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An Exile's Reminiscent Lament: 'If I Forget You, New Orleans'
In the first weeks after Katrina, when my husband and I would worry out loud about our home or our "stuff," our 14-year-old son would admonish us, "Look, you are so much better off than those people in the Superdome. You shouldn't feel sorry for yourself."
And he was right. We evacuated without enduring suffering, my husband still had his job, and we had family and friends to go to.
But he was also wrong: We did have permission to grieve, as we were mourning the loss of an entire city, a way of life, even a way of being. When in history had an entire American city been emptied of its people as every system within that city failed? Nothing in American history prepared us for this disaster.
Yet, once again, where contemporary society was lacking in guidance, Jewish tradition provides a blueprint for response.
The Yizkor service on Yom Kippur devoted to a remembrance of loss will carry even more power this year.
And thanks to Katrina, I now have a visceral understanding of the holy day of Tisha B'Av, when we fast and mourn the destruction of Jerusalem, as well as 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 in Babylon.
Psalm 137 recounts what happens next. In Babylon, 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 up the determination to sing and went further, vowing never to forget Jerusalem: "If I forget you, O Jerusalem, may my right hand lose its cunning, may my tongue cleave to the roof of the mouth if I not put Jerusalem above my greatest joy."
Certainly, New Orleans is not a sacred city as is Jerusalem, and the failure of its elected leaders and public servants to lead and serve is a source of great anguish. That 15 percent of the police officers deserted their posts remains a stain on the city.
Yet the Jewish people's loss experienced more than 2,500 years ago has great resonance for dislocated New Orleanians today.
Like their ancestors, the Jews of New Orleans are now in exile, living in 70 communities across the country. Everyone - even those whose homes are still intact - has lost something of great meaning.
Even Jerusalem, when rebuilt, was never the same because its heart, the Temple, was destroyed. So the rebuilt New Orleans will never be the same.
The food and music of New Orleans are renowned, and no doubt the restaurants will reopen and the musicians return. But I fear that the intangibles that made New Orleans such a balm to the spirit are lost forever.
Will it again be a place where joie de vivre is a creed to live by, where an incredibly diverse group of people live side by side in relative harmony, and where it seems like every other day is a holiday?
Will the New Orleans return in which drivers do not honk if you do not bolt immediately when the light turns green (which has happened way too many times since I have relocated to the East Coast), and where 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 for beads and chotchkes at Mardi Gras, or grooving to the music at Jazzfest?
So, taking a cue from my ancestors, I plan to mourn the loss of a community and a way of life by singing songs of joy about New Orleans. I'm also giving myself permission to mourn the New Orleans that once was. At the same time, I must build a new life from scratch, while vowing never to forget the "Old" Orleans.
Gail Naron Chalew is editor of the The Jewish News, which was published in Metairie, La. She temporarily writes out of the offices of the Baltimore Jewish Times, where this article first appeared.