In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is bringing African American and Jewish cultures together into one meshuggeneh gumbo
Author Eric Benson Photography Rush Jagoe
Ronald Lewis is not Jewish, but he’ll be proud to tell you that he’s been a Big Macher.
Lewis, 62, African American and a lifelong resident of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward, has spent decades immersed in his city’s vibrant parade culture. He’s been council chief of the Choctaw Hunters and currently serves as gatekeeper of the North Side Skull & Bones Gang and president of the Big Nine Social Aid & Pleasure Club. After retiring from his job as a transit worker in 2002, Lewis built a museum, The House of Dance & Feathers, dedicated to New Orleans street life, and the single-room structure is now stuffed well beyond capacity with everything from painstakingly sewn Mardi Gras Indian headdresses to throwaway plastic beads to a letter of commendation from Barack and Michelle Obama. But even in Lewis’ eclectic collection, some objects are genuinely unexpected. Tucked into a corner near the entrance, there is a photograph of a dancing Hasidic groom (wearing trademark black hat and full beard), a logo of a Star of David with an inlaid fleur-de-lis and a plastic bag filled with painted and glitter-covered bagels. Near Lewis’ desk sits a donation box identified with the word Tz’edakah (Hebrew for charity) and a bumper sticker that reads: “New Orleans: Oy! Such a Home.”
The historically African American Lower Ninth is not where one would expect to find Judaica, but when I first visited Lewis’ museum in the weeks leading up to this year’s Mardi Gras season, he had an explanation ready. Lewis chronicled for me the complicated and sometimes contentious bond between Jews and Blacks, mentioning the Israeli airlifts of Ethiopian Jews, American Jewish support for the Civil Rights Movement, and the parallels between African American and Hebrew slavery. But Lewis’ involvement went beyond an awareness of history. He’d been active in bridge building, attending Shabbat dinners and proudly hosting what he believed to be “the first true Passover Seder in the Lower Ninth Ward.”
“I get visitors from all over the world,” Lewis told me later, “and a lot of times after they’ve seen that Jewish section, they’ll look at me and say, ‘Mr. Lewis, what do Jews have to do with this?’ And that leads me to tell them the story of L.J. Goldstein creating the Krewe du Jieux and him in a sense bringing the Jewish people to the streets of New Orleans.”
Six weeks after meeting Lewis, I was marching through the streets of New Orleans in step with a Mardi Gras float decorated with snowcapped Egyptian pyramids. Out front, two women held a banner with distinctly Walt Disney–style lettering that read: “Krewe du Jieux Presents Hebrew Slaves on Ice,” a reference to Mel Brooks’ History of the World, Part I and the unusually cold weather endured by the southern U.S. this past winter. Darting through our ranks was L.J. Goldstein. A puckish man wearing Groucho Marx nose-glasses and a jacket with a dollar-bill pattern, Goldstein, 46, crackled with the mischievous energy of Mardi Gras. He helped clear the encroaching crowds from the parade path. He tossed decorated bagels to some lucky bystanders. He passed around refreshments to the krewe members. And he sprayed everyone with soapy bubbles from the krewe’s “snow machine,” the Zionboni.
Goldstein, a photographer and lawyer born in Philadelphia and raised in New York, moved to New Orleans in 1993 and plunged headfirst into its culture. In the early years, he worked in the kitchen at Molly’s, a well-loved French Quarter dive, and was known for appearing around town in the character of a polyester-wearing lounge lizard he called John Frutie. A decade later, he ran for City Council as a defender of New Orleans culture, promising to save the French Quarter from turning into “some kind of decadent Disneyland.” (He lost, but he scored the better endorsers, among them jazz musicians Kermit Ruffins and John Boutté.) Goldstein was—and remains—an equal-opportunity reveler, marching with groups as diverse as the Treme Sidewalk Steppers (an African American social aid and pleasure club) and the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus (a Star Wars–inspired Mardi Gras parading unit). But Krewe du Jieux, which he founded in 1996, has always been something more to him—warm irreverence and Big Easy wackiness in the service of a higher purpose. “We’re about punning and satire,” Goldstein told me. “If it’s not funny, if it’s not fun, it’s not worth doing. But we’re also about empowerment. It’s empowerment to parade down the streets of New Orleans as Jews in a city where Jews were excluded from Mardi Gras.”
