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New Orleans

I have a back log of things to write about so here are my observations from my visit last Saturday (1/28) of New Orleans.

The night before, I visited Beth Shalom Synagogue in Baton Rouge, for meeting Rougey Jews and to maybe even sing L’cha Dodi and other nice songs. The synagogue is one of two in Baton Rouge, (the other being Bnei Israel). Formerly Beth Shalom was known as the Liberal Synagogue. Founded in 1945, the synagogue differentiated itself from the other Baton Rouge congregation by being openly Zionist and, over the years, less afraid to represent Judaism by meeting on Saturday (instead of on Sunday).
Alas, I missed L’cha Dodi but I did meet a few of the locals. There was a large attendance but I was later informed by a regular that many of the people there came for a special occasion, a going away kiddush for an older couple, the Karlins, who had long been active members and an anchor of the community. So I shouldn’t have been surprised that the davening was really weak or that almost no one approached me to introduce themselves to a newcomer. As far as most of them knew, I was a regular. The synagogue president wryly observed (while roasting the couple, the Karlins) that the shul should have a going away party every shabbes!

The congregation was led by the shul’s rabbi, Rabbi Zamek, whose pulpit skills are accented by a sense of humour. For a silent reading, he prepared quotes from the Karliner Rebbe (inspired by the departure of the Karlins). The shul uses the older reform prayerbooks which are about as dry and boring as the old Birnbaum prayerbooks still found in orthodox synagogues.They also declare aloud “Baruch Shem Kavod Malchuto Le’Olam Va’Ed” (gender-neutral translation: blessed is the Name, may the Kingdom’s Glory extend for ever and ever). Until recently this verse has only been recited quietly except on Yom Kippur. (The verse is a response of Yaakov to his sons, according to a midrash cited in Tractate P’sachim 56a, when they tell him on his death bed, in unity with each other, “Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad”. Another midrash holds that Moshe overheard the verse sung by angels and thus it cannot be said by mortal except on days like Yom Kippur when we think we can get away with it). Of all the oddities in the classic reform service, this practice remains the most alien for me. The reason the verse has long not been proclaimed out loud by Jews can be found in all of its wonderful and colorful talmudic reasoning here.

Reasons I’ve heard from reform Jews on the significance of saying it out loud year long, range from historical arguments (saying it quietly reflects ancient fears of persecution which are now unfounded), to liturgical ones (if it is not said out loud the congregation will ignore it), to theological ones (malkhut, lit. kingship, is an outdated archaism by which to describe our understanding and relationship with God). The historical argument is really interesting to me. Here’s an explanation I found on the internet, and reflects what I was told personally by a rabbi at Temple Emmanuel in Bethesda, Maryland.

From: Jerry Blaz
Date: Sun, 12 Oct 1997 01:27:26 -0700
Subject: Reform Prayerbook

Tara Cazaubon asked why the second line of the sh'ma,
"Baruch shem kavod," is said aloud in the Reform
congregation, while she noted that is said silently
except for Yom Kippur in the Conservative and Orthodox
synagogues.  The explanation that I was given many years
ago has to do with the "problem" of malchut or kingship.
The statement was interpreted by our enemies to state
that the kingship of the Jewish God was over the entire
world, which intimated to our enemies that we did not
recognize the sovereignty of Christian kings. So the
source of the silence is coercion.  The Reform state
this "Baruch Shem Kavod" out loud as a sign of their
liberation from this oppression.

Ok, so that’s quite a digression from what I meant to write up but I’m a completist. Rabbi Zamek has also introduced a meditational practice. Unfortunately I wasn’t present the next day to experience the form of meditation practiced personally. Instead, I was in New Orleans. I had been interested in taking a trip down to New Orleans since I arrived in Louisiana. I had a rental car. I wasn’t doing any work for FEMA yet… but I didn’t want to get too far away from Baton Rouge if I was to get a call for deployment. I probably could have gotten away with it, and I guess I did that last Shabbes. A fellow in the Beth Shalom congregation, Sam Breen, came up to me at the kiddush and asked me if I’d like to drive down with him to the Chabad House in Metairie to help make the shabbes minyan the next morning. The man spoke in the slow droll of a native Nyorlinean. He had observed my davening during the silent amidah and thought I might be Orthodox. So Sam and I met in the Beth Shalom parking lot the next day and he drove me down to Nyorlean. And after shul (where I did in fact make the minyan), he gave me a tour of a number of devastated neighborhoods of New Orleans, and some of the affected suburbs like Metairie.

What makes something look creepy or seem haunted? Maybe it’s when it looks completely normal except for one or two things easily glanced over but once recognized compel you to stare and look harder until your eyes feel bloated and engorged. We drove into a typical subdivision in Matairie with ugly McMansion tear-downs and older 70s era two story homes. Looked rather normal, except for the fact that it was empty. And then the sense of emptiness began to creep over everything, from the street, to the lawns, across the driveways and into the houses. The doors were open, and dark inside. Each house had an embellishment, some graffitti indicating how many people or animals were found inside dead. This was indicated by an X painted on the door, or the outside wall next to the entrance, or above the entrance next to an open second floor window. This looked to me like a subdivision which had once seen the conquest of zombie hordes, which after a night of mayhem, had left the place dead and empty. (Yes, it is to zombie flicks that I owe my perceptions of urban decay and understanding of the failure of civilization).

We traveled wetward across the city to a neighborhood which seemed like it had a lot of promise, being pedestrian oriented and within walking distance of a commercial district. But it was also close to the interstate and the commercial district was oriented, not to the neighborhood but to an exit ramp and strip. Like Metairie, the neighborhood was mostly empty except for a few people who seemed to be doing work, some dresses in hazmat suits. There was plenty of automobile traffic in New Orleans though. And more people on the street the closer we came to Tulane and Loyola. The streets were cracked and bumpy but perhaps they were that way before the Hurricane. I saw signs of damage and some closed businesses when we reached canal street but Sam told me this wasn’t due as much from the flood as it was from the ensuing chaos, looting and sniping. Of the latter, I thought it was a myth, but Sam said otherwise. The lines for the trolley are only true on Canal Street (this was ensured so that tourists could somehow benefit from them and the city could recapture some of its former sense of place), but the line outside the central business district is not functioning. Leaving New Orleans we hit traffic — the mass of evacuated New Orleaneans who travel from Baton Rouge to New Orleans on the weekends to look after their property and do what they can to fix what they can.

About Aharon N. Varady


Aharon's Omphalos is the hobbit hole of Aharon Varady, founding director of the Open Siddur Project. He is a community planner and environmental educator working to improve stewardship of the Public Domain, be it the physical and natural commons of urban park systems or the creative and cultural commons of libraries and museums. His advocacy for open-source strategies in the Jewish community has been written about in the Atlantic Magazine, the Yiddish Forverts, Tablet, and Haaretz. He is particularly interested in pedagogies for advancing ecological wisdom, developing creative and emotional intelligence, and realizing effective theurgical praxes . He welcomes your comments, personal messages, and kind words. If you find his work helpful to your own or you'd simply like to support him, please consider donating via his Patreon account.

1 comment to New Orleans

  • whitepaper

    Aharon, I really like this post. And I really like WordPress. You are beautiful. Grow a lot in LA. Expand. Phosphoresce. Become ornate in style and ornamented in character.–paul

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