This weekend churches in New Orleans will be packed for Easter services, but that’s not the only religious holiday being observed this week. It is also Passover, the eight-day Jewish festival that marks the liberation of enslaved Israelites from ancient Egypt over 3000 years ago.
Passover is the most widely celebrated Jewish holiday, and in New Orleans, celebrations take on their own flair.
The Jewish population of the New Orleans Metropolitan area is approximately 10,000, about less than one percent of the entire population. But, like the rest of New Orleans, this vibrant community has a way of observing holidays and traditions in its own unique way.
For Krewe du Jieux, the satirical Jewish parade organization, this means kicking off Passover with a krewe Seder. A Seder is a multipart service held at the beginning of Passover in which the Exodus story is retold through biblical passages, food, song and conversation.
But to understand what makes the Krewe du Jieux Seder different from one you might find elsewhere, it’s important to understand their background.
“Krewe du Jieux actually started at a Seder in 1996,” says LJ Goldstein, founder of Krewe du Jieux.
“We wound up talking about, wouldn’t it be interesting to have a Jewish Mardi Gras krewe. So I said I think it’s a great idea we can call it Krewe du Jieux, and that was met with immediate laughter. The woman who is our Krewe Chaplain said what would you throw? I said golden bagels.”
Low and behold, Krewe du Jieux was born. Humor is a key element of the Krewe, which often uses satire in their parades to confront and debunk anti-Semitic stereotypes.
"Our very first parade, the Super Bowl was also in New Orleans, and our theme was Krewe du Jieux’s offensive line. And we carried all of these signs, you know that people say when they’re not trying to be offensive ‘some of my best friends are Jewish’, ‘funny you don’t look Jewish’... what made it funny is that we spelled it Jieux, so it’s kind of putting a mask on the whole idea of Judaism at the same time."
Those accustomed to seeing Krewe du Jieux parading through the streets in outrageous costumes will find a very different Krewe celebrating Passover.
"People are very surprised to find out that it’s actually a very traditional Seder," Goldstein says. "You know Seder means order, and there’s an order that you have to do things and an order you have to eat, and we do it by the book. But there are things to make people smile throughout it and realize this is something that every Jew is doing throughout the world, but we’re doing it in a New Orleans, special way."
Passover Seders typically occurs in a person’s home among family and friends. The 50-plus members of Krewe du Jieux, who come from all walks of life, sit in a circle around the host’s living room reclining on pillows and chairs. The group ranges from Secular to Orthodox, Baptist to Atheist. It's a multiracial slice of every part of New Orleans. It’s wide open.
"You know, in more traditional congregations there’s a bit more homogeneity. This is anything but homogenous," says David Freedman, General Manager of WWOZ and one of the founding members of Krewe du Jieux.
The cornerstone of a Passover Seder is the Haggadah, a text that tells the story of the Israelites exodus from Egypt. A haggadah contains passages from the Book of Exodus and is intended not only to tell the story, but to explore deeper themes of slavery and redemption. Versions can vary wildly.
"There are as many haggadah as there are people on this earth, I think," says Freedman. "But everyone kind of invests its own vision in that eternal story of an enslaved people who overcome their oppression."
The Krewe du Jieux haggadah, compiled and written by its core members, is conventional in many ways. It adheres to the biblical narrative, and includes traditional blessings and songs in Hebrew. Members take turns reading sections. But it also addresses issues that are critical to New Orleans.
"Particularly important for me in this Seder is to bring out the slavery the Jews experienced in Israel and also the slavery the African Americans had felt here in New Orleans and the United States," says Krewe member Simone Levine. "And to talk about the similarities and how the communities need to stick together. Not only on the issue of our shared history, but in the day-to-day life here in New Orleans."
In keeping line with the Krewe’s satirical history, there are also moments of levity throughout the seder.
For Freedman, who grew up in New Orleans, the freedom to parade with Krewe du Jieux is something to celebrate.
"When I was a kid in New Orleans, was unthinkable. But its very liberating. And as we found in all areas of racism and bigotry, that when you liberate yourself you also liberate your oppressors… That’s the story of Passover!"