The highlight of our recent family vacation to New Orleans was a bike tour of the Lower Ninth Ward, a historically working-class, African American neighborhood that suffered enormous damage during Hurricane Katrina. Before the storm, the Lower Ninth had a population of more than 20,000 and the highest concentration of African American home ownership in the city. Today, 5,000 residents remain. At first a destination for disaster tourism, which the local residents resented and succeeded in banning, the Lower Ninth has recently begun welcoming groups who want to learn more about the unique history and culture of the neighborhood and the city.
Before the storm, Ronald Lewis, an African-American in his 60s, had converted a shack in his backyard into an archive and museum, which he calls the House of Dance and Feathers. The one-room museum, filled with images and artifacts, bears witness to the New Orleans parading tradition known as Second Lines. (In New Orleans’ many parades, the “first line” comprises the musicians and performers, while the crowd is the “second” line, walking, dancing and bopping along with the throng to the music.) Parading in New Orleans is not mere spectator entertainment. It is a community ritual, and the practice of constructing elaborate costumes by hand and wearing them is a rarified tradition passed on from generation to generation.
When we met Mr. Lewis, he greeted us with a sense of familiarity. “You look like you’re from New York,” he declared. “You know, I was in New York last year, speaking at a Jewish school. I’m a member of the Krewe du Jieux.”
The what? I was intrigued.
As it turns out, Mr. Lewis has had a long standing relationship with L. J. Goldstein, a 40-something Jewish resident of New Orleans who moved there to experience the unique joie de vivre of the city and its music and cultural scene. Goldstein approached Lewis because he wanted to create a Jewish parade crew, modeled on the historic Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs that are the backbone of Mardi Gras celebrations. The two have developed a close mentor-student relationship, and Lewis has felt the love from his new Jewish friends. “We even had a Passover seder at my home,” he explained during our visit. When Lewis affixed a mezuzah to his door, 40 people came to share in the celebration. And inside Lewis’ archive are various Jewish tchotchkes including a tzedakah box for donations, a box of matzah (Yehudah, to be exact), and flyers for the Krewe du Jieux, the Jewish parade and Mardi Gras group created by Goldstein, of which Lewis is a proud member.
I found the Krewe du Jieux fascinating, and much more than a novelty. To me, the Krewe du Jieux exemplifies something I recognize as a “hybrid identity.” In Jewish terms, a group or a person with a hybrid identity affirms their Jewishness, but also constructs their sense of self from another source. For many of us, to be Jewish implies that Judaism and Jewish community form the foundation of who we are. Those with a hybrid identity may view their Jewishness as part of a larger whole, in no way diminished by other religious or cultural sources.
Increasingly, I have met Jews who embrace their hybrid identities in a variety of forms: intermarriages, biracial or bicultural affiliations and gender identity, to name a few. I am always inspired by people who choose to be a part of our communities, despite not fitting conventional norms. I learn from them, and become changed myself. In a broader sense, I believe the future of North American Judaism depends upon our ability to welcome people with such hybrid identities, with the commitment and potential they represent.
The Krewe du Jieux seeks its nourishment from both the Jewish community and the African American traditions of New Orleans, and in turn gives back to both. Like the historic Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, the Krewe du Jieux (a name taken from the satirical parade of Krewe du Vieux, which occurs a month before Mardi Gras) features musicians, entertainers and marchers in costume who “mask” in parades through the streets of New Orleans. In the spirit of historic krewes, Krewe du Jieux pokes fun at itself, often through tongue-in-cheek themes and ludicrous costumes. One year, using the theme of Jews in space, the Krewe wore football helmets with kippot on top. Another year, they wore funny noses and glasses with huge stars of David draped on their backs.
