Before L.J. Goldstein arrived on the New Orleans scene, the notion that a Jewish-themed organization could become a vital—and fun—part of one’s social existence seemed far fetched. Then again, the Krewe du Jieux has some rather unorthodox ways of promoting Jewish cultural awareness.
Oy! Such a Home:
The Art of Masking Jieuxish in New Orleans
by Rachel Breunlin and Graham Button
As founder of the first Jewish Mardi Gras krewe, L.J. Goldstein occupies a unique place in the annals of a celebration formerly dominated by high-society krewes that shunned people of his faith. Observing that New Orleans is a Catholic city, he says a lot of Jewish citizens try to fit in by “masking Catholic. You don’t talk about the fact that you’re Jewish. You’re Jewish at home. Jewish is something you do in the closet. You never parade through the streets as a Jew, wearing a big fake nose and horns and a tail.”
While such talk might strike a tender chord among certain elements of the Jewish community, there’s no denying that L.J. and his band of revelers—the Krewe du Jieux—have proven that masking Jewish can be a transformative, uplifting experience.
L.J.’s cousin David, a 20-year-old student at Oberlin College, can certainly attest to this. Last year, he came to New Orleans to join the Krewe du Jieux for its annual outing with the satirical French Quarter procession known as the Krewe du Vieux. Playing off The Beverly Hillbillies TV series, the krewe marched as the “Metairie Jieuxbillies,” satirizing stereotypes of nouveau riche suburban Jewish culture.
Reflecting back on his experience, David says it gave him a new perspective on his Jewish identity. “It was almost a relief, a realization that the culture could be celebrated and appreciated in a casual manner. I left New Orleans feeling that the Mardi Gras tradition had transcended its original Catholic roots. The very existence of the Krewe du Jieux shows this.”
If Mardi Gras has transcended religion, the Krewe du Jieux has, in its own way, managed to transcend Mardi Gras. It’s now almost more like a social club than a Mardi Gras krewe, bringing together a diverse group of Jews and Gentiles for religious feasts, parties and other communal activities year round. L.J., for his part, confesses to having adopted “far-reaching, maniacal” goals for the krewe—goals that go well beyond having fun with Jewish stereotypes. Says he, “I want to create forums in which people can get together and have a good time, and feel secure in their Jewish identity.”
Ironically, had L.J. grown up in New Orleans’ somewhat insular Jewish community and attended synagogue regularly, it’s likely there would be no Krewe du Jieux. It took an iconoclastic outsider, who arrived on the scene without any agenda for promoting Jewish cultural awareness, to bridge the gaps and connect people who might otherwise have been wary of the notion that a Jewish-“themed” organization could become a vital—and fun—part of their social existence.
A native of Philadelphia who grew up in Manhattan, L.J. says that after his Bar Mitzvah, he never really participated in mainstream Jewish culture. He moved to the Crescent City in 1993, after graduating from Bard, a small college in upstate New York. “I’d been wanting to live in New Orleans ever since I was a teenager,” he relates, citing the city’s reputation for “a certain magic and unbridled hedonism, a certain mystique that always seemed to be up my alley.”
Having a passion for photography, L.J. soon found himself drawn into the city’s culturally exotic cornucopia. Living in the Treme neighborhood and working Molly’s on the Market, a bar in the French Quarter, he became part of a social circle known for its colorful, offbeat attire.
Frequently making, as he puts it, “any excuse to get into some kind of costume,” L.J. had no problem adjusting to the culture of theatricality and masquerade that at times seems to define the city. At Molly’s, he worked as a “waitress.” “I wasn’t a drag queen,” he explains, “I just wore dresses a lot.”
L.J. would often show up at bars late at night in the guise of an alter ego, John Fruitie (pronounced Fruity), a sarcastically sleazy, over-the-top-flirt with a penchant for polyester shirts, bell-bottom pants and fur coats. This short man, sporting long hair and a teasing smile, would approach a woman and begin telling her how beautiful she was, only to cut himself off in mid-sentence when an even prettier woman sitting nearby caught his eye. Whereupon, he’d redirect his attention and launch into his spiel all over again. It was pretty much a given that by the end of his performance, L.J.—er, John Fruitie—wouldn’t have to buy a drink for the rest of the night. “It was fabulous,” he says.
Through his participation in the Treme Historical Development Corporation and a softball league sponsored by a local bar, Little People’s Place, L.J. discovered the vibrant history and culture of his neighborhood. On Sundays, he began photographing the parades, or second lines, that Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs put on in celebration of their anniversaries. (In New Orleans, the dance people dance when they hear the brass-band music played at these parades is known as the second line. Second lining grew out of traditional African-American parades—specifically, jazz funerals. Strictly speaking, the “second line” refers to the mass of people—uninvited guests whom everyone expects to show up—who join in the processions.)
