The New Orleans I Love

Sermon delivered September 16, 2005, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

Like you, I have been haunted by the devastation of New Orleans and much of the Gulf Coast since Hurricane Katrina. Only with difficulty do I imagine the city laid waste, barren, empty, its spirited inhabitants and loyal citizens exiled to Baton Rouge, to central and northern Louisiana, to Houston and throughout Texas and across the country.

Nobody parties on Bourbon Street tonight.

The streetcar does not clank down St. Charles Avenue.

The magnificent sea creatures that lived in the Aquarium of the Americas have perished.

Nobody shouts orders for beignets and coffee at Café du Monde.

Jazz does not play at Tipitina’s.

And tonight, the magnificent, domed Sanctuary of Touro Synagogue stands empty. Nobody offers Sabbath prayers in the stately Feibelman Chapel at Temple Sinai. And out in Metairie, the Sanctuary of Congregation Gates of Prayer, so recently renovated, is flooded.

Each year, on the Ninth of Av, we recall the destruction of the First Temple in ancient Jerusalem, by reading the Book of Lamentations. The circumstances are very different. No foreign invader has destroyed New Orleans or any of its holy places. And yet, the lament of those ancient days is ours, as well:

Lonely sits the city
Once great with people!
She that was great among nations
Is become like a widow;
The princess among states
Is become a slave. (Lam. 1:1)

“Lonely sits the city.” The biblical author anthropomorphized Jerusalem, as though the city itself possessed a soul, as though the city’s emptiness was palpable to the city herself, as though the city were like a person.

The biblical writer got it right. True, no city is a person. In the face of disaster and destruction, our first concern is the welfare of each and every human being. And yet, we affirm: Jerusalem possesses a sacred soul. New Orleans lives with a unique spirit. And, for us, San Antonio is a living organism.

I lived in New Orleans for a year, 1988-1989. I was 25 then, a rabbinical student, taking a year off from my studies, serving full time as rabbinic intern to Rabbi David Goldstein at Touro Synagogue. It was one of the happiest years of my life.

Admittedly, during my year in New Orleans, I played up the role of the proud Texan. I was appalled by the state of race relations in southeast Louisiana, and I realized, for the first time in my life, that Texas isn’t “really” the south. Those were years of depressed oil prices and a sagging economy throughout this part of the country. I was critical of the local attitude, exemplified by the newspaper, which persisted in publishing the price of oil, with a special graphic on the front cover of each edition. Texas was moving on, diversifying its economy, while New Orleans was stuck in the past. Tourism and conventions, Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, with casinos to come a few years later: these were the solutions New Orleans sought, while waiting for the price of oil to rise again. The priority there was the party, so much so that people would literally not come to see their children participate in a religious service at the Temple, because they felt seriously more obligated to a social event.

But every city has its own rhythms. Yes, New Orleans is slow, and it cherishes the past. Yes, New Orleans is a great party. And yes, New Orleans struggles with tremendous issues of race. Somehow, even these aspects contribute to the magnificent uniqueness of New Orleans, the soul that gives life to the city.

That year-long experience in the late 1980s is not the only way I know New Orleans. Since I was a small child, my family has visited New Orleans, at least annually, and often more frequently. We have the closest of friends and dear family in New Orleans. In March, Toni, Robert, Daniel and I traveled to New Orleans, to celebrate the 100th birthday of my great-aunt, rejoicing with all the family in the happiest of occasions, such an incredible milestone for a woman whose only sign of aging is poor hearing. In May, Toni and I were back to celebrate with my mentor, Rabbi David Goldstein, his wife, Shannie, all their family and the family of Touro Synagogue, as Rabbi Goldstein retired from full-time congregational service.

As a child, I never wanted to go anywhere as much as I wanted to go to New Orleans. I fed the pigeons in Jackson Square. I rode the streetcar, from near Tulane University, all the way downtown and back. More recently, I have rejoiced in sharing the city with my own children. Robert and Daniel love the streetcar and the Audubon Zoo. With my sister and nephews, the boys and I explored the Aquarium, enjoying every inch of it, just six months ago. Now, it lies in waste. One of my favorite New Orleans activities is something most tourists don’t do: A rickety ferry takes commuters, regular New Orleans folks, across the Mississippi river, from the French Quarter to Algiers, and back. My parents took me, and Toni and I take Robert and Daniel, and they love that awful old ferry. Toni and the boys devour the beignets at Café du Monde, too, while I prefer the world’s strongest decaffeinated coffee, thick as mud.

