Originally published spring 2001. Republished February 17, 2012.
Reprinted with permission of Beliefnet.
Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, was February 27 this year, putting it just about 10 days before the Jewish festival of Purim. Though Mardi Gras, like Halloween, has become a thoroughly American holiday, I like to think of it as Catholic Purim, especially this year, when the holiday falls between the full moon of Tu Bishvat — the Jewish New Year for Trees — and the full moon of Purim. Both Purim and Mardi Gras involve masking, both celebrate turning the world upside down, both encourage inebriation: The two holidays are in many ways soulmates.
Purim falls in the middle of the Jewish month of Adar, and the rabbis teach that at the beginning of that month we already start to "increase our joy" in anticipation of the festival to come. So, too, with the Mardi Gras parade season, which really starts long before Fat Tuesday itself, in the great laboratory of American culture known as New Orleans.
Jazz was cooked up here — out of American marching band music and the drumming on Congo Square and the genius of New Orleans' native sons and daughters. As Ken Burns' documentary series recently revealed, a Jewish family helped Louis Armstrong make it out of the difficult poverty of his youth, and in gratitude the jazz giant always wore a Jewish star around his neck.
In New Orleans, people speak of a cultural gumbo, in which different elements bump and jostle in a hot stew without losing their individual flavor: okra from Africa, a French roux and a bit of sassafras from the native swamps.
The city also has a long Jewish history, though being Jewish in a city shaped primarily by Catholic culture — and secondarily by voodoo — leads to some unusual blends and cultural conflicts.
Carnival season begins when King Cakes appear in McKenzies', Gambino's and other local bakeries. King Cakes are beautifully decorated, round, braided cakes, a bit like giant smashed bagels, decorated with the Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold. The cakes commemorate the Epiphany story, when the Three Wise Kings presented gifts to the baby Jesus. Inside each cake is a plastic baby, and if your piece has the baby, you have to buy the next cake for your office or workplace.
In more ways than one, it's a sweet custom (you have to remember that in New Orleans, the four major food groups are sugar, caffeine, grease and alcohol — King Cake and Irish coffee would be a complete nutritional program).
But that plastic baby gives some Jews the willies. My synagogue's Sunday school bulletin announced that kids shouldn't bring King Cakes to share as snacks because — apart from their not being kosher — "you all know that baby isn't Moses."
To my mind, that's silly. It's a naked plastic baby, for goodness' sake. Anyway, the story of Jesus and the kings is probably itself an appropriation of the story of baby Moses and the Pharaoh's daughter. I don't feel threatened by the homage.
Fat Tuesday is definitely at root a Catholic holiday. The carnival season — the word derives from carne vale, "farewell to the flesh" — marks the last blast of drinking, sex and gluttony before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. (I love to watch the street-cleaning trucks roll their big brushes through the French quarter Tuesday night at midnight, sweeping bottles and debris and rolling away the drunks, leaving a clean, fresh feeling through the city.)
As you might imagine, Purim in New Orleans is like nothing else. Rabbi David Bockman used to lead a Purim service at the old Chevra Tehillim synagogue, which included a stuffed gorilla on a string, flashing lights and sirens and, at appropriate moments, a traditional New Orleans marching band, complete with caps and uniforms and doubloons marked "Krewe of Tzedekah." (A krewe is a Mardi Gras marching club, and tzedakah is Hebrew for charity; there's that cultural gumbo again.)
Bockman, a musician as well as a rabbi, often sat in on local bands late on Saturday nights, wearing his kippah and blowing a cornet. The story is he sealed his hire in New Orleans by playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" on the shofar. Alas, Chevra Tehillim has closed its doors, and Reb David now blows his jazzy shofar in Raleigh, bless him.
Jews are prominent in some Mardi Gras krewes, especially Bacchus. But remembering a past history of social exclusion, many New Orleans Jews still react to Mardi Gras by leaving town to ski in Colorado.
A young lawyer, L.J. Goldstein, had a different idea. His Krewe du Jieux has been marching proudly for the past five years through the French Quarter in a display of Jewish pride, satire, and homage to African American culture.
L.J. lives in Treme, a predominantly black neighborhood downtown, with a rich cultural heritage. He's one of the few white members of several African American marching clubs, and a few weeks ago he took me to the clubhouse of Zulu, the oldest and most prestigious African American Mardi Gras group.
L.J. loves Zulu and its traditions, and in creating the Krewe du Jieux, he's modeled his organization on Zulu. They give out coconuts, we give out bagels. They have a king and queen, we have the King of the Jieux and the Jewish American Princess.
L.J. told me, "If you listen to official Zulu 'drash' [interpretive] history from Zulu historians, at the time they were parading they were too poor to afford masks, so they put schmutz on their face. I don't buy it, it's clearly black face. The coconuts, the grass skirts, the Witch Doctor--it's saying this is the way you see us, and the way you see us is ridiculous, and we are going to make it so ridiculous you've got to not take it seriously. That's my drash. You become that stereotype to such an extreme, it becomes outlandish or ridiculous. Anyone who believes that black people look like this would have to laugh at themselves. Anyone who believes all Jewish people have big noses, wear sidelocks, or are into money is so ridiculous you can't hold on to it."
The theme this year for the overall parade in which Krewe du Jieux is a subgroup was "2001: A Space Fallacy." The Krewe du Jieux came as the Cohenheads — wearing white suits worn in chemical emergencies and the rubber cones made famous by Dan Aykroyd and Jane Curtin on Saturday Night Live. Some Cohenheads were decorated with blue Jewish stars; others were topped with bright yarmulkes — one came as a giant hairy Jewbacca of Star Wars fame.
The krewe parade is drawing more out-of-town visitors — this year from Baltimore, New York, Ohio and California — and more flak. An article in a Jewish paper in New York prompted an angry call to L.J. early one morning:
"I'm an Orthodox Jew, and I find what you're doing offensive, participating in a Catholic holiday," the man on the line told L.J.
"Are you wearing black robes?" L.J. asked.
"Because you sound like a judge."
L.J. invited him to join the krewe next year, and that's when the man said, "You're an assimilationist," and hung up.
As L.J. was telling the story to us the night before the parade, I was trying out my special costume, an homage to Zulu's Witch Doctor. I was dressed in green scrubs, stethoscope, conehead and grass skirt. "Yeah, we're assimilating all right," I said.
You'd probably need a Ph.D. in anthropology to fully parse that costume, and, in fact, on parade night, when I ran into an anthropologist from Louisiana State University, Helen Regis, she parsed it instantly. "Oh," she said, "You're the "Wrich Doctor."
With my "Wrich Doctor's Wife" by my side, her conehead tastefully augmented by white pearls, we gave out our specially decorated bagels — baked hard, spray-painted and covered with glitter. And along with our fellow krewe members, we danced in the streets.
There's nothing close to the joy of dancing in the streets, and joy in the end is what carnival is about. It's a great rehearsal for Purim. Jews have always borrowed from surrounding cultures; we just don't always admit it. I remember, when I first moved to Baton Rouge, being startled by kids smashing a piñata full of plastic dreidels at a Hanukkah party.
I think we've reached the point as American Jews where we can learn from our surrounding culture instead of putting it down. The presentation of Judaism as if it's hermetically sealed and has never borrowed a feather from a non-Jewish tradition is bad history and poor sociology. It blinds us to our common humanity. L.J.'s own dream is someday to get the entire Jewish community to march through the streets during Purim with the same energy we do now at Mardi Gras. When that day comes, I'll be marching beside him.