Purim falls in the middle of the Jewish month of Adar, and the rabbis teach that at the beginning of that month we already start to "increase our joy" in anticipation of the festival to come. So, too, with the Mardi Gras parade season, which really starts long before Fat Tuesday itself, in the great laboratory of American culture known as New Orleans.
Jazz was cooked up here--out of American marching band music and the drumming on Congo Square and the genius of New Orleans' native sons and daughters. As Ken Burns' documentary series recently revealed, a Jewish family helped Louis Armstrong make it out of the difficult poverty of his youth, and in gratitude the jazz giant always wore a Jewish star around his neck.
The city also has a long Jewish history, though being Jewish in a city shaped primarily by Catholic culture--and secondarily by voodoo--leads to some unusual blends and cultural conflicts.
Carnival season begins when King Cakes appear in McKenzies, Gambino's, and other local bakeries. King Cakes are beautifully decorated round, braided cakes, a bit like giant smashed bagels, decorated with the Mardi Gras colors: purple, green, and gold. The cakes commemorate the Epiphany story, when the Three Wise Kings presented gifts to the baby Jesus. Inside each cake is a plastic baby, and if your piece has the baby, you have to buy the next cake for your office or workplace.
In more ways than one, it's a sweet custom (you have to remember that in New Orleans, the four major food groups are sugar, caffeine, grease, and alcohol). (King Cake and Irish coffee would be a complete nutritional program.)
But that plastic baby gives some Jews the willies. My synagogue's Sunday school bulletin announced that kids shouldn't bring King Cakes to share as snacks because--apart from their not being kosher--"you all know that baby isn't Moses."
To my mind, that's silly. It's a naked plastic baby, for goodness' sake. Anyway, the story of Jesus and the kings is probably itself an appropriation of the story of baby Moses and the Pharaoh's daughter. I don't feel threatened by the homage.
As you might imagine, Purim in New Orleans is like nothing else. Rabbi David Bockman used to lead a Purim service at the old Chevra Tehillim synagogue, which included a stuffed gorilla on a string, flashing lights and sirens, and at appropriate moments, a traditional New Orleans marching band, complete with caps and uniforms and doubloons marked "Krewe of Tzedekah." (A krewe is a Mardi Gras marching club, and tzedakah is Hebrew for charity; there's that cultural gumbo again.)
Bockman, a musician as well as a rabbi, often sat in on local bands late on Saturday nights, wearing his kippah and blowing a cornet. The story is, he sealed his hire in New Orleans by playing "When the Saints Go Marching In" on the shofar. Alas, Chevra Tehillim has closed its doors, and Reb David now blows his jazzy shofar in Raleigh, bless him.
Jews are prominent in some Mardi Gras krewes, especially Bacchus. But remembering a past history of social exclusion, many New Orleans Jews still react to Mardi Gras by leaving town to ski in Colorado.
A young lawyer, L.J. Goldstein, had a different idea. His Krewe du Jieux has been marching proudly for the past five years through the French Quarter in a display of Jewish pride, satire, and homage to African American culture.