L.J.’s league eventually moved to the 9th Ward to play for a bar called Misty’s Lounge. One afternoon, The Double Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club was setting up for a parade that was to begin from the bar.
“I’ll never forget their parade,” says L.J. “I saw this six-foot tall, gorgeous woman [Helen Regis] in the second line. We were the only white people on the streets that day. I smiled at her, then tried to ignore her and take pictures for three or four hours. And then I got to know her, and we ended up dating for a year.” After accompanying Helen to a dance hosted by The Happy House Social Aid and Pleasure Club and serving as the club’s photographer, L.J. accepted an invitation to become an honorary member. More recently, he hooked up with The Treme Sidewalk Steppers, an S&P (Social Aid and Pleasure) club whose members are renown for the quality of their dancing and top-of-the-line outfits. Asked if he can second line, L.J. replies confidently: “I hold my own. For a Jewish kid from New York, I’m not doing bad.”
If L.J. has crossed cultural boundaries by joining the Steppers, the exchanges certainly don’t flow in only one direction. Last year, Cornell “Magoo” Jackson, a member of the Young Men Olympian’s Benevolent Society (the oldest second-line club in New Orleans) marched with the Krewe du Jieux and had a wonderful time. Just recently, L.J. and “White Boy” Joe Stern—a member of the Prince of Wales S&P Club and Krewe du Jieux—participated as dukes in a Second Line Jammers parade. People screamed for “donuts” as they handed out bagels emblazoned with the club’s name.
There was a similar response when the Krewe O’Jieux (Krewe du Jieux’s second division) threw out green bagels in a St. Patrick’s Day parade thrown by the owner of Molly’s on the Market, Jim Managhan.
Although he may not have thought about it, L.J.’s involvement in the Treme community—a historically integrated neighborhood that is now over 90% African American—cut across the cultural and racial lines that divide the city on many levels. These divisions became particularly apparent to him when certain residents in Treme, most of whom were white, complained that the live music at Little People’s Place was disruptive. L.J. supported the bar during the ensuing legal battles, but unfortunately, live music was shut down. Frustrated, but impressed with the lawyers who represented the bar, L.J. decided to apply to law school. “If nothing else,” he reasoned, “the law is a powerful tool to help people.”
L.J’s indoctrination into Mardi Gras took place about nine months after he moved to New Orleans. He had the good sense to tell his boss at Molly’s that he simply refused to work on Fat Tuesday.
Finishing up work at about 2 a.m. on Monday night, he joined up with some friends and proceeded to party non-stop. The next morning, they went stumbling down St. Charles Ave. to catch the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club parade.
Not really knowing the first thing about Zulu—a predominantly African-American institution whose first processions in the early 1900s were conceived partly as a spoof on white Mardi Gras customs—L.J. was taken aback by the club’s outrageous antics. He says the spectacle of float riders got up in face and Afro wigs, handing out spears and coconuts, “just blew my mind. If that were to happen anywhere else, there would be—I don’t know about race riots, but…some serious critique [of] that… portrayal of historically negative stereotypes.”
L.J. didn’t take home one of the prized coconuts that day, though he did manage to get a nice taste of “alternative” Mardi Gras. After Zulu had passed, he recalls, Ben Schneck and the New Orleans Klezmer Allstars, accompanied by an assemblage of revelers, came “parading down the street playing Klezmer music and dancing around.” L.J. jumped in and second lined down to the Quarter, immersing himself in an archetypical grass-roots celebration—the kind that New Orleanians create for themselves.
Though L. J. wouldn’t march again with Julu (as the klezmer procession later became known) until 1997, he came away from that initial experience with the seed of an idea for forming a Jewish Mardi Gras krewe. Something about that funked-up klezmer music, and the impromptu spirit of the parade, lent a sense of creative possibility.
At the time, L.J. wasn’t involved in the Jewish community of New Orleans. However, he did possess a fairly keen awareness of Jewish satire, a tradition dating at least as far back as vaudeville and popularized in recent times by the likes of Neil Simon, Mel Brooks and Woody Allen. For them, classic Jewish stereotypes offered a wealth of fodder for burlesque—just as prevailing racial stereotypes had done for the early Zulu maskers in New Orleans.
