High Hopes

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A woman’s personal journey home

couple.jpgThough I live in Brooklyn, NY now, I grew up in New Orleans and in Metairie, where my parents still live. During Hurricane Katrina, my parents evacuated to Monroe with their dog, Bogey. When they realized they couldn’t return home for a while, they drove up north, to the New York/New Jersey area because my sisters and I all live there. They returned to Louisiana around September 27, and I came down a week later, on October 3. What follows is an excerpt from the journal I kept during my visit.

My parents retrieved me at the airport. They looked tired and stressed, but pretty good considering all they’ve been through lately. Their house in Metairie is structurally intact, but it sustained water and mold damage. There was a foot and a half of water in some parts of the house, up to three feet in others and the garage filled significantly higher. As a result, the interior of the house had to be gutted. While it’s being rebuilt, my parents are renting a furnished twobedroom apartment. It’s spacious for an apartment, with a sitting room large enough to hold an upright piano while my mom’s Steinway grand is repaired. Though it’s not home, my parents feel lucky to have a clean, comfortable and roomy place to live. The next day was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. The city’s Reformed temples pooled their depleted resources to put together this year’s holiday services. The sole Rosh Hashanah service was held Tuesday morning at Touro Synagogue in Uptown. We drove along River Road, winding along the Mississippi. Fate, we’ve learned, is whimsical. Houses no sturdier than shacks looked unscathed. But Mat &
Naddie’s looked awful–the sign busted, parts of the wood frame torn down, planks from the wooden back porch missing or frayed.

We turned onto St. Charles and drove past Audubon Park. Some of the gorgeous oak trees were downed, and others had already been hewn, only stumps left standing. Still, my dad was relieved. “I heard from someone that there wasn’t an oak tree left,” he said. “But it looks like there are hundreds still standing.” The main sanctuary at Touro was closed: Water
damage to the basement had deprived the building of electricity. So we crowded into the smaller sanctuary next to the main building. There were emergency workers of all sorts–from the National Guard, the U.S. Army, the Centers for Disease Control and the fire departments of other cities. Many were in uniform; out of necessity, the dress code was relaxed, because so many people have had their wardrobes largely wiped out. I sat next to an Army doctor who’d attended medical school at Tulane. Half grim, half joking, he said, “We’re starting to treat people for gunshot wounds and drug overdoses. We aren’t happy about it, but at the same time, we’re relieved. Things are getting back to normal.”

It was good to be at temple, this year. There was a sense of achievement because there was a service at all; a sense of triumph for each couple, individual, family that made it to worship. The small space was packed with people who’d returned to town; the crowd filled the pews and spilled into the entrance hall. Also, we were all eager for the symbolism of the shofar: the termination of this difficult year. The shofar blower blew the horn, his cheeks puffed out like Dizzy Gillespie’s: Tekiah (one long blast); Shevarim (three short blasts); and Teruah (nine short and faster blasts). Then he walked into the entrance area and repeated the process, for those who couldn’t fit into the sanctuary. The rabbi gave a sweet and simple sermon of renewal. He choked up as he thanked the congregants who’d helped him make the service possible.

Afterward, my parents and I chatted with some friends. “How did the storm treat you?” “How did you make out?” I noticed that some people who’d emerged relatively unscathed had survivor’s guilt. “I was lucky” was how most of them answered, often with their eyes downcast, appearing almost ashamed of their good fortune.

My parents’ friends the Cohens (whose house is fine) were moving back to Philadelphia, where they grew up. Elinor had voiced some regrets about this to my mother, but her husband was unwavering. He’d always missed his hometown. “Next year, there could be four Katrinas,” he told me. “I’m retired. Why should I stay here and subject myself to that?” However, most people we know seem to be staying; and if they’re not back yet, they’re returning as soon as they can.

The next week, after I’d returned to Brooklyn, my parents attended the Yom Kippur services at Gates of Prayer in Metairie. Their synagogue had held services the night before, but Dad, feeling like he has two jobs these days—keeping his business going and fighting with insurance companies—decided that the day service would have to suffice. My parents said
hello to the presiding rabbi. They stood around with him and some of their friends. “Is anyone here on the board of any of the other temples?” asked the rabbi. My dad nodded, “I’m on the Sinai board.” The rabbi invited him and the other members who were present to sit with the other members of his temple on the dais. Later in the service, he helped remove the Torah from the Ark (holy chest) and carry it past the congregation. Congregants kissed their shawls or their sleeves and touched the cloth to the sacred text that my father held.

Not long after the holidays, I looked on the synagogue Web sites, searching for news of my
friends. It’s hard to know how to look for people, these days. But there is a 54-page (and growing) address book online, cataloging the whereabouts of the Reformed Jews of the city. Some already had returned to their homes; others were staying with friends; many others had relocated, at least temporarily. Among those who have dedicated themselves to rebuilding New Orleans, an expression had arisen. Scores of people had taken an old saying, “Next year in Jerusalem,” and transformed it:

“Next year in New Orleans.”

Here’s hoping they’re right.

As I look back on the past year, marked by Katrina and tsunamis and earthquakes and war, I realize that this is not the first time this millennium we’ve felt so emotionally and physically exhausted. Four years ago, my other home—New York—was grieving and hurting. As the wounds remained raw for the residents of New York long after the rest of the country began to regroup, so they do for the residents of the Gulf Coast region. I remember how eagerly I awaited 2002, precisely because I sought a sense of closure. As I’d hoped, the year’s end helped me to move along in my personal recovery. Many in New York felt the same way. In addition, although it took a few years, a fairly complete recovery came.

The situation in Louisiana is different from the one in New York because of the scope of physical devastation and the uncertainty people in all walks of life feel about their futures. Yet I have high hopes that the healing process will be similar. By the time you read this, many of you will have felt the same relief I felt on January 1, 2002. I hope all of you will
feel hopeful about the future. You should; there will be much to celebrate. The city has vowed to provide a better education system; many moldy houses will be scraped clean and their interiors rebuilt within the year; hopefully, Lakeview, Gentilly and the Ninth Ward will be in the process of being repaired. Mardi Gras is scheduled, and Jazz Fest should take
place as well. Tourism will pick up, too. Already, some conventions have announced that they’ll be coming. And, hopefully in the fall, for some games at least, the Saints will march back into town.