The Krewes and the Jews
New Orleans’s two Jewish-themed krewes offer a tongue-in-cheek take on the Mardi Gras festivities
This year’s newly crowned King of the Jieuxs and Jieuxish-American Princess, John Fitzpatrick and Robin White, engaged in some diplomatic outreach in the French Quarter.
CREDIT: Kyle Petrozza
John Fitzpatrick was about to be crowned King of the Jieuxs. He had put on a tuxedo for the occasion, and his silvery hair was impeccably gelled into position. Standing by the door at Donna’s Bar & Grill, on the edge of New Orleans’ French Quarter, he looked like an errant groomsman who had wandered away from the wedding party.
“I’m so excited, I could just plotz,” Fitzpatrick declared. Fitzpatrick, a middle-aged Irish-Catholic who works as a cook at the Ritz-Carlton, just might have rehearsed this line a few times during the day.
Each year, a new King of the Jieuxs is selected to reign over the Krewe du Jieux, a Mardi Gras parading outfit. Most of the Jieuxs are also Jews, though some of them are only Jew-ish—“you know, with a dash in the middle,” said the krewe’s captain, Renée Heinlein. They were gathered at Donna’s to witness the changing of the guard and to behold the crowning of the new king and his consort, the Jieuxish-American Princess. This year’s princess is Robin White, a half-Jewish French professor and Fitzpatrick’s girlfriend. She wore a gray sweatsuit embroidered in strategic areas with the word “Jieucy” in glittering letters.
As a klezmer-jazz fusion quartet played, krewe members drank cocktails and mingled. They wore giant-nose-and-eyebrow Groucho Marx eyeglasses and plastic blue horns on their heads. “I can’t get my Jew horns to stay on,” one young woman complained, fussing with her hair.
L.J. Goldstein, a photographer and lawyer who founded the Krewe du Jieux in 1996, leaned against the bar and surveyed the scene. He explained that the selection process for Jieuxish royalty relied on a complex algorithm. “I can’t give you the exact ratio,” he said. “But it’s part meritocracy, part seniority, and part nepotism.”
Goldstein is technically taking a yearlong leave of absence as captain (“my shmita year”), handing over official duties to Heinlein, a reading teacher who moved to New Orleans from California last July. But Goldstein still speaks for the krewe—though in truth I couldn’t make out everything he was saying. This was partly because his face was obscured by a bulbous green plastic nose and a pair of huge novelty eyeglasses in the shape of two gilded dollar signs. Later, when he was momentarily unmasked, I could see that he looked a bit like the actor Mark Ruffalo and that he didn’t look old enough to be 42, which he is. Over a violet zoot suit, he wore a thin robe with a Star of David across the chest. Two plastic horns were affixed to his standard-issue New Orleans hipster black derby.
Goldstein took the stage and introduced the outgoing king, the poet Rodger Kamenetz (who is also a Tablet Magazine contributing editor). The king distinguishes himself from the hoi polloi by wearing the exalted Golden Nose. A bagel hung from Kamenetz’s neck, dyed blue and adorned with the words “King Rodger.” Beside him stood the princess – Kamenetz’s wife, the novelist Moira Crone. She flipped her hair back to reveal the Royal Earrings: pierced credit cards, which dangled over her shoulders.
Kamenetz held up a megaphone. “Jew Dat!” he cried.
“Jew Dat!” the crowd roared back.
The new king and princess were crowned. The princess stuck out her chest, pointing to the word “Jieucy” splayed across her breasts. “Let’s see the rear end,” a krewe member requested. The princess obliged.
As the applause faded, Goldstein took the megaphone to offer a bit of interpretive commentary on the krewe’s satiric intentions, presumably for the benefit of the handful of non-Jieuxish patrons scattered around the bar. “We take these Jewish stereotypes that are thrown at us and we embrace them and roll around in them,” he said, as krewe members murmured their assent. “Like a pig in the mud!”
Heinlein, the new captain, took the megaphone. “Attention Jieuxs! Are you ready to run? Then let’s run, Jieuxs, run!”
The krewe ventured out into the damp and drizzle of the New Orleans night, to commence the Running of the Jieuxs. (“It’s funny because Jews don’t run,” Heinlein helpfully explained to me.) The klezmer-jazz band morphed into a marching band, and the Jieuxs danced and skipped through the streets of the Quarter, greeting onlookers with cries of “Oy vey!” and handing out plastic blue eggs on which was printed “Everyone loves a Jieux egg.” Heinlein’s megaphoned voice ricocheted off the cobblestone, filling the narrow streets: “Run, Jieuxs, run!” Near Decatur Street, some scruffy street punks joined in the chant. A pack of portly tourists looked on, smiling uneasily.
