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Jewish New Orleans spotlighted at recent N.O. Book Festival

By ALAN SMASON, Exclusive to the CCJN

While many of the authors and celebrities featured at the inaugural New Orleans Book Festival at Tulane were not Jewish, there were several sessions that resonated with special significance for the New Orleans Jewish community.

Tulane University president Michael Fitts give a big “thumb’s up” at the first New Orleans Book Festival. (Photo by Alan Smason)

The festival, the brainchild of Jewish biographer, Tulane professor and media celebrity Walter Issacson and former New Orleans First Lady Cheryl Landrieu, was held from Thurs, March 10 to Sat., March 12 on the Tulane University campus.

On one of the sessions, Issacson joined a panel which included fellow author and interviewer David Rubinstein. Their talk titled “The American Spirit: Invention, Ingenuity and Social Movements that Shape America” was held at 11:00 a.m. on Fri., March 11. Later, Issacson was the focus of a talk in mid afternoon on Friday that centered around his biography of Benjamin Franklin as well as the forthcoming Ken Burns documentary on Franklin about to air over PBS.

Saturday brought about three sessions of interest to the Jewish New Orleans community.

The first was titled “The Storied History of Jewish New Orleans” with authors Nick Lemann and Roberta Brandes Gratz, which was moderated by Tulane professor Lawrence Powell. 

Lemann gave a quick accounting of the Jewish settlement of New Orleans and pointed out the first group of Jewish settlers were a small group of Sephardic Jews. He recognized that his ancestors were part of the second wave of mostly German Jews and, in some cases, Alsatian Jews, who arrived in the early- to mid-19th century. The latter wave of immigrants in the latter portion of the 19th century to early 20th century were a larger group of East European Jews.

Author Nick Lemann. (Photo by Alan Smason)

“Historically, the German Jews and the East European Jews don’t get along, to say the least,” Lemann said. “I’m in what my wife and I jokingly call a ‘mixed marriage’: a German Jew married to an East European Jew.”

Lemann explained that his family settled first in Donaldsonville, attracted by the available profits from raising sugar cane. Several members of his family came to New Orleans eventually, because they desired a good education for their children.

Gratz, who lives half the year in New Orleans and the other half in New York, is working on a new biography of New Orleans philanthropist Edith Stern.

Gratz credited Stern’s father, Julius Rosenwald, with having inspired her philanthropy. “I’m from New York. This is alien in many ways,” she said, noting that the high percentage of German Jews in New Orleans is atypical for many large cities.

Roberta Brandes Gratz. (Photo by Alan Smason)

Both Gratz and Lemann noted that their families observed Christian holidays like Easter and Christmas as secular holidays.

Powell noted that Gratz had once described New Orleans as “the most distinctive Jewish community” because of Carnival.

“Carnival changes everything, because this is a city in which Jews are still – maybe even less so – still excluded,” she answered. “I think that distinguishes (Jewish) New Orleans from others in the city – they are a world apart. In many other places, that isn’t true.” 

At another session, Dr. David Weill, a former transplant surgeon and the author of “Exhale: Hope, Healing and a Life in Transplant,” spoke with Lee Hamm, the dean of the Tulane School of Medicine, who moderated.

Weill described how he got into the field as a newly-minted doctor, following his father in the field of medicine. He became a transplant doctor, specializing in lung transplants primarily, but as the book explains, he became disillusioned and burned out due to deficiencies in the system.

Tulane School of Medicine Dean Lee Hamm, left, with author Dr. David Weill. (Photo by Alan Smason)

“The one thing that’s attracted me to the field and keeps me interested even now is that all societal problems go straight toward this operation for some reason,” he continued.

Weill acknowledged he became “distracted” in dealing with new patients following the loss of another. Oftentimes, it would take him some time to get back on track with the new patient.

Weill stated that the recent COVID pandemic has revealed an alarming trend of burnout from within the nursing community. “They are leaving the field in droves,” he stated.

“What worries me the most is how many nurses are looking for the exit ramp and they are going to find it,” Weill noted.

Weill went on to add that he plans on writing a new book relating to how the health care system has lost its soul.

Tulane sociologist and member of the Jewish Studies Department, Ilana Horwitz. (Photo by Alan Smason)

In another session later on Saturday, Jewish Department assistant professor Ilana Horwitz spoke with author Anne Snyder about Horwitz’s survey book on education within faith communities titled “God, Grades and Graduation.” The session titled “Why Do Kids Succeed: How Background and Culture Impact Success and Education.”

Horwitz explained that she began the book while completing her doctoral thesis at Stanford University. She seized on data that had been compiled within the Christian community and found several startling facts, primary among them was the revelation that students from homes with a strong attachment to faith generally succeeded in the classroom over those who lacked a faith background.

“I had no idea that the U.S. is the most devout Western democracy in the world,” Horwitz noted. Her book follows the data revolving about those whom she termed “abiders,” students who had a pronounced attachment to their religion and considered their relationship with God to be personal and intense.

The data revealed that half of the conservative Christians in the study were evangelicals, but the other 50% were Catholics, Black Protestants and members of the LDS Church.

Her findings determined that the abiders group was four times more likely to obtain a college degree than those who lacked a faith component in their homes. 

“It is the kids who are from the working class and middle class families who see the most benefit,” she revealed.








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