|Directed by:||Brian Cohen||Rating:||TV-PG|
|Release Date:||1998||Running Time:||54 mins|
|More Info:||film's webpage||Category:||America|
Did you know Creole food can be kosher? Pushcarts and Plantations: Jewish Life in Louisiana explores the history of a little-known people who have embraced both their Jewish and Southern heritages to create a unique culture of their own.
After talking to New York City Jews who “struggled to understand how it was even possible for Jews to survive on the other side of the Hudson,” award-winning director Brian Cohen decided to head south to document the little-known culture of Louisiana Jewry, and show that Jewish life goes beyond the borders of the New York Metro area.
With the help of locals and historians, Pushcarts and Plantations tells the 300-year history of Jewish life in Louisiana, exploring the state’s three distinct communities: the North, the South, and New Orleans. Poignant anecdotes about local heroes, little known facts, and personal accounts color the story of these vibrant Southern Jews.
Sephardic traders were the first Jews to settle in Louisiana, and, despite antisemitic legislation, their community thrived. Over a hundred years later, in the 1830s and ’40s a large number of Jews from Alsace-Lorraine settled in Northern Louisiana. “To come to Louisiana you had to be a bit of an adventurer,” one historian says. The move to an untamed land where cities were just budding required hard work and a tough skin. But that didn’t scare off Jewish settlers, who proved to be a vital part of the community and are still recognized for their outstanding contributions to Louisiana history.
From the beginning, Louisiana Jews have managed to keep their faith strong and prove their loyalty to their Southern home. The most charming example of this dual allegiance is found in two little old ladies who recently put out a Kosher Creole cookbook, which shows how observant Jews can whip up Fake Frog’s Legs or Oysters Mock-a-Feller — a twist on the famous New Orleans dish Oysters Rockefeller that replaces the oysters with gefilte fish!
The documentary explores what it means to be Jewish in a community where it’s generally assumed that everyone is Christian. “Lafayette is not New York,” one woman says, “you’re not surrounded by Jews. So you can’t just decide, I’ll be Jewish and just be.” If you want to be Jewish, she explains, you have to be an active Jew. One mother in Southern Louisiana recalls that in order to have her children bar and bat mitzvahed she had to teach them Hebrew herself and then drive them hours away to New Orleans for the ceremony.
Pushcarts and Plantations confronts the harsher realities of being Jewish in Louisiana. While many of the Jews interviewed are optimistic about antisemitism’s limited reach in the state, the success of politician David Duke is an unfortunate reminder that its threatening presence still exists. During his campaign for governor in Northern Louisiana, Duke spoke openly about his dislike for the Jews: “In a moral sense the Jewish people have been a blight” he said. “They probably deserve to go into the ashbin of history.” More disheartening than Duke’s own antisemitism, was the amount of support he got from Louisiana’s citizens. Every individual who wore a t-shirt with Duke’s name across the chest or slapped his bumper sticker to the back of a truck showed he either sympathized with Duke’s neo-Nazi beliefs or didn’t mind overlooking them.
While the film wrestles with a meaty history and serious issues of identity, Pushcarts and Plantations, also indulges in sharing curious facts about Louisiana’s Jews. It turns out that the first king of Mardi Gras, Lewis Salomon, was Jewish! But since that celebration in 1872 there has yet to be another Jewish king.
In light of New Orleans’ recent history, Pushcarts and Plantations has a relevance that the filmmaker couldn’t have anticipated. Post-Katrina discussions have centered on a desire to revisit the city’s past and explore how New Orleans’ distinct personality affects its residents. Jews have always been strong contributors to, and greatly influenced by, that unique personality.