder, and he had an extra room. We took it gratefully. Settling into the hotel room that first night, I realized with a start that civilization was exactly these conveniences, comforts: security, self-respect, a place to sleep in privacy, a pharmacy in the vicinity, shops to buy food. Culture with a capital C comes after these basic needs are met. It was an odd thought for someone who spends his life writing and teaching about European literature and Jewish historiography. But that was my life back in New Orleans. Now I was here.

And so, while the Superdome back home flooded over with human waste, while our neighbors struggled with hunger, thirst and violence, we made our way forward — suffering no disasters greater than a near-blown tire — to a lovely ranch outside Houston. There we were beguiled by the hospitality, kindness and mothering care of our hosts, Sheryl Kadmon, fund-raising director of the Texas chapter of the Tourette Syndrome Association, and her husband, renowned Israeli urologist Dov Kadmon.

Was the reason that we escaped the dreadful suffering so many of our neighbors endured that they are black and we are white? Was it that our education helped us to understand the danger and our relative affluence gave us a means to escape? Would a different atmosphere in Washington have changed their fate — kept the levees in repair, improved the federal emergency response, given the victims more resources to survive, made Americans more alert to the suffering of the poor before and after the disaster? I have no doubt.

Will we learn from this, or will we return to the old ways, to the laissez-faire indifference and racial anger that was bound to overflow like a cauldron of gumbo soup on a hot flame on a hot day in that much-too-hot tropical paradise? I can’t say.

All my colleagues in Jewish studies at Tulane got out safely. Whether we’ll ever see our houses again is another question. Right now it’s hard to see ahead. But our community and our city have, as I’ve said, a genius for survival.




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