Throughout history, New Orleanians have been known for finagling our way around the rules when they’re obstructing our endgame. In fact, “bending the rules” might be an understatement, especially in reference to our early founders and politicians. In Louisiana, in addition to being rule breakers, we love a good story. Needless to say, stories of the arrival of Jewish immigrants to the Louisiana colony range from the fantastic and comical to the ordinary and severe. Being a native, I too love a good anecdote and want to cover a few of these stories I came across before covering what, I believe, is the most credible origin story of Jewish immigrants in Louisiana.
Stories of the Early Jewish Settlement
My favorite story about the first arrival of a Jewish immigrants in New Orleans is one I came across in A Beautiful Crescent. While I believe it fictitious, it’s my favorite story because it epitomizes what I think was the spirit of early settlers. I imagine them as rebels and rule breakers that were haughty, genial, and had a sly sense of humor. The authors of this book believe a Jamaican Jew by the name of David Dias Arias was the first to arrive in the colony. In 1759 he came to our New Orleans port on his ship, Le Texel, carrying desperately needed food (such as flour), ammunition, and trade goods, but was quickly denied docking by Vincent de Rochemore. When our governor, Louis Belcourt, Chevalier de Kerlerec, heard the low prices being offered on these much-needed goods in the colony, he demanded Rochemore let the ship dock. Subsequent to this, and his many other transgressions against France, Kerlerec was expelled home and spent some time imprisoned in the Bastille. Though I love this story, I do not believe Kerlerec can be awarded credit for granting the first Jewish citizen entry to New Orleans.
Before continuing, it would be helpful to note the political climate at this time. Code Noir, or “black code,” was enacted in 1724, and governed the treatment of African American slaves in the French-owned colony of Louisiana. Though still cruel, they were considered lenient when compared to other codes of conduct for slaves, especially when compared to the Jim Crowe laws of the 1880’s and forward. However, what was particularly odd about Code Noir, is that it also called for the expulsion of Jewish citizens in the colony, which, up until that point, had never even recorded the presence of a Jew.
Another story I enjoyed was from the Folklife of Louisiana website, which contrary to the rest of my findings, states the arrival of Jewish immigrants can be dated back to the early 1700’s. Their essay included interviews of Louisiana natives, some of which reflected putative tales, which were likely passed down from their ancestors. The story goes that there was an unidentified Jewish peddler whose horse died in one of the small towns of Louisiana. I like to presume here that he got a whiff of something delicious wafting out of a nearby window, stopped to ask for help and perhaps a bowl of homemade gumbo. Then, like so many of the “never left’s” here in New Orleans, made a home for himself amongst the good people and food he stumbled upon. However, in their recollection of this unnamed man, they merely say he just decided to stay after the death of his horse.
It’s difficult to identify when exactly the first Jewish settlers found themselves in the colony of Louisiana. Most publications have conflicting ideas about when exactly this happened, but most trace it back to 1757 with the arrival of another trader, of Dutch Sephardic heritage, named Isaac Rodrigues Monsanto. In usual French laissez-faire fashion, the government more or less ignored the legal transgression. Over the years, the Monsanto family enjoyed prosperity and power, and their Jewish heritage was widely ignored. However, when Louisiana was seceded to Spain “Bloody” O’Reily stripped the family of their possessions and power before expelling them from the Spanish territory. They reportedly fled to Pensacola (which was owned by the British at the time) until returning some years later. Unfortunately, they were not given back their property or political powers.
Years after the Louisiana Purchase
Fortunately, things took a turn for hopeful Jewish immigrants when Code Noir was dissolved following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The doors of New Orleans were officially opened to the many talented and savvy Jewish merchants and businessmen. Of the just over forty Jewish people living in New Orleans in the early 1800’s, one of the most prominent was Judah Touro, a philanthropist, and businessman. As a Rhode Island native, he had connections in New England that gave him the support he needed to conduct a lucrative trade business with Europe. Though he was personally somewhat ambivalent about his Jewish heritage, he left a significant impression that can still be seen in New Orleans today. His name likely rings a familiar bell for New Orleanians due to the well-known infirmary est. 1854 which dons his name, along with the first synagogue in New Orleans, an almshouse, and Jewish cemetery.
Another notable early Jewish inhabitant of Louisiana included Isaac Delgado, a philanthropist and businessman. Most know him as the namesake for our Community College, the land of which, was bequeathed by Delgado to the City of New Orleans. He also founded the New Orleans Museum of Art, which was formerly called the Isaac Delgado Museum.
A lot of the early settlers only hoped to “fit in” and not be met with resistance in New Orleans. Some of which were more successful than others. One urban legend, tells of a Jewish merchant so liked by his community that the Ku Klux Klan (KKK), which was notoriously antisemitic, approached him with membership, unknowing of his Jewish heritage. He respectfully declined. It is a great story, whether or not it’s true.
Despite their unwelcome presence in early colonization, Jewish citizens were eager to defend their new home. In the Battle of New Orleans, Judah Touro, as well as a handful of other Jewish citizens, fought alongside Andrew Jackson and other New Orleanians to victory. There was also a considerable Jewish presence in the Civil War, particularly on the side of the Confederates, as they were trying to defend their newly awarded political positions, power, and homeland.
Jewish Presence in New Orleans Today
Many Jews in the early colony found themselves somewhat disconnected with their religions due to the difficulties involved in practicing its traditions and customs, such as dietary restrictions. However, today you’ll find a much more prominent Jewish presence in the Greater New Orleans Area, including four synagogues, two community centers, and several Hebrew branches offering support and spiritual guidance. However, when it comes to kosher eating, many tourists find themselves hungry, which is best said by Dahliaadler of Yeahthat’skosher.com:
“New Orleans is a fantastic city for tourism; it’s fascinating, inexpensive, and has a culture unlike any other. However, walking the streets of the city as a Kosher Jew can be a challenge—New Orleans is a seriously food-centric city, and Cajun food is seriously treif.”
A quick trip to UrbanSpoon.com yielded a whopping… five results for Kosher options in New Orleans. So while life for our Jewish neighbors has legally seen dramatic changes in the last 300 years, there are still apparently struggles of a devout follower today. If you’re interested in learning more about Jewish life here in New Orleans, The Jewish Community Center (JCC) is a great resource for New Orleanians, but if you’re interested in hands-on opportunities to learn about Jewish heritage, you do have a few. In October there will the be 9th annual Jewish Film Festival. Additionally, JCC offers a Jewish book festival sporadically (the last one being in 2012).
There’s obviously a lot more to the history of the plight and successes of early Jewish settlers of New Orleans. These early settlers have come a long way from being ambivalent or even hiding their culture and religion, to what they are today. New Orleans ranks 66 in Jewish population by metro area in the world (for those that record ethnic/ religious backgrounds). This is great news when you consider that original awkward exchange between Kerlerec, Rochemore and Arias on the docks in 1759, or the 43 people that saw New Orleans to victory in the Battle of New Orleans. While there’s conflicting stories about when exactly the first Jewish settlers came here, as a New Orleanian I definitely enjoy a good story, and the history of Jewish colonization in New Orleans was definitely an intriguing one.