Crossing the River Styx: a Jewish Homecoming to Post-Katrina New Orleans
I pulled into the deserted parking lot. A cloud of gnats buzzed around a pile of waterlogged furniture, moldy Sheetrock, and ruined library books in the far corner. My synagogue—Shir Chadash—looked blank, abandoned. Peering inside I could see that at least a half foot of water had flooded the building. As I walked back to my car I noticed a sign nailed to a utility pole. It was a listing of dates and times for Yom Kippur services the previous week, painted on a piece of scrap lumber like a yard sale posting. My spirits lifted—not only were some members of the congregation back, but they had managed to hold High Holiday services.
With this knowledge, I felt brave enough to leave suburban Metairie and cross into New Orleans proper to Lakeview, one of the three neighborhoods in which most of the metropolitan area’s 10,000 Jews had lived before August—and, along with the Ninth Ward, one of the hardest hit areas of the city. Driving east on Veterans Memorial Highway across the 17th Avenue Canal, which had flooded, was like crossing the River Styx. I left behind the land of the living and entered the realm of the dead. While the Jefferson side of the canal had taken on only two or three feet of water, the Orleans side had been deluged. The once luxurious homes along West End Boulevard, with their pastel colors, white trim and spacious porches, were pasted with mud up to their second story balconies. The rising water had blown out windows, torn doors off their hinges, struck down trees, demolished gardens and flipped over cars. Once a lush, green neighborhood, every square foot of land south of Robert E. Lee Boulevard was buried under a thick, gray silt. My dentist’s office, located a block from the canal, was nothing but a crumbling shell of a building.
Since the 1970s, the majority of New Orleans Jews had clustered in Lakeview. Along with Metairie, it was the heart of the Jewish community, home to Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox families. Congregation Beth Israel was the only synagogue in town that hosted daily morning and afternoon minyanim. A few years ago, when my friend Jake’s father died, I attended as many minyanim at Beth Israel as I could to ensure that he was able to say his Mourner’s Kaddish. As I drove past Beth Israel, estimating the distance between the dead grass and the grimy watermark above the sanctuary’s stained glass windows, I worried that it would be a very long time before mourners could gather there again. The sanctuary itself seemed to have joined the ranks of the dead, earning its own Mourner’s Kaddish.
I had one more drive-by to make. I pulled up to the corner of South Claiborne and Napoleon Avenues, to the building that had once housed my old synagogue, Chevra Thilim. The building, now a gospel church, had taken in nine feet of water. In 2000, Chevra Thilim had voted to merge with another Conservative congregation and make its home to the west, in Metairie. But as much as I have come to love and appreciate the members of the enlarged congregation, I have never completely reconciled myself to the loss of Chevra Thilim’s intimate, eclectic, funky community.
Much of the personal joy I took in Chevra Thilim’s service was to hear Henry Galler daven. An artillery captain in the Polish army during World War II, Henry retained a military bearing and vigor even into his eighties, but his quick smile and the warm gleam in his eyes upon seeing his synagogue friends banished all hints of sternness. His chanting had a haunting Old World quality, and his powerful baritone was the most beautifully inflected that I have ever heard. Henry and his wife Eva were Holocaust survivors who had settled in New Orleans after the war. They owned a house two blocks from the synagogue. Eva, short, matronly, and a fabulous baker, had taught multiple generations of bar and bat mitzvah students their parshiyot. They had not joined me at the new synagogue in Metairie, and as a result I hadn’t heard Henry daven for nearly five years. I didn’t want to think about what had happened to their home.
I had returned to New Orleans on October 15, 2005 without my wife and two young boys. Six weeks had passed since Katrina’s storm surge had breached the levees and inundated nearly 80 percent of the city. We didn’t usually arrive at Shabbat services until the final half hour, but that Saturday, without children to feed and dress, I wanted to be at Shir Chadash early. I didn’t know how many of the regulars were back in town yet. They might need me.
The heap of debris still sat at the edge of the parking lot. Walking inside, as I put on my yarmulke and tallit, I saw that the floor had been stripped down to bare concrete. The scent of bleach clung to the air. Sounds of prayer wafted back to me from the main sanctuary, softer than those of a typical Shabbat morning but sweeter simply for being there at all. I peeked inside the auxiliary chapel, which had only been completed a few months before the storm. Denuded of carpeting, pews and Sheetrock, it looked like a half-finished warehouse. Dusty orange extension cords criss-crossed the dirty floor.
When I reached the sanctuary entrance, Hugo Kahn, a tall, genial man who was one of the synagogue’s main benefactors, looked delighted to see me. “Andy! Welcome back! You’ve just made the minyan, my boy!” I was the tenth congregant to appear that morning.
