New Orleans is famous for knowing how to party. And while Mardi Gras is the best-known annual festivity, the Big Easy — as this renascent Louisiana city is called — puts on quite a show for Chanukah, too.
After all, it’s an excuse to decorate, and New Orleanians love their menorahs and lights: What could be finer amid the solstice gloom?
Nearly a decade after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, there is no better gauge of New Orleans’ Jewish vibrancy than the profusion of December festivities. Anyone who happens to be in Louisiana this month can find myriad ways to celebrate Chanukah — from basketball to Israeli music to, naturally, latkes a-plenty.
Food being central to the culture of this French-Creole city, it is hardly surprising that December is basically latke month in New Orleans, rich with opportunities to taste Chanukah, Southern-style.
The latke bar is the showpiece of “Latkes With a Twist,” a charity event taking place Dec. 11 at Bellocq, a dark, sexy lounge in the Warehouse District. It kicks off the carbo-loading this week (early, yes, but when did that ever stop Christmas?). Texas’ Mark Rubin, who plays everything from western swing to klezmer and Jewish jazz, provides the music.
Uptown, the neighborhood that is home to roughly half of metro New Orleans Jews, is host to a beloved annual latke event: Chabad Uptown’s Celebrity Chef Latke Cookoff 4.0. With beer flowing and dreidels spinning, it’s a premier schmoozing event for the young professional set. Well-known local chefs square off against each other and — in a new twist on tradition — against one amateur with a home-kitchen recipe. Anything kosher goes: hot chiles, deep-fried banana, okra, red beans — as long as you can deep-fry it in dough.
Really, when you think about it, a latke is first cousin to a hush puppy. Deep-frying is a Chanukah thing, a Southern thing, an Israeli thing — which is why Chabad also holds an Israeli Chanukah party, with doughnuts and kebabs geared towards (but not limited to) a burgeoning community of local Israelis.
Israeli music is also the highlight at Uptown Jewish Community Center’s Chanukah Celebration, which is just one of the many synagogue and JCC holiday events open to the public. The Israeli guitarist David Broza, who fuses modern pop with Spanish idioms in English, Spanish and Hebrew songs, is the headliner for this event.
It’s impossible not to contemplate the symbolism that Chanukah has for New Orleans Jews, who in this wave-battered burg have resurrected Jewish life to new heights. Ever since Iberian Sephardim began settling here in the early 1700s, and then survived the Black Code of 1724 (in which Jews were ordered out of the colony), Jews have been a vital part of Louisiana culture. By commemorating the improbable triumph of the Maccabees and their oil, Louisianans pay homage to another, long-ago people with a similarly indomitable spirit.
The most visible homage is Chabad’s “Light Up the Night on the Mississippi,” a downtown outdoor party on the first night of Chanukah. The biggest menorah in the state of Louisiana will shimmer over the waterfront at the Spanish Plaza, whose gracious, circular fountains recall the city’s Spanish heritage. The Plaza is part of Riverwalk, an outdoor mall and plaza that has been the site of numerous rebirths — from 1980s urban renewal to, most recently, recovery after Katrina’s storm surge.
Naturally, there will be a hot latke bar. That’s de rigueur. The popular Israeli singer-guitarist Yoel Sharabi, who charms audiences with modern Israeli and Hasidic melodies, will perform, and for kids there’s a Dreidel House activity center, face painting and plenty of Chanukah gelt.
First-night lights of a different sort will shine at the Smoothie King Center, home of the NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, where basketball fans can ring in the holiday with a ballgame. The local birds, led by center-forward Anthony Davis, who is having a breakout year, will host the Utah Jazz in a fundraiser to benefit the Jewish Community Day School, whose chorus will sing before the game.
The parties don’t end next week, though. Down in the storied French Quarter, there’s a fourth-night party for the 21-to-45 set at Evangeline, an Old World-atmospheric lounge with exposed-brick walls and soft lighting.
It’s sponsored by JNOLA — a networking, social and cultural organization that bills itself as “Your Hub for Next Gen Jewish Life.” Formed out of several outreach groups, JNOLA is yet another symbol of how Jewish New Orleans aims not only to rebuild, but to flourish for generations to come.
So what Jewish fun can we look forward to in Louisiana once the holiday’s over? Head over to Baton Rouge (only a little over an hour’s drive) for the 9th annual Baton Rouge Jewish Film Festival from Jan. 14-18.
Louisiana’s second city (and capital) served as a refuge for numerous New Orleans Jews after Katrina, and the Jewish bond has strengthened since then, with greater fluidity between the communities. This year’s Film Festival is long on documentaries about everything from delis to the Holocaust, and will take place at the Manship Theatre at Baton Rouge’s premier venue, Shaw Center for the Arts — which coincidentally opened in 2005, the year of hurricane.