But the Krewe du Jieux, like all second line parades, is more than raucous fun and the reclaiming of stereotypes. Just as these parades are affirmations of cultural pride and tradition, so the Krewe du Jieux seeks to discover a fresh sense of Jewishness, giving marchers a renewed, or even a first time connection to their Judaism in unconventional ways. Beyond the parades, the Krewe du Jieux has developed a series of Jewishthemed events such as the High Holiday Apology Party, a Second Line Chanukkah Parade and a Passover Krewe Seder. These are Jews who immerse themselves in, and seek inspiration from, an African American tradition, while seeking a new depth of celebration through their Jewish roots.
Learning about the Krewe de Jieux made me wonder how we, as Conservative congregations and as a movement, can engage with people and groups with similar hybrid identities. Clearly, if welcoming people with hybrid identities means injecting joy, excitement and humor into the Jewish community, there would be no question about what we should do. But the conversation becomes more complex as we consider the range of identities that actually exist among individuals, couples and families throughout our community.
As a congregational rabbi for over 13 years, I have met many people who upended my assumptions about who embraces Judaism and why. Interfaith couples, in which one partner is a practicing Christian, have proven to be among the most dedicated synagogue members. A young man, whom I thought would never carve out space for Judaism, celebrates Rosh Hashanah, Chanukkah and Passover with his wife of Asian descent and other intermarried couples in his new extended family. I have known committed Jews who have immersed themselves in Buddhist meditation circles while strengthening their ties to Jewish community. Most recently, I have come to appreciate how transgendered Jews treasure their Judaism, despite demeaning comments from within the community.
I believe that it is both in our interest and critical to our mission as Conservative congregations to begin a probing conversation about how we can open ourselves to people with hybrid identities. It is a delicate conversation. As Conservative congregations, we affirm the inherent power of norms. Norms enable us to remain loyal to tradition while practicing a historically and spiritually authentic Judaism. Yet as Conservative Jews we re-examine norms when the social context renders them untenable. We can’t be all things to all people, but we would shortchange our community if we allowed ourselves to marginalize those who have so much to give.
We may believe that norms, and in particular norms of Jewish status, are inherently inclusive. In our pluralistic social climate, this may be the argument we find ourselves advancing most frequently. We may claim that a set of uniform rituals for entry ensures that no one is excluded based on race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or ability. We may even emphasize that we require halakhic Jewish status in our synagogues not as an act of exclusion, but in order to affirm a sense of Jewish belonging, and we in fact welcome all to walk on the path toward full Jewish inclusion.
But no matter how true, these arguments rarely work for those who see themselves on the outside and have minimal interest in jumping through our hoops. I have met with many couples who feel a warm connection to the Hebrew, the melodies and the overall feel of our synagogue, but nevertheless refuse to join because they cannot abide the halakhic exclusion of one partner. Often I encounter people who have grown up in Conservative synagogues, even attended day school and Jewish camp, but they prefer to be part of a synagogue that welcomes everybody over one that denies promembership or honors based on whether one is a halakhic Jew.
Of course, there are many interfaith families who join our community quite happily. But even then, I worry that families too often check their hybrid identities at the door, when in fact, we would all benefit from knowing why they have chosen to be part of our community. We may see it as a self-fulfilling prophecy that individuals and families with hybrid identities choose not to affiliate with Jewish institutions. But at some point, we have to ask ourselves who is alienating whom, and whether we have shirked our responsibility and relinquished our opportunity to engage.
I challenge us to rethink our assumptions about who we are and what we do as communities concerning our norms of Jewish status, if only because the outsiders, those with the hybrid identities, may provide the progressive voice that has fueled our movement in different ways over time.
I biked with my family into New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward with the feeling that we were pretty far away from Judaism. But it was a man who set up a Mardi Gras Indian museum in his backyard, and a group of cheery Jews who reminded me that, to quote Abraham Joshua Heschel, “to be is to stand for.” We can repeat our prophetic messages to ourselves all we want. But it will take people with new voices, new perspectives and idiosyncratic identities to bring them forth in an ever changing social landscape. Are we ready to embrace these new voices?