If the klezmer procession provided the initial spark for L.J.’s Mardi Gras brainchild, Zulu certainly qualifies as the role model. In 1996, L.J. attended a seder at his friend Angie Mason’s house. (A Seder is a traditional religious meal held in remembrance of the Jews’ flight from slavery in Egypt.) Talk of Mardi Gras prompted him to pipe up about his idea for a Jewish krewe that, apropos of Zulu, could throw “gold decorated bagels instead of coconuts.”
Also attending the dinner, as luck would have it, was Keith Twitchell, then “Poobah of Publicity” for the Krewe du Vieux, the wacky French Quarter procession specializing in irreverence and inspired vulgarity. If L.J. could round up enough people, Twitchell suggested, they could march as one of the “sub-krewes” in the parade. Needing at least 12 members to qualify, L.J., along with Angie, Ama Rogan and Helen Regis, began a recruitment drive, eventually signing up 17 members. In a tip of the hat to the mother krewe, whose official name is the Krewe du Vieux Carre—Vieux Carre being French for “Old Quarter”—they decided to call themselves the Krewe du Jieux.
In 1996, with the Super Bowl in town that same weekend, the Krewe du Vieux adopted a sexually bawdy parade theme, “Krewe du Vieux Goes Deep.” L.J. recalls that as soon as he and the Krewe du Jieux recruits began debating various ways of playing off that theme, “we started having problems, as far as people saying, ‘Well, you can’t do this and you can’t do that. And you have to do this and you have to do that.’… There was a lot of fear about propagating a negative stereotype without being somehow responsible, or having some kind of obligation or duty to be really careful about that.”
A few weeks before the parade, after initially having considered celebrating “famous Jewish football players” and leaving the float empty, they decided to go with the sub-theme “Krewe du Jieux Takes the Offensive Line.”
Accompanied by the Panorama Brass Band, who play a combination of New Orleans-style brass band and klezmer music, the Krewe du Jieux took to the streets. With Jewish stars boldly displayed on their football jerseys and yarmulkes over their helmets, they carried signs saying, among other things, “Some of my best friends are Jieuxs” and “Funny, you don’t look Jieuxish.” Non-Jewish members, playing off of the Yiddish word for someone who isn’t Jewish, marched as “Helen of Goy” and “Goys in the Hood.”
As krewe royalty—the King of the Jieuxs and a Jieuxish-American Princess—L.J. and Angie rode on a hand-drawn float decorated by the krewe. Everyone handed out golden bagels. And instead of the flambeaux, the fuel-burning torches used to illuminate some of the night parades in mainstream Carnival, they carried six-foot Menorahs—the candlestick holders used during Hanukkah—fashioned out of PVC pipe.
Despite their initial trepidations, the Jieuxs were a big hit. L.J. says he still gets “delirious” when he thinks back on it.
“Beyond a shadow of a doubt,” he raves, “Krewe du Vieux is one of the largest creative collaborative experiences on the planet, where you’ve got 700 people all working to put together this thing that is just mind-blowing. I mean, the parade is not like anything else that exists anywhere—anywhere. And to be a part of something like that is divine, it’s just divine.”
Each year, the Krewe du Jieux strives for a presentation that’s accessible to a general audience, while also including details that people knowledgeable of Jewish culture will appreciate. In 1998, with the mother krewe employing the theme “Souled Down the River”—a look at the ways in which New Orleans had compromised its cultural integrity—the Krewe du Jieux made fun of the House of Blues (a music venue whose parent company counts Dan Ackroyd, of Blues Brothers fame, among its founders). Dressed as “Jieuxs Brothers and their Mothers ” with blue Groucho Marx noses, they portrayed the “House of Jieuxs.”
Starring in the role of Jewish Mother was Darleen Olivo, who wore a hat with flowers in it and an apron over a floral skirt. “She would walk around and just worry about people,” recalls L.J. “Like she’d go up to the crowd and just say, ‘You look so thin. Eat! Here—have a bagel!’ ”
The krewe changed the spelling of God to G-D because Orthodox beliefs prohibit writing out the full name. “It’s not we were trying to adhere to Orthodox Jewish law,” explains L.J., but rather “just one the many ‘insider’ themes we incorporate for our own enjoyment as well as for Jewish spectators.”
The Krewe du Jieux king that year was Hugo Kahn, president of Krauss department store, the site of the Krewe du Vieux’s post-parade ball. A New Orleans landmark, it had recently closed largely due to the homogeneous commercialization, as symbolized by the ascendancy of mass-market chain stores, that was a key target of the mother krewe’s “Souled Down the River” theme.
