Three Generations Uncover Their Jewish Southern Roots. Part 6: New Orleans
The Owen family, three generations traveling together on a Jewish roots tour of the old South were approaching the end of their eight day, 800 miles long trail, that began in the city of Charleston. Today, Ruben Owen, his two sons Jacob and Rabbi Benjy and his grandson Jeffrey were at the last stop, New Orleans, Louisiana.
The “Big Easy” has a relatively small Jewish population of 12,000. According to New Orleans online “Before any Jews had even come to Louisiana, the Code Noir (Black Code) of the French colonial period decreed that they be expelled. Thankfully no one bothered to enforce this part of the code against the handful of Jews who gradually trickled into New Orleans in the mid-1700s.
A religious Jew in early New Orleans would have had a hard time upholding Jewish traditions which require, among other things, praying with at least nine other Jews, a tall order in early 1800’s. In fact the first New Orleans congregation, Gates of Mercy (Shangarai Chassat), was founded in 1827 when a Sephardic Jew named Isaac Solis couldn’t find any matza to eat during Pesach and decided to do something about the lack of Jewish life in the city.
A German Jewish periodical noted the colorful behavior of one of Gates of Mercy’s early spiritual leaders, Albert “Roley” Marks, who led the New Orleans congregation from 1839-1845.
This stigma in the ranks of the Jewish ministry eats whatever comes before his maw, never keeps the feast of Passover, indeed, has none of his boys circumcised … At Purim, the book of Esther could not be read since … the rabbi-reader was preoccupied with his duties as [part-time] fire chief. When challenged by a pious member of the congregation, the rabbi, beside himself with wrath, pounded the pulpit and shouted, ‘By Jesus Christ, I have a right to pray!’ After his death the rabbi’s widow, a Catholic, was restrained only with difficulty from putting a crucifix on his grave.
Gates of Mercy followed the Ashkenazic rituals, but some Portuguese members, preferring the Sephardic rituals (and perhaps a bit less controversy), separated and formed Nefutzoth Yehudah (Dispersed of Judah) in 1846.
The community now hosts eight synagogues including two Chabad, two Orthodox, three Reform and one Conservative.
After settling into their hotel, the Owens had a magical evening exploring the famous French quarter, they reveled in the expansive menu of Casablanca, an elegant kosher restaurant (one of two kosher establishments) in the heart of the quarter. “The food was amazing” recalled Rabbi Owen “but they don’t know how to do pishcado” using the Ladino word for fish. The group savored this special time together, laughing as they recalled highlights and moving moments of the prior eight days. They did not return to their hotel until the very late hours, but they had a full schedule ahead for the next morning.
Mid morning found the family on a New Orleans trolley-car clanging down General Pershing Street towards the historic Touro synagogue, founded in 1881, the Touro synagogue was the product of the reunion of the two older congregations, the Ashkenazic Shangarai Chasset (Gates of Mercy) and the Sephardic Nefutozot Yehudah (Dispersed of Judah), both of which were heavily funded by the Sephardic philanthropist, Judah Touro.
The Owens hopped off the Trolley and found themselves facing the Byzantine style building of the Touro Synagogue on St. Charles Avenue in Uptown New Orleans, dedicated in January of 1909.
The first thing one notices of the Touro synagogue is that it is a near exact duplicate of the old Bikur Cholim synagogue in Seattle! The Bikur Cholim sanctuary in Seattle’s Central District, completed in 1915 , was the Seattle congregation’s home until they relocated to their Seward Park location in the late 1960’s.
*Seattle amateur historian Eugene Normand tells The Mike Report that “in 1914 when Benny Priteca was designing the new Bikur Cholim synagogue at 17th and Yesler, he borrowed from the design of the Touro synagogue in New Orleans that had been built in 1909 by another Jewish architect, Emil Weil.” Mystery solved.
