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From Shul to Shrimp in New Orleans

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.”

So, like the Sephardis of old New Orleans, we decided to be pragmatic. We wandered into the French Quarter and sat down for a plate of fresh Cajun-style shrimp.

Anne’s practiced hands peeled the spicy, pink crustacean for Sigal, who, having grown up Orthodox, had never tasted a shrimp. The first bite was tentative. Sigal’s body has been known to revolt at the taste of blatantly unkosher foods (back in 2011, an accidental bite into a pepperoni-filled pizza pocket provoked an instant gag reflex). The reaction is not rational, it’s just visceral. But once the first taste sank in, Sigal snuck another bite (or two…or three).

We weren’t trying to be disrespectful, or even funny — it’s just that the sheer ubiquity of seafood (and the absence of any salad or salad-like options) was so overwhelming as to seem almost inescapable. Now, as then, we Jews would have had to completely isolate ourselves from mainstream culture to avoid it.

All in all, Jewish life in the South, as we observed it, was best summed up by historian Sol Kimerling on our very first stop in Birmingham, Alabama: It’s “a normal life, full of contradictions.”

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