Goldstein may have brought the Jewish people to the streets of New Orleans in the 1990s, but he was hardly the first Jew to lead a Mardi Gras parade. When the Krewe of Rex launched in 1872, its first king was Lewis J. Salomon, a Jewish banker, cotton merchant and Civil War veteran. Mardi Gras had arrived in New Orleans during the French colonial period as a decidedly inclusive event. Throughout the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the city’s mixed-race Creole population celebrated the holiday as a free-flowing bacchanal centered on public masked balls that turned class distinctions upside down. But after Louisiana was incorporated into the U.S. in 1803, the new establishment wagged its finger at the increasingly debauched festival, which by the mid-1800s had grown violent—Gangs of New York on the Mississippi. Then, in 1857, a group of local bigwigs decided to “civilize” the chaos, creating a new kind of Mardi Gras institution: the krewe. Their organization, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, paraded with floats, a tradition they’d borrowed from a New Year’s Eve celebration in Mobile, Ala. They organized around a theme. (The inaugural one: “The demon actors in Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost.’”) And they replaced the traditionally inclusive spirit of Carnival with a members-only policy.
Jews were initially welcome in the old-line krewes, but the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and anti-immigrant nativism brought about a change of policy. According to Lords of Misrule, a history of Mardi Gras and race by James Gill, by the early 1920s, “anti-Semitism, largely absent from the days of Carnival, was now rampant.” In 1921, one story goes, the king of Comus refused to greet the queen of Rex because she was one-quarter Jewish. In the 1930s, Rex, looking for increased membership, allowed some Jews to join the krewe, but they were segregated on a separate float. By the late ’60s, The New Yorker was reporting on the tradition of wealthy New Orleans Jewish families skipping town during Mardi Gras season to avoid the embarrassment of being excluded from the festivities. To this day, the ski slopes of Colorado and Utah experience an influx of prosperous Crescent City Jews around Fat Tuesday.
But those kept out of the old-line Mardi Gras krewes—especially African Americans—have long had their own, often subversive outlets for Carnival reverie. And on Goldstein’s first Fat Tuesday in 1994, that was the tradition he embraced. Goldstein was walking up the busy thoroughfare of St. Charles Avenue when he was stopped in his tracks by the marching throngs of the Krewe of Zulu. Goldstein was a spectacle himself, wearing a full-length fur coat over his trademark polyester, but he was nothing compared to the members of the Zulu krewe, African Americans who lampooned racist stereotypes by dressing up as jungle savages.
“I’d never seen anything like that before,” Goldstein said. “Here are African Americans wearing Afro wigs and handing out coconuts. I didn’t go much farther and a klezmer band comes parading down the street. I just jumped in and paraded the whole way down St. Charles. When we got to [the end of the parade], the mayor of New Orleans, Marc Morial, didn’t know how to introduce us. We’d crashed the parade, so we weren’t on the list. Someone screamed out, ‘the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars.’ That parade has now become known as Julu.”
Zulu’s racial satire and the experience of a Jewish klezmer band spontaneously marching in the midst of an African American parade sparked the idea to create a proper Jewish Mardi Gras krewe. Instead of decorated coconuts, they would throw decorated bagels. Instead of a Witch Doctor, they would have a Rich Doctor. Instead of the Big Shot, Zulu’s leader, they would have the Big Macher. Instead of wearing Afro wigs, they would wear hooked noses. They would adopt a francofied spelling, a common practice in Louisiana, and call themselves the “Jieuxs.” In 1997, the Krewe du Jieux launched as part of the bawdy Krewe du Vieux parade. With the Super Bowl being played in New Orleans that year, Krewe du Vieux chose a football-related theme: “Krewe du Vieux Goes Deep.” Krewe du Jieux branded itself the “Offensive Line,” wearing football jerseys emblazoned with stars of David and holding up signs with such mildly objectionable phrases as “Funny, you don’t look Jieuxish.”
As the years progressed, the ties between the Krewe du Jieux and New Orleans’ African American community grew stronger. In 2002, the African American jazz bassist Walter Payton marched with the krewe as the King of the Jieuxs, and Lewis has been named Big Macher twice. This year’s king, Andrew Gross, is one of the few white members of Krewe of Zulu.
In 2005, the Krewe du Jieux faced a crisis. Hurricane Katrina hit, decimating the city, and a long-simmering feud between Goldstein and a group of other members erupted and split the krewe in two. Goldstein and his faction kept the name, and the other group, now known as the Krewe du Mishigas, kept the float and the slot in Krewe du Vieux. “We got to keep our bagels,” Goldstein said. “Although that took a couple of years—you can’t copyright a decorated bagel.”
Goldstein’s Krewe du Jieux depended on the kindness of strangers and friends for Mardi Gras parade slots. (Lewis requested members of the Krewe du Jieux as his honor guard when he was king of Krewe du Vieux in 2008.) Then, in 2010, Krewe du Jieux found a permanent home when Goldstein helped launch a new parade, Krewe Delusion, a homespun effort that marched on the same early carnival night as Krewe du Vieux. The Krewe du Jieux, whose numbers were slashed by Hurricane Katrina and the split, began to replenish its ranks. This year, parading in Krewe Delusion for the fifth time, Krewe du Jieux had 40 marchers, its biggest group since the storm.