“Lonely sits the city, Once great with people!”

New Orleans is usually so loud, so boisterous, even out of control. New Orlenas is quiet tonight. Her people struggle to find new places to live, and new jobs, hopefully temporary, in the cities to which they have been dispersed. They fight through the morass of insurance and government assistance, filling out mountains of paperwork. They ask who is at fault: the city, the state, the federal government, all of the above? How could a man whose experience was running an Arabian horse organization have become the Director of FEMA? Many of them are still in shelters, some here in San Antonio. They wonder when they will go back. They pledge to rebuild the city. Some acknowledge that they may never return.

And hundreds, perhaps thousands, are dead.

We are privileged, for some of these great New Orleaneans worship with us tonight.

We give thanks, when we learn that our own loved ones and friends are safe.

We mourn the loss of life, with a mixture of anger and sadness.

Where do we turn, at an hour such as this?

One place we turn is to work. We recall that, when God sought to free the Jewish people from Egyptian bondage, God found a flawed human partner, Moses. Today, we flawed mortals must be God’s partners in bringing redemption. We at Temple Beth-El are clothing the naked, as God has commanded. So many folks left New Orleans with only the clothes on their backs, if that. San Antonians brought so much donated clothing that the Red Cross had to cry, “stop,” just as Moses has to ask the ancient Israelites to cease bringing their gifts for the building of the tabernacle, when the builders report that they have more than enough precious raw material. Even though general donated clothes are no longer needed, school uniforms, plus-sized ladies clothing, and other specific items are much in demand. We are fulfilling that need.

We also have a responsibility to comfort those whose needs are not material, but no less real. Let us uphold the Jewish men and women and children newly in our midst, evacuated from New Orleans, now, at least temporarily, members of our Temple Beth-El family.

But we cannot do it all alone. We need God, too.

When our ancestors were exiled to Babylon, when their city was laid waste, they heard the voice of the prophet. We do not know the name of this savior prophet. We call him “Deutero-Isaiah.” His words are found in chapters 40-55 of the Book of Isaiah. He went to the Jewish people in Babylon. They were in despair. Had they been like others in the Ancient Near East, they would have assimilated into the people who had conquered them. They would have begun to worship Babylonian gods.

That our ancestors did not turn away from their ancestral faith may be the greatest accomplishment in the history of the world. That our ancestors remained faithful is testimony to the inestimable effectiveness of the anonymous prophet in their midst, who said:

Nahamu, nahamu ami
Comfort My people, comfort them,
Says your God. (Isaiah 40:1)

Speaking to the abandoned city, the prophet proclaimed:

Your ruins, your abandoned places,
Your desolate land,
Shall soon be crowded with people. (Isaiah 49:19)
The Lord will comfort Zion,
Comforting all her ruins:
Making her wilderness like Eden,
Her desert like the Lord’s own garden,
Where joy and gladness are found,
Thanksgiving and the strains of song. (Isaiah 51:3)

Tonight, Cantor Warner brings us a prophetic voice, a voice of song, transporting gladness from New Orleans, at her time of desolation. Tonight, the city lays empty. Cantor Warner’s own synagogue does not hear his voice. And yet, members of Touro Synagogue and other New Orleans congregations, their friends and relatives, do hear this message of hope tonight. A man whose own home lays waste, who has found temporary refuge in Houston, stands before us as living proof that, even in the face of great tragedy, hope does not die. Faith lives.

The prophet Isaiah, speaking the word of God, commanded: “Rouse yourself, rouse yourself, rise up, Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 51:17) Tonight, we pray: “Rise up, New Orleans.” Let us be among those who help New Orleans rise out of the swamp once again. Let us insist that our federal government do its part to ensure the spirited rebirth of a great American city. Let us give generously, for the welfare of the city and her people. Let us live with faith, as we prepare to visit the beloved city once again.

Then may we rejoice, as the prophet promised some 2600 years ago:

Your days of mourning shall be ended.
Your people shall be righteous, all of them,
And they shall possess the land, forever. (Isaiah 60:20-21)