At some point during my early childhood there was a powerful hurricane which still remains nameless to me. I can remember to this day standing outside my home with the usual assault of mosquitoes whose buzzing was the only noise because of the eerily quiet calm before the storm. And then it hit. St. Charles and Carrollton were flooded. But at my young age I thought it was exciting, especially when my big brother and I took our canoe and paddled down both avenues, almost getting to Canal Street before the cops made us turn back.
I didn't know it at the time who does in their place of nativity? but growing up in New Orleans was a ball. So many great experiences that it's almost impossible to have anywhere else in the United States or the world. Swimming in the bayous with the water moccasins, going down to the French Quarter for French Market coffee and beignets, listening to jazz, drinking Dixie beer, reveling on fraternity trucks in the Mardi Gras parade, going downtown for about five straight evenings of parades prior to Mardi Gras yelling, "Throw me something, Mistah!" Mardi Gras is not just one day in New Orleans nothing that involves partying and celebrating is just one day in New Orleans.
When I finished school and had my first pulpit and second job in New Brunswick (the first job was in the Air Force), Hurricane Betsy smashed New Orleans in 1965. It was then that my mother, with terminal cancer, died in the hospital because the auxiliary power failed. It took several days before the floods subsided, and we could bury her. But the flooding did subside because the levees didn't break. And here's the coup de grace: We always knew the levees could break! It is only now that I realized that an inherent aspect of Big Easy culture, a part of the mentality of all my friends and relatives (and I include myself) was collective denial. Perhaps it's the same way of coping in San Francisco and Bangladesh. One of the most powerful, dangerous, potentially lethal facets of human cognition is not facing the possible, perhaps the inevitable. We always knew that a hurricane with the force of Categories 4 and 5, with a direct hit, could wipe out the city we loved. Perhaps it was because we loved it so much. We didn't want to think about it, any more than we continually think about our own mortality, or the way we will eventually die, or the death of a loved one, which probably will devastate us when it happens. There is also a powerful human inclination to engage in reactive rather than proactive problem-solving. And that's what is happening right now in New Orleans and elsewhere. It is a fact on the ground and in the mind. Losing New Orleans? Impossible! I'm still in denial.
Rabbi Jack D. Spiro is the director of the Center for Judaic Studies at Virginia Commonwealth University and edits its online publication, Menorah Review. He also holds the Harry Lyons Distinguished Chair of Judaic Culture at VCU.
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