Being Jewish in New Orleans sometimes means celebrating in ways that lie outside our tradition. To enjoy our vibrant city to the fullest, local Jews devour king cakes, praying to be the lucky eater to find the small baby Jesus figurine inside. We flock annually to the Roosevelt Hotel to witness the splendor of the Christmas display. We worship the SAINTS!
But this time of year, while many of our neighbors are decking the halls, we New Orleans Jews are gathering with our friends and families around our menorahs to celebrate Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights. For my family, the celebration starts at home, but it also includes our daughters’ school and the larger synagogue community of which we are a part.
In our house, Hanukkah is the time for our daughters to pull out their personalized menorahs they each received as gifts at birth. Dreidels are spun, and chocolate coins called gelt are downed by the dozen. Together we sing the traditional brachot (blessings), light the candles, and try (sometimes in vain) to keep the potato latkes out of the reach of our Walker hound puppy (whose name, coincidentally, is Tater Tots). We FaceTime with out-of-town relatives so they can get a glimpse into our Hanukkah celebrations at home in the Big Easy.
At Jewish Community Day School, our girls study the holiday and its history. They learn the story of the Maccabees, Jewish warriors who, in the process of restoring a sacred temple ransacked by enemies, found enough oil to light the synagogue for only one night. Miraculously, the oil lasted for eight days. Hanukkah celebrations extend to all school subjects: in art, the students make their own menorahs out of clay; our music teacher sings traditional versions of Hanukkah songs but also introduces the new, hip versions popularized by the world-renowned a cappella group, the Maccabeats. In Hebrew class, JCDS students learn how to interpret the symbols on the dreidel, which mean “a great miracle happened there.” This year, the school’s Parents Association is celebrating Hanukkah by doing a mitzvah (good deed): we are collecting donations of new picture books to help replenish local elementary school libraries affected by Hurricane Ida. This time of year is perfect for inspiring our students and families to give back to the community, one of the most important values at JCDS and in Judaism.
Although Hanukkah is traditionally a holiday to be celebrated with close family and friends, local synagogues offer creative programming and innovative services during the Festival of Lights. Metairie congregations Shir Chadash and Beth Israel are teaming up this year with JCDS to host an event featuring New Orleans’s take on the traditional Hanukkah jelly donut: the beignet! Congregation Gates of Prayer in Metairie, where my husband is the senior rabbi, hosts an annual Glow Stick Shabbat, during which congregants light up the sanctuary in honor of the Maccabees’s miraculous oil. Everyone is invited to bring in their own menorah so we can light the candles as a community— many parents choose to bring in those aforementioned hand-made clay menorahs from art class, which still bear the thumbprints of their tiny creators.
Whether we are celebrating at home, school, or synagogue, Hanukkah is a treasured time for the Jews of New Orleans. Thriving in this city founded in Catholicism, the strong Jewish community holds dearly to its history and traditions. This year, like every other, we will display our menorahs in our windows, lighting up New Orleans with our faith and pride, honored to live in the Crescent City.
Lauren Gerber, better known as “Paige and Tessa’s mommy,” is a board member of Jewish Community Day School and president of the school’s Parents Association. She is the Rebbetzin for Congregation Gates of Prayer, where her husband, David, is the senior rabbi. She is active in the congregation’s sisterhood and philanthropy. In a previous life (before kids), Lauren earned her M.Ed in Secondary Education, worked in education technology, and served as the Publisher at Arcadia Publishing in Charleston, South Carolina. An Ohio native, Lauren is now thrilled to be in New Orleans and has fully embraced everything from “festing” to second-lining.