Jewish New Orleans

Feature by Willard Manus

Thanks to Katrina, the HBO series TREME, and the city's unique history, cuisine, music and architecture, most Americans know a lot about New Orleans--until it comes to the Crescent City's Jewish past.
That's surprising, considering that the Jewish presence in New Orleans dates back to the French colonial period, although its numbers did not become significant until after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. Most of the first Jewish settlers were of Sephardic origin, with a sprinkling of Ashkenazic Jews from Germany and France. The first building dedicated as a synagogue was financed in 1847 by the wealthy (and reclusive) businessman, Judah Touro, who later paid for a house of worship in the 800 block of Carondelet Street.
Today the Jewish community is about 15,000 strong. Most Jews still live within the city limits, either uptown, around Tulane University, or in the Lakefront area. The suburban Jews have mostly taken root in the Metaire district, where there are Conservative, Orthodox and Reform synagogues.
Places of Jewish interest in the famed French Quarter (best investigated on foot) include the Hermann-Grima House, 820 St. Louis St,, built in 1831 by a wealthy merchant, and the Miltenberger Mansion at 900-910 Royal. The latter was erected in 1838 by a Jewish widow for her three sons. Nedarby at 540 Royal is Nathan Galleries, which specializes in the work of Jewish painters and sculptors.

The Historic New Orleans Collection, located at 410 Chartres St., is the home of the Williams Research Center. Established in 1966 by General and Mrs. L. Kemper, private collectors of Louisiana materials, the center is at the heart of a complex of historic buildings. Many books, letters, documents, artifacts, paintings and photographs dealing with the history of Jews in New Orleans are housed here. The Center's exhibitions are open to the public.
The Louisiana State Museum at 400 Esplanade Ave. contains still more items from the city's Jewish past, many of which were donated by the families of such pioneers as Steven Moses, Judah P. Benjamin and Judah Touro. Of special interest are the papers of Stanley Stein, who was a resident of the U.S. Public Service Hospital in Carville, Louisiana. "While here, Stein served as editor of the hospital's newspaper, The Star, and spearheaded a national campaign to remove the words 'leper' and 'leprosy' from popular vocabulary in favor of the term 'Hansen's Disease,'" notes Andrew Simons in JEWS OF NEW ORLEANS--AN ARCHIVAL GUIDE (The Greater New Orleans Archivists, 1998).
"Housed in the collection are the original manuscripts of his autobiography Alone No Longer, and a second autobiography, never published, entitled Stubborn Ounces. Additionally, the collection contains correspondence, including some from Stein's close friend Tallulah Bankhead."
The venerable St Charles streetcars still take visitors through New Orleans' Garden District (unfortunately, the Streetcar named Desire is now a bus), passing many of the homes and institutions, past and present, belonging to New Orleans' Jews. Don't miss the Longue Vue House and Gardens at 7 Bamboo Road, the estate of Edgar Bloom Stern (1896-1959) and Edith Rosenwald Stern (1895-1980). Edgar Stern, a successful cotton broker, later built Pontchartrain Park, a subdivision for African-Americans and the Royal Orleans Hotel in the Vieux Carre. Mrs. Stern was the duaghter of Augusta and Julius Rosenwald, a founder of Sears-Roebuck who later went on to become the greatest American philanthropist of the twentieth century. Long Vue's gardens and estate, now on the National Register of Historic Places, are open to the public. (504) 488-5488.
At 5120 St Charles stands a graceful mansion built in 1907 by Marks Isaacs and later turned into a public library by the city. Two blocks away, at the corner of Jefferson, is the Jewish Community Center, built in 1950.
On the campus of Tulane University is the Newcomb College Archives, in Caroline Richardson Hall. Newcombe College, the women's coordinate college of Tulane, was founded in 1886 and, unlike most other American universities, had no quota on Jewish students. Consequently, Jewish enrollment was, and still is, high at the college. Records of Jewish students and alumnae exist throughout the Archives.
Tulane University, which also has always welcomed Jewish students, is the repository of the archives of the Southern Jewish Historical Society. For information about the archives and Tulane's Judaic Studies Program call (504) 865-5691.
The William Ransom Hogan Jazz Archive contains over two thousand reels of taped oral history interviews with pioneer jazz musicians. Included are interviews with such Jewish jazzmen as Jules Cahn, Isidore Newman and Bernard Steinau. Of special interest is the Max Kaminsky Collection--a treasure trove of recordings, manuscripts and compositions by the illustrious trumpet player. Phone (504) 865-5688.
The Touro Infirmary Archives at 3450 Chestnut St. is another important source of information about Jewish New Orleans. The infirmary, founded in 1852 by the philanthropist Judah Touro as a small waterfront hospital for needy sailors, later became known as the Hebrew Hospital. It continued to grow over the years, merging with the Hebrew Benevolent Society, opening a training school for nurses and a home for the aged. Today the Touro Infirmary provides medical services to all who seek its care.
The Touro Infirmary Archives houses material on Judah Touro and the New Orleans Jewish Community in general. Call (504) 897-8090.
Jewish visitors needing to feed the inner man, should search out Serio's Kosher Deli, 133 St Charles, just outside the French Quarter. (It's kosher-style, not glatt kosher). In Metaire, Fortuna's Cuisine, 4241 Veterans Blvd., serves Israeli food.
For information about the many synagogues in New Orleans, consult JEWS OF NEW ORLEANS--AN ARCHIVAL GUIDE. To order copies contact the Touro Infirmary at or call (504) 504-8090.