This weekend, I'm packing a bag to return to New Orleans. I used to live there. I had an apartment there, a job there, friends there. I am returning because my synagogue is without a full-time Torah reader - as he has decided to relocate after evacuating the city in which he, too, used to live.
I am returning to help out the synagogue, because in spite of its not having paint on the walls or carpeting on the floor, it does have a enough members to warrant holding services each Saturday morning.
I am re turning to New Orleans as a visitor to the city I once called home. My apartment, although not damaged, is no longer habitable, as the complex sustained major water and wind damage - and is now surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of a hurricane. This me ans that when I return, I must find a place to stay, among the few people I know who have returned and whose homes are intact.
Three months ago, I couldn't have imagined that I would be visiting this city as an outsider, a tourist, if you will. Not a tourist of the sights and sounds of the city, but rather of the absence of the everyday things that used to be part and parcel of my routine - things such as the streetcars that no longer run and my favorite restaurants now shuttered.
I am returning to New Orleans from Baton Rouge
, where I now reside. In Yiddish
, there is a distinction between the words voynen
. You live (voynen
) somewhere, but are from (leben
) somewhere else. I now understand this distinction. I am from New Orleans, where my life was; but now I live in Baton Rouge.
Baton Rouge is where the Jewish Federation of New Orleans is maintaining one of its offices, and so it is where I reside and work. But it is not home. I get lost when I drive. I can't find a dry cleaner or a good deli. I feel like a visitor.
I know I am lucky. I have a job and a place to live. I did not lose all of my worldly possessions. My friends who evacuated the city are healthy and well. Through my work, I have assisted people the hu rricane robbed of jobs, homes and possessions. So I am fully aware of how truly fortunate I am. Yet, when I drive around New Orleans - a city once so vibrant, so filled with people and music and light - and hear the eerie quiet and see the dark streets, I cannot help but feel melancholic. I cannot help but ache for all that vibrancy I took for granted such a short time ago.
I AM returning to New Orleans and I know that at the synagogue congregants will tell me that more people have decided not to come ba ck: that they will rebuild their lives in Memphis
or other cities in which they currently reside.
I am returning to New Orleans and it pains me to think that the New Orleans that will rise from the rubble will be a different New Orleans from the one I left a mere three months ago - an unfamiliar one. When I left, I bid farewell to my colleagues and my friends, assuming I would see them the following week after the hurricane subsided. At the time, I hadn't realized that I was not bidding them farewell, but rather saying goodbye to the life we all had, and the city we all knew.
I am returning to New Orleans after reading and hearing many "post-hurricane" stories and "Where are they after Katrina?" reports. But the truth is, there is no p ost-hurricane world. "Post" implies that the event is over, completed, finished. The reality says otherwise. The havoc the hurricane wreaked continues as upheaval in our daily lives as we struggle to adjust to our new circumstances, and slowly let go of w hat used to be. It is a difficult time. The fabric of my own daily existence has so radically changed that it is very difficult to see all of this in anything other than a negative light.
I am returning to New Orleans and I will hold on to the small thin gs that represent a return to normalcy. The Jewish community center is open, so I'll be able to play my regular Sunday pickup game; I'll be able to stop by my old office, which the Federation is now partially staffing; I'll be able to go to services at my synagogue; the kosher deli has reopened, as has the corner bar, where I can go with friends who have returned.
I am told of people who said they would never return to New Orleans, but who have now decided to come home to make a go of it. The universiti es are opening for the January semester and are expecting students to return. Life does go on, and while New Orleans is not what it was, and is not yet what it will be in the future, I do know that there is room for optimism.
Earlier this week, I attend ed a community meeting held by the Jewish Federation in New Orleans - the first of its kind since the hurricane. A good 200 people showed up to find out the fate of our institutions, programs, restaurants, etc. I met friends whom I hadn't seen since befor e the disaster, and we laughed and hugged and cried. It gave me the kind of hope I had been struggling to find - born of the continued strength of my community.
Yes, I am returning to New Orleans - a place I hope to be able to call home again.
The wr iter is director of community relations, planning, allocations and Gift of Israel for the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans.â€ºn