If I Forget You, O New Orleans
By Gail Naron Chalew
July 28, 2006
All those who loved New Orleans - residents who had the privilege of
enjoying her gumbo of races and cultures, her architectural beauty
and her joie de vivre, as well as those who made frequent pilgrimages
to sample her charms - will complete their year of mourning in the
A year of mourning material losses of homes, possessions and entire
neighborhoods, and the much deeper spiritual loss of a way of life -
even a way of being. Nothing in American history has prepared us for
this disaster, nor is there an American tradition of comfort and
healing to which we can turn.
Yet, where contemporary society is lacking in guidance, Jewish
tradition provides a blueprint for response. The upcoming fast day of
Tisha B'Av, on which we commemorate the destruction of the First and
Second Temples of Jerusalem, could not have come at a better time for
us New Orleans mourners.
After evacuating to Memphis, Tenn., last August, in advance of "The
Storm," my son and I, like so many of our ancestors, went into exile.
We moved to Baltimore so that my son could attend high school there,
while my husband returned to live and work in New Orleans.
The Baltimore Jewish community was incredibly generous to us, giving
life to the maxim, "Kol Yisrael areivim zeh bazeh" ("All Jews are
responsible, one for the other"). My son's Jewish day school and
every Jewish organization waived its fees, and a federation leader
gave us a rent-free apartment.
As grateful as we were for their compassion, we still felt the pain
of separation from family and friends; we missed the rhythms of New
Orleans. And so we moved back in late June, to be reunited as a
family in our home.
But both our home and the city to which we returned are irrevocably
Our first floor is now gone, stripped down to studs and concrete
floor. Walk through the front door and you confront... nothing. Where
the pool table once stood, where the Baltimore Orioles memorabilia
was hung, where the detailed mahogany paneling graced the walls and
where the kitchen in which we stored our Passover dishes was found,
there is nothing. Four feet of standing water will do that to a home.
With thousands of homes in similar condition, securing a contractor
to do the repair work in a timely fashion requires all the nudging
skills one can muster.
Nearly a year after the storm, New Orleans still has a post-
apocalyptic sensibility. There is no amount of media coverage that
can prepare one for the eerie quiet of block after block of deserted
homes and businesses, with their windows busted and their contents
out on the streets.
Add to that the absence of basic services that we normally take for
granted - regular mail delivery, trash pickup, streetlights - and it
feels like we are living in the "wild, wild South."
Thanks to Katrina, I now have a visceral understanding of the day on
which we mourn the destruction of the Temples, as well as an
understanding of countless other tragedies throughout Jewish history.
In 586 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the First Temple, sacked
Jerusalem and sent its inhabitants into exile, 1,000 kilometers away
Psalm 137 recounts what happened next. The captors mocked the exiled
Jews, forcing them to sing "songs of joy" about Jerusalem. How could
the Jews sing joyous songs about their destroyed homeland?
Somehow they summoned the determination to sing. And they went a step
further, vowing never to forget Jerusalem, saying, "If I forget you,
Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning, may my tongue cling to
the roof of the mouth."
Certainly, New Orleans is not a sacred city as is Jerusalem, yet the
Jewish people's loss experienced more than 2,500 years ago has great
resonance. For just as Jerusalem, even when rebuilt, was never the
same because its heart - the Temple - was destroyed, so the rebuilt
New Orleans never will be the same.
The great food and music of New Orleans are justly renowned, and many
restaurants have reopened and some musicians have returned. But I
worry that the intangibles that made New Orleans such a balm to the
spirit are lost forever.
Will it again be a place where "Laissez les bon temps rouler" ("Let
the good times roll") is a creed to live by, and where an incredibly
diverse group of people live side by side in relative harmony? Will
New Orleans return as a city in which people know there is more to
life than work? Will New Orleans again be a place where thousands of
people from all ends of the economic spectrum can rub shoulders,
screaming as one for beads at Mardi Gras or grooving to the music at
Gut-wrenching uncertainty and despair now accompany the promise of
living in New Orleans. Rebuilding a life against the backdrop of
inadequate levees and a dysfunctional government takes a certain
amount of bravado. The large number of "For Sale" signs is evidence
that many people are not willing to take that risk. Does my family
have a sufficient appetite for risk to stay in the city? The jury is
However, I am certain of one thing: This Tisha B'Av will find me at
synagogue, marking the end of the 11-month mourning period. Enveloped
by the comforting presence of fellow mourners, it surely will be
cathartic to remember the litany of past catastrophes from which the
Jewish people emerged undefeated. From that catharsis will stem the
strength to continue rebuilding our shattered city.
On this Tisha B'Av, which falls on the night of Wednesday, August 2,
Judaism's dual emphasis on community and remembrance will come
together to bring peace and strength to New Orleans mourners.
Then, a few weeks later, I will take a cue from my ancestors, who
were forced into exile and yet still sang songs of joy about their
Given the healing power of ritual, let me suggest that on August 29,
Katrina's first anniversary, New Orleans Jews - those who have
returned and those who have made new lives elsewhere - as well as
lovers of New Orleans everywhere light a candle, wear gaudy Mardi
Gras beads and sing a rousing rendition of Eddie DeLange and Louis
Alter's classic, "Do You Know What It Means To Miss New Orleans?"
Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans
And miss it each night and day
I know I'm not wrong, this feeling's gettin' stronger
The longer I stay away
Miss them moss covered vines, the tall sugar pines
Where mockin' birds used to sing
And I'd like to see that lazy Mississippi
Hurryin' into spring
The moonlight on the bayou, a Creole tune that fills the air
I dream about Magnolias in bloom, and I'm wishin' I was there.
Gail Naron Chalew is a writer and editor who is rebuilding a life in