It was not until after the parade that L.J. learned that Kahn was the president of the New Orleans chapter of the Jewish Federation and a Holocaust survivor. “For this man to parade with us,” says L.J., “lent us a kind of credibility in the Jewish community that not only would I never have expected, but that we probably don’t deserve. Or maybe we do deserve—I don’t know.”
In an interview with a local New Orleans publication, The Jewish News, Kahn addressed the criticism within the Jewish community about the krewe allegedly perpetuating negative stereotypes. “Sure, some of my friends asked me why I agreed to participate in that crazy krewe. I can understand their concerns, but it is really all about how we Jews act now that there are no longer barriers to our acceptance. Seeing Rabbi Bockman of Chevra Thilim play his trumpet [with the Panorama Brass Band] in the parade reassured me that participating was the right thing to do. And the krewe is attracting some wonderful people who may not otherwise be involved in Jewish activities.”
For L.J., the best part of the marching in the Krewe du Vieux is the opportunity it provides for spontaneity. “It’s like no matter how much you plan, no matter how much you think it through,” the actual experience is “very immediate,” he says. “Things happen on a momentary basis…. You get mid-parade ideas.”
Like during the “Souled Down the River” parade, when the Jieuxs circled around a member of another sub-krewe—K.A.O.S.—who was dressed as the Statue of Liberty. (The icon figured into K.A.O.S.’s depiction of “Screwe of America,” a pun on a new mainstream Carnival parade, the Krewe of America, which had taken a decidedly commercial approach to marketing membership packages.) K.A.O.S. pulled over, and the Jieuxs, parodying yet another anti-Semitic stereotype, proceeded to “take over”—or over take—America.
No question: The Krewe du Vieux’s way of accommodating, if not encouraging, such “surprises” gives it unique identity vis-a-vis the more programmed mainstream parades. “Surprises take you out of your ordinary, every day, making-the-donuts life and bring you to a different state of awareness,” observes L.J. “And Krewe du Vieux is filled with surprises.”
With the 1999 parade rapidly approaching, Twitchell, now the captain of Krewe du Vieux, got word that Ruthie the Duck Girl, a well-known French Quarter eccentric, and the subject of a recent documentary film, would like to partake. He got on the phone with L.J. Would the Krewe du Jieux would be interested in adopting Ruthie? “I was like, ‘This would be perfect,” remembers L.J.
Taking aim at the stereotype that Jewish people are rich, and thus can afford to live in the New Orleans suburb of Metairie, the sub-krewe had chosen to depict “The Metairie Jieuxbillies.” Since Granny was one of the most memorable characters in The Beverly Hillbillies TV series, why not make Ruthie a Jewish Granny and have her hand out special duck throws?
The krewe procured a gross of small plastic ducks for $5, and had a party the night before the parade to decorate them as “Ortho-ducks.” Spray-painted gold, they had glittered blue eyes and yarmulkes done in a myriad of glittered colors. Eighteen individually numbered, “limited-edition” “Platinum” ducks were emblazoned with a red glittered “R” for Ruthie. (For more information on Ruthie and how she came to acquire her duck persona, visit www.neworleanseccentrics.com.)
Ruthie didn’t have to dress up to play the role of Jewish granny—she simply appeared as herself, a 66-year-old Duck Girl, and rode on a float styled after an old Jewish peddler’s cart (which also evoked the truck in The Beverly Hillbillies). The rest of the krewe appeared in dungarees, plaid shirts and gold straw hats with Jewish stars done in blue glitter. In addition to the Ortho-ducks and their signature glittered bagels, the marchers gave out Jieuxbilly 200-dollar bills and plastic, glitter-tipped cigars, each of which was banded with specially designed “Hanukkah Lewinsky El Shmucko” brand labels.
For the Krewe du Vieux’s 2000 parade (theme: “The Idiots and The Oddities”), the Krewe du Jieux will depict the “Krewe du Jieux’s Epic Schlep: Jieuxsland—the New Promised Land”—a spin-off on the soon-to-open Jazzland amusement park in New Orleans East. L.J. has been delegating some of his responsibilities as captain so that he can study for the Louisiana bar exam, leaving many important details in the capable hands of Angie Mason, Donna Musarra and other key contributors to the krewe’s collective brain trust.
The krewe recently heard through the grapevine that before passing away on December 28, Roy Glapion Jr., King Zulu 2000, was interested in exchanging coconuts for bagels. L.J. hopes to get in touch with the Zulus to follow through on the idea and thus honor Glapion, a City Councilman and former president of Zulu, posthumously.