Despite the references to Borat, Goldstein is a devoted student of traditional New Orleans culture, and the Running of the Jieuxs is a right proper New Orleans second-line parade, complete with requisite stops at a few favored watering holes. At one point, the procession was joined by Jennifer Jones, a spry African-American woman who is one of the city’s most prolific street paraders. Jones easily adapted her moves to the music of the Jieuxish band, which offered a commendably exotic but decidedly less funky groove than the brass bands that play the parades Jones normally graces.
“Hey,” she said, twirling her feathered white umbrella, “I don’t discriminate!”
New Orleans could have used a Krewe du Jieux in 1968. That year, the journalist Calvin Trillin scandalized the Crescent City’s small but prosperous and influential Jewish community with a New Yorker article that laid bare a peculiarly New Orleanian form of anti-Semitism.
Trillin focused on the exclusion of Jews from the elite “old-line” Mardi Gras krewes—secretive male-only groups with names like the Mistick Krewe of Comus and the Knights of Momus. They organized some of the most celebrated Carnival parades and hosted the high-society balls that revolved around Mardi Gras. Jews were also barred from a set of businessmen’s lunch clubs that served as a vital hub of elite social networking and whose memberships overlapped almost completely with the old-line krewes. This pattern of discrimination also extended to African-Americans, as well as Italian-Americans, and other more recent immigrants.
Unlike other minority groups, Jews were generally offered full access to the civic and economic life of New Orleans. Put in perspective, the barriers they faced paled in comparison to the monumental obstacles to equality placed in the path of black New Orleanians. But given the success of the very secular, Reform-dominated Jewish community, Trillin found its enforced absence from specific aspects of elite society to be notable. Most curious to him was the fact that the exclusion was hardly an unspoken rule. “The discrimination against Jews by Carnival krewes and businessmen’s clubs is specific and total, and people even seem to take a certain pride in how specific and total it is,” Trillin wrote.
He explained that the city’s Jewish establishment—“old German-Jewish families that have for years been almost indistinguishable from their gentile peers”—took a quietist approach in response to the exclusion. During Mardi Gras season, he observed, some prominent Jewish families opted to simply leave town. That way, there would no embarrassment for Jews who didn’t receive invitations to the best parties, and no awkwardness for their Christians friends who didn’t invite them.
Peter Wolf, an investment advisor who now lives in New York, was a young man at the time Trillin’s article was published. Wolf grew up in the extended Godchaux family of New Orleans, a wealthy Jewish clan that owned a department store downtown and a sugar company outside the city. “We were an extremely prominent family, but of course when it came to the social clubs and Mardi Gras itself, we were left out,” he told me. “We didn’t really talk about it much. It was kind of just understood. It was very clear that in all other ways, we were major figures in the city. But in that way we weren’t. It’s hard to describe except to say that it had become an accepted situation.”
Perhaps what made the situation acceptable is that it represented a trade-off. In exchange for levels of opportunity and access that other minority groups in New Orleans could only dream of, Jews accepted exclusion from the inner sanctums of elite society. This may seem like a rather small price to pay, but it had profound effects, especially on the community’s young people. Catherine C. Kahn, an erudite and charming historian and archivist of the local Jewish community, grew up in New Orleans in the 1940s. She told me about facing “the five o’clock curtain” as a girl.
“You can be friendly and inseparable at school up to five o’clock,” she recalled, speaking about her relationships with Christians. “But when the five o’clock curtain came down, the Christian kids went to eight o’clocks and nine o’clocks”—parties that marked one’s entry into the debutante system—“and the Jewish kids didn’t.” Another member of Kahn’s generation told me that his son, who is now in his 40s, was so wounded by these practices that he chose to settle elsewhere after college.
Going along with this system of exclusion also had a hidden cost: it meant implicitly complying with a racial caste system whose ugliest prohibitions were aimed at black people. There is some irony to this, because New Orleanian Jews played important roles in the civil-rights movement and efforts to improve the lots of African-Americans during the 1950s and 1960s, often at real personal risk to themselves and their families. These ambiguities and seeming contradictions are hardly uncommon, though, in the complex history of race relations in New Orleans. Indeed, the city’s story is defined by a dizzying array of sub-groups—free people of color, white Creoles, Cajun settlers—navigating their way through a constantly shifting racial hierarchy, sometimes at the expense of those below them.
During the colonial era, Jews were officially barred from residing in Louisiana by the French Code Noir. But the restrictions were never really enforced, and there have been Jews living in New Orleans since 1757, when a Sephardic family from Holland arrived. The community grew rapidly after the Louisiana territory became part of the United States in 1803. At the time Trillin was writing, the Jewish population in New Orleans was probably near its peak, around 12,000. Just before Hurricane Katrina in 2005, that number had fallen to around 9,500. Jews were among the tens of thousands of New Orleanians who never returned to the city after the storm, and the current population is around 8,000, which includes many newcomers to the city. (Population estimates made by the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans cover the entire metropolitan region, including a number of affluent suburbs in parishes that border the city.)
