Your intrepid reporter is here to give you the latest on the fourth-annual New Orleans Jewish Mardi Gras Parade, which went off last Saturday night-almost without a hitch.
The Krewe du Jieux, the Jewish marching club of New Orleans, is the brainchild of L.J. Goldstein, a local entertainment lawyer, who serves as permanent Captain of the Krewe. K.D.J. is part of a larger dis-organization known as the Krewe du Vieux. In general, this special parade is known for its biting satire, outrageous costumes, and enlarged rubber body parts.
On Friday night, we gathered at L.J.'s to light Shabbos candles and pass the royal robes to this year's new "King of the Jieux," jazz musician Walter Payton, and his Jewish American Princess, Katherine Alpha.
King Walter, a veteran bass player who can be heard at the Meridian Hotel, belongs to Temple Sinai, as does Princess Katherine, a music student and aspiring cantor. We needed musical royalty for this year's theme:
"The Epic Shlep-a Journey to Jieuxland." The theme was picked in "honor" of Jazzland, a new amusement park opening here.
However, taking a Mardi Gras theme too seriously misses the point, which is to party, have fun, dance, and "act like a kid," as David Mervis, a veteran krewe member, puts it.
Saturday evening, the kids assembled at the Den of Muses in the Bywater, all decked out in our their Thrift City or Salvation Army blue or white suits, gleaming with glitter, spangles, ruffles, and outrageous slogans. Our float was parked with the others. Most of the work on this year's float was done by Donna Mussarra Mervis, a graphic designer who created, by mysterious means, a giant gold bagel Ferris wheel--the Bagelcoaster, symbol of Jieuxland. As the krewe huddled over lox and bagels--and beer--I spoke to her and learned she is also our Mistress of Vices.
What are they? I asked her.
"Everything: Idleness. Sloth. Envy. Greed. Pork."
I didn't see any pork on the table.
"No, there's no pork. I did see greed when you took the last bit of salmon on the plate."
Just then, King Walter arrived to rescue me, announcing to one and all, "We're going to Jewsy Jazzland." King Walter, with his white beard and long white caftan, had an Aaron-the-High-Priest look going. Princess Katherine wore a massive blue-and-white-feather wig and a silver lame gown.
After an hour or so of noshing and hanging out, the mules arrived. King Walter and Princess Katherine mounted their thrones. King Walter wore his royal crown and carried his Crown Royal while his princess poured champagne. Then The Big Macher--Yiddish for "big shot"--clambered up the float, all decked out in a white suit, white derby with a golden band, a massive golden bagel around his neck, and golden gloves. During the parade, The Big Macher passed his special "throws" to the adoring crowd--cans of Dr. Brown's Diet Cherry Soda.
We lined up behind our float, ready to begin. I had my bag of throws--golden bagels, hand-painted and decorated, along with a few real ones in case anyone looked hungry. Then catastrophe: Our mule was taken from us. Apparently, L.J. had hired his own, but the driver didn't show up. Here we were, hitchless in Babylon. And L.J. was nowhere in sight.
Fortunately, we had Bubbie, who parades every year as a Jewish grandmother, passing out advice along the route, like "Don't forget to call your mother!" Bubbie--Darlene Olivo in real life, a photographer for The Times Picayune--told me how she saved the parade.
"I found these people who looked like they were having fun watching the parade. Do you want to earn $25 to pull the cart and receive a wristband to get into the ball? They said yeah. I said we gotta leave now. They said okay, closed up their house, and came with us."
Thank you, Bubbie.
"OK darlin'. You should eat more, you're too skinny...."
With our "mules" in harness, we headed for the French Quarter by way of
neighboring Bywater and Faubourg Marigny. The crowds were lined up thick on the sidewalks, smiling, laughing, and begging abjectly for "throws." Boy, was I popular. Men honored me, women smiled adoringly, children reached up their little arms. Gee, did they really like me, or was it just my golden bagel, hand-painted and flecked with delicate tracery of glitter and secret kabbalistic messages?
There's definitely something mysterious going on as you parade through the streets of the city, holding a golden bagel aloft and having people go absolutely nuts trying to get one. The crowd was definitely more hip this year than last year. Some people say our golden bagel is a rip-off of the prized golden coconut handed out by the Krewe of Zulu, but its real origins are shrouded in mystery. Of course, a few clueless people shouted, "Hey, can I have a donut?" but the cognoscenti shouted "Oy!" "Chutzpah!" or "Shmekel." One guy earnestly recited a lengthy brucha (blessing). He got his golden bagel.
Meanwhile, the Panorama Brass Band clarinet, tuba, drums, and tambourine kept our feet marching lively during the five-mile epic shlep Ben Schenk, one of the founders of the Klezmer All Stars, told me on a break that his Panorama Brass Band combines brass band and klezmer music.
"I don't know if there's any band like this," he said, "but there really aren't any other cities like this."
On Royal Street, we were stepping to "A Night in the Garden of Eden," and then later the Odessa Bulgarishe took us to our destination, the Royal Theater.
After helping park the cart, I found L.J. and the entire brass band on the landing of a marble staircase, second-lining with his Jieuxbrella, a white umbrella decorated with Jewish stars, blue and white. The band played "The Happy Niggun," and soon all the Jieux, and plenty of non-Jieux, were dancing their hearts out in a unique mix of "Hava Nagila" and second line.
I asked a krewe member, "What do you think is the main purpose of the Krewe de Jieux?"
He answered, "To bring Jews together. The Second Temple fell apart because we turned on each other."
"So by marching we are bringing Jews together?"
"Yeah," he said, "and meeting women."
And I lost him in the crowd.
As the night ended, The Big Macher--in real life David Freedman, manager
of local jazz and heritage station WWOZ--looked ahead to 2001. "I want to invite everybody to the party we're having next year: Jieux in Space. Get your costumes ready all you Tikkun-asses. Show up and party down!"