Navigate to News section

The First Rosh Hashanah After Hurricane Katrina

Eight years after the devastating storm, remembering the first High Holidays

Stephanie Butnick
August 29, 2013
Removing Torah scrolls from New Orleans' flooded Beth Israel Synagogue following Hurricane Katrina.(Alan Smason)
Removing Torah scrolls from New Orleans' flooded Beth Israel Synagogue following Hurricane Katrina.(Alan Smason)

Today is the eighth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, the storm that ravaged New Orleans and the surrounding areas in August 2005, displacing residents and devastating homes and communities. In 2010, five years after Katrina, Nextbook Press author and New Orleans resident Rodger Kamenetz movingly reflected on being away from the city, fortuitously but frustratingly, during the storm, and watching news coverage of the wreckage desperate for information. When he eventually got back to his home (thanks to counterfeit press passes cleverly made at a copy store along the way), one of the first routine, normalizing experiences, perhaps fittingly, was Rosh Hashanah.

Piles of torn branches baked in the hot sun up and down the street, and rough winds blew past our dry wooden houses. Fires broke out all over the city. On the way to the synagogue, we heard a fire alarm that no one was answering and saw smoke from a mansion off of St. Charles Avenue. Later we learned it had burned to the ground.

The Rosh Hashanah service was held in a packed little chapel. We sat in the anteroom on folding chairs. I couldn’t see the rabbi, but I heard the shofar. As I’d heard the soft friction of the heron wings beating, for the city was so quiet that morning, God was whispering.

We were in the first lines of Genesis: light, darkness, and the first winged creatures.

We roamed the empty streets in the days of awe. Amid shuttered shops, an open one sold ice cream—in one, exquisite flavor: “violet.” I spoke to a policeman who had waded through hell; we were all survivors. I spoke to everybody; there were no divides. Post-Katrina we were all like Jews who share a common history of catastrophe. Every conversation started with the same question: How did you make it through the storm?

Earlier that year, Kamenetz had described how Kafka, strangely enough, had seemed to be present in New Orleans in the five years since Katrina hit. Granted, Kamenetz was writing a book about Kafka at the time, but still he felt the presence of the existentially-inclined writer everywhere he went:

More than anyone Kafka brings a strange sense of humor to our search for meaning. In fact, according to Google, Kafka is invoked about 75 times per day. But during and after Katrina, I came to wonder if the haunted, angel-eared prophet had become a permanent New Orleans resident.

Then came the oil spill. And now I am convinced.

Stephanie Butnick is chief strategy officer of Tablet Magazine, co-founder of Tablet Studios, and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.