I looked around. Eight of my fellow congregants sat in three rows of folding chairs. The ninth attendee, Will Samuels, stood on the pulpit, acting as prayer leader in the absence of our rabbi, who hadn’t yet returned from New Jersey, where he, his pregnant wife and their daughter had found refuge.
Will, a young, ebullient restaurateur and owner of Basin Street Records, had sung next to me in the choir for several years. I’d never thought of him as rabbinical material, but he proved up to the task. His sermon dealt with one of the central realities of our new post-Katrina world, making do with temporary housing. Sukkot, the festival of booths, had just begun. While Jews around the world ate their meals in temporary shelters made of wood bound with twine, Jews in New Orleans, along with most everyone else in town, had found themselves inhabiting trailers, short-term rental apartments and spare bedrooms. But just as eating meals in a sukkah was a blessing and a celebration, he said, so should we consider our opportunities to rebuild and help our neighbors as a blessing and a celebration. His sermon was funny and touching in equal measure. Members of the tiny congregation of returnees agreed, smiling and nodding with satisfaction. Not bad for an amateur, I thought.
By the time the service was over, our group of worshipers had swelled to two dozen. This was less than a fifth of the congregation that would have attended on a typical pre-Katrina Shabbat, and not a single child was among us, but still an impressive turnout given the circumstances. We retired to the portion of the social hall not filled with water-damaged pews for kiddush and lunch. Shir Chadash welcomed us back to New Orleans that morning with hallah and wine, peanut butter and fruit and, most splendidly, smoked salmon and bagels. Where had it all come from? Had the Israeli Air Force parachuted in supplies from Brooklyn? Who cared? For a Jew whose refrigerator was rotting in some murky landfill at the edge of the parish, its stash of lox now a bio-hazard planner’s nightmare, this was the essence of blessing.
Two weekends later, I returned to Shir Chadash with my family. Two of the faces my wife Dara and I longed most to see could no longer be found at the synagogue. Barry and Fran Ivker had been the heart of the congregation for us, more important to our family’s spiritual life than even the rabbi. They’d acted as surrogate parents to us during the weeks leading up to our wedding. Their house in New Orleans East had flooded to its rafters. The hospital where Fran delivered babies and the offices where she housed her practice were destroyed, too. The couple wouldn’t be returning. Over the next few weeks Dara and I would hear similar stories about our friends and neighbors. Some had fared well; others were not so lucky.
In December, at a reading being given by Jewish novelist Patty Friedman, I heard a young woman mention Henry Galler and I asked her if she had news of him. She looked at me sadly and told me that Henry and Eva had evacuated to Texas, where they’d stayed with one of their children. They had returned as soon as the authorities began allowing residents back into Orleans Parish. Their large elegant house had not fared well. The shock of seeing her home in ruins and the elevated mold count in the air was more than Eva could bear. She died shortly thereafter from complications of pneumonia. The thought of my friend Henry Galler—the strong survivor, the master davener—alone for the first time in more than fifty years, was almost too much to take.
On January 29th, I took my family to a concert by the cantorial group Beignet Yisrael at Congregation Gates of Prayer. It was the five-month anniversary of the disaster and the singers were celebrating the rededication of the temple’s sanctuary, which had flooded.
A standing room only crowd awaited us. Just as in Shir Chadash, the floors and lower part of the walls were torn up, but this synagogue, too, appeared to be on the mend. Several hundred people sat in rows of chairs that had temporarily replaced the damaged pews. Rather than let myself dwell on the many faces that were missing, I drank in the sight of those that remained. That they had found their way back declared that this Jewish community—the only one in the world that runs its own Carnival parading krewe and Jazz Fest Shabbat, and has found a way to make the notoriously traif but delicious cuisine of South Louisiana kosher—would not die.
I bounced my youngest son Asher on my lap as we listened to the performance. The acoustics were hollow, but it didn’t matter. Buildings could be repaired. The web of community could be reknitted. Lives, if not lost, could be renewed. I thought about the bit of midrash that one of the cantors had shared with us at the concert’s beginning, a midrash which rabbis had formulated to explain why the loss of the Second Temple has been mourned throughout Jewish history with greater fervor than the destruction of Solomon’s far more majestic and beautiful First Temple.
Building a temple is easy, the cantor had explained. Rebuilding one is hard.
I listened to the singing and thought, let the rebuilding begin.
[This essay originally appeared in the April, 2006 issue of Moment Magazine.]
[The experience described in this article inspired the writing of my novel, The Bad Luck Spirits’ Social Aid and Pleasure Club.]