Hurricane Katrina hollowed out New Orleans—the total population shrank from more than 450,000 residents in 2005 to a little more than 200,000 in 2006—and Jews were no exception. The Jewish population of Greater New Orleans, never large, fell from 9,500 before the storm to around 6,000 in Katrina’s aftermath. But the city and its Jews have rebounded. The total population of New Orleans is back to more than 80 percent of its pre-Katrina levels, and the area now has more Jews than it did before the storm.
The Jieuxs who marched as Hebrew Slaves on Ice this year reflected the rebuilt and repopulated city. Almost none of the 40 paraders were born in New Orleans, and most of them had arrived in the city in the past few years—a mix of do-gooder professionals, among them an ER resident, a public interest lawyer and an outreach librarian. Even the krewe’s captain, Laura Reeds, had arrived in the city only two years before. (Goldstein has given up official duties, but remains the krewe’s guiding spirit.) These were not the native New Orleanian Jews whose parents took them on ski vacations to escape the shame of being excluded from Rex and Comus balls, nor were these parade junkies like Goldstein, for whom Mardi Gras is a way of life. But as the Jieuxs marched through the French Quarter, the crowds of tourists lining the narrow streets parted for a distinctly New Orleanian krewe. Even more than that, the crowds parted for a distinctly New Orleanian Moses.
David Polsky, a strikingly young-looking 36-year-old Orthodox rabbi from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, had been cast as the krewe’s prophet, and from the start of the parade to the end, he seemed to be on the brink of an ecstatic vision. Wearing a gnarled white beard and a pair of horns, he whirled around the streets, waving a street-hockey stick like an Old Testament staff and bellowing the lyrics to the African American spiritual “Go Down Moses”: “Way down in Egypt’s land/ Tell old Pharaoh/ Let my people go!” He added his own flourish, ironically appropriating lines made famous by Mel Gibson: “Pharaoh, he can take away our lives, but he can never take—our freedom!” Polsky was also a post-Katrina transplant. He arrived in New Orleans in 2011 to lead Anshe Sfard, a struggling Orthodox congregation in what was once the Dryades Street neighborhood, a formerly Eastern European enclave that is now predominantly African American. Since coming to the city, Polsky had revitalized his shul, inviting a female African American minister to speak to his congregants, appearing on a Martin Luther King Day panel with an imam, and throwing a Big Easy Purim party, complete with Chinese food and a brass band. Like his adopted city, Polsky was devout and uproarious in equal measure.
Two days after the Krewe du Jieux parade, Goldstein and I paid a visit to Ronald Lewis. Lewis had lost nearly everything in Katrina, and the summer after the storm, a group of Kansas State University architecture students had designed and built a new museum in his backyard. During construction, the students stayed at Goldstein’s house.
“I’ve been knowing L.J. all them years,” Lewis said, “and I’ve been watching him grow as a person from that wild and crazy little guy to a proud family man—beautiful wife, beautiful baby.”
Goldstein smiled. He may have come to New Orleans in his early 20s, but he likes to say New Orleans is where he grew up. The jester who once promenaded around the Quarter in polyester and a full-length fur coat is now a middle-aged dad who picks up his four-year-old daughter from school with a big smile and a cheek-pinching compliment: “You’re a great schlepper, sweetheart.”
“What was your first Yiddish word?” Goldstein asked Lewis.
“Mishpocheh,” the older man replied.
I asked what it meant.
“Family,” Lewis said. “Growing up, they never did have much black history on TV, but they had Jewish history. And I will tell you, one of my strongest recognitions was the plight of the people of the Holocaust. For me, being African American and the descendant of slaves, I could connect with that. It’s about people reaching out to people. I always say, when L.J. first introduced me to gefilte fish, I threatened to bring chitlins to his house.”
“So we had a deal,” said Goldstein. “You don’t have to eat gefilte fish; I don’t have to eat chitlins.”
“But I do eat gefilte fish for the seder!” Lewis protested.
“And I never eat the chitlins,” Goldstein said, laughing.
“Me and Goldstein are a team,” Lewis said. “When I went down with my heart attack, the first thing I did was call L.J. and say, ‘Look, I’m in the hospital. These people are ready to split me open like a red fish. I need you to get out the word.’ And that’s just what he did. It goes back to that word, mishpocheh—family.”
Eric Benson is a writer based in Austin, Texas. He was raised in New York City as a devotee of H&H Bagels.