When entering the stunning sanctuary of the Touro synagogue one cannot help but be struck by the stately beauty of the Aron Hakodesh. The ark, also funded by Judah Touro, once graced the Nefutzot Yehuda (Dispersed of Judah) sanctuary prior to the merger. It is the last remnant of the Sephardic origins of the Congregation. The Congregation now follows the Ashkenazic style prevalent in the Reform movement,
The Jewish community of New Orleans was devastated by Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. One of the hardest hit congregations was Orthodox Congregation, Beth Israel, the next stop on the Owen tour of Jewish New Orleans. The synagogue was destroyed in Katrina, temporarily holding services at Congregation Gates of Prayer (Shaare Tefila), founded 150 years earlier as an Orthodox Ashkenazic synagogue, the congregation joined the Reform movement in the early 1900’s. (Video of the destruction below).
“The Beth Israel community was reeling in the wake of the Hurricane” Rabbi Owen told us. Fifty families left the synagogue following the disaster. The congregation was financially ruined and could not fulfill their contractual obligations to their Rabbi who subsequently resigned. No less traumatic they lost all of their sifrei torah and siddurim. It was only through the generosity of the Jewish community, both inside and outside of New Orleans that the devastated congregation managed to survive. Volunteers from groups like Chabad and the NCSY youth group devoted hours of sweat and toil helping to salvage what could be saved and burying the holy scrolls and prayer books that were beyond repair. Others donated new Torah scrolls (five to be exact), prayer books and much needed funds.
Beth Israel completed construction of their new building in 2012 on a plot of land adjacent to and purchased from Gates of Prayer . The two congregations, Orthodox Beth Israel and Reform Gates of Prayer, have since developed a unique partnership, often joining together in projects for the betterment of the New Orleans community. The old Katrina damaged Beth Israel sanctuary remains locked and in disrepair.
“One can’t help but be impressed by the resilience of this community” observed Jacob Owen, “to take a hit like Katrina and rebuild like they have is an amazing thing”. “Due to gutsy determination and the help of many Jews and others from many places, this hundred years old congregation has survived” Ruben told us.
From the new Beth Israel the family strolled next door to see the 150 years old Congregation, Gates of Prayer. According to Southern Jewish Life Magazine, Gates of Prayer, originally an Orthodox congregation of German Jewish origin, met in rented spaces for years, then bought a lot on Jackson Avenue in 1859. During the Civil War, congregants hid the bricks that were going to be used for the building so they would not be confiscated for the war effort. The original building still stands although it is soon to be converted into an apartment building. Their current building was completed in 1975.
The final stop for the Owens was Dispersed of Judah, one of the older Jewish cemeteries in New Orleans, with the first burials taking place there in 1847. The burial place was established by the Spanish Portuguese congregation of the same name (Nefutzot Yehuda) on land donated by Judah Touro. It was the last stop in the eight day odyssey of the Owen family.
The Owens wandered the sacred grounds, marveling at the mix of huge ornate monuments and simple stones, most were dated to the 1800’s.
Ruben could not help reflect that all that remains of New Orleans’ once vibrant Sephardic community is the name of the Dispersed of Judah congregation, now attached to a cemetery. From the memorial park the family headed off to Louis Armstrong International Airport and home. While Louis Armstrong was not a Jew, his manager Joe Glaser was a member of the tribe (another New Orleans Jewish connection).
From Charleston to New Orleans, Ruben, his sons Rabbi Owen and Jacob and grandson Jeffrey set forth on an 800 mile trek. They hoped to leave with a deeper appreciation of their family history, which they did, and much more.
Note: This article was updated to reflect the research of Eugene Normand regarding Seattle Bikur Cholim architect B. Marcus Priteca and Touro Synagogue architect Emile Weil. More about these two architects may be found in a well researched article by Eugene Normand which may be found at this link. Mr. Normand also asked TMR to mention his research on the topic which we have done below.
*Eugene Normand, “A Tale of Two Cities’ Jewish Architects: Emile Weil of New Orleans and B. Marcus Priteca of Seattle,” Southern Jewish History, 16 (October, 2013), 1-41.
Next: Final thoughts – the Owens reflect on lesson learned.