From its earliest days in colonial French, Spanish, and finally American Louisiana, the Jewish community in New Orleans has collectively taken an approach to the gentile world that was highly accomodationist and assimilation-minded, even by the relatively flexible standards of Southern Jewry. But with the publication of Trillin’s article, New Orleanian Jews suddenly were getting attention—precisely because of their efforts to avoid it. The piece caused an uproar within the community. “That New Yorker story had the quality of a forbidden truth being revealed,” the writer Nicholas Lemann recently told me. Lemann, the dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia, grew up in a prominent Jewish family in New Orleans. His father and his late grandfather, both lawyers, were very influential within the community and in the broader city. “Everybody knew about the phenomenon, but nobody talked about it, even in private,” he recalled. “What good could possibly come of it?”
The furor over Trillin’s article inevitably faded, but memories of its impact linger and the issues it raised still roil the community. “That is such crap,” was the testy response I got when I mentioned the article to Kahn, the local Jewish archivist. She sighed. “I’m sorry, but you touched a nerve.” Indeed, in my conversations with dozens of prominent Jewish New Orleanians and ex-pats who now live elsewhere, I heard a broad range of conflicting thoughts and emotions—often from the same person. A few declined to speak about the topic altogether; others asked not to be quoted by name. “I have to be very careful,” said a fourth-generation Jewish New Orleanian businessman, worried he might say something that would “come back and haunt me.”
To understand why there is still so much Jewish angst about Mardi Gras, it’s important to understand the festival as a social institution of astounding complexity and enormous economic and political significance. It is a sprawling, all-consuming Carnival that engulfs and reorders the city for the two weeks leading up to Lent. There are nearly as many forms of celebrating Mardi Gras as there are communities in New Orleans, and these forms often bear little resemblance to one another. But if there is a mainstream celebration, it is the series of parades along St. Charles Avenue held during the two weeks prior to Mardi Gras and on Mardi Gras itself. These are carefully planned affairs, heavy on spectacle but light on chaos. They have their roots in a pre-Civil War attempt to save Mardi Gras, which fell on hard times after Louisiana became part of the United States. In 1857, a group of relative newcomers to New Orleans decided to revive Carnival through an act of brazen cultural appropriation, injecting it with a distinctly Anglo-American combination of mass spectacle, organizational science, and classicist pretension—and a lot of cash. They formed a secret society, the Mistick Krewe of Comus, named for the Greek god of festivity and excess, and staged an elaborate theme parade and masquerade ball, reigned over by the deity himself, embodied by a member of the group whose identity was a closely guarded secret.
“It was early Disney,” said James Gill, a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune and the author of Lords of Misrule: Mardi Gras and the Politics of Race in New Orleans. “There was a theme for the parade and the ball, and proper organization, and marching in unison, and working very hard on the floats. What Comus brought to the celebration was discipline and order.”
Other krewes formed in the image of Comus, and alongside them grew the parallel universe of gentlemen’s clubs. During the Reconstruction era, the krewes and the clubs served as the reactionary bastion for the deposed Confederate aristocracy. Their Mardi Gras parades became protests against the Union occupation and the enfranchisement of blacks. Comus’s theme in 1873 was “The Missing Links in Darwin’s Origin of the Species.” The parade depicted Union officials as worms, snakes, and hyenas–saving for last a grinning gorilla in the likeness of P.B.S. Pinchback, an African-American who had briefly served as governor of Louisiana the prior year.
This entrenched racial prejudice, which would later be codified during the Jim Crow era, did not extend at first to Jews, small numbers of whom belonged to the old-line krewes and clubs during the 19th century. But with the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and virulent nativism in the 1910s, the Jews of New Orleans were finally expelled for good from the very upper echelons of elite society. An important exception is the Rex organization, whose king also acts as the official King of Carnival, and which has always had some Jewish members.
By the time Trillin arrived in 1968, the relationship between Jews and Mardi Gras had changed very little since the 1910s. As for how much has changed since then, it depends whom you ask. “I think some Jews feel an exclusion from the party,” said Rabbi Edward Cohn of Temple Sinai, a Reform temple that boasts the largest congregation in town and serves as a bellwether for the Uptown Jewish establishment. But, he added, “I have Jewish friends who are fervent Mardi Gras participants who say they just love it. They’re out there at every parade, their children ride as soon as they’re old enough, they attend balls, and they have to make sure they’ve got enough white-tie-and-tail outfits to get them through the season.”
Some of the Jews I spoke with, particularly those who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, played down the significance of the issue. “I think the Jewish community generally is very comfortable with Mardi Gras,” said Cathy Glaser, the New Orleans regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “It’s fun, and there are plenty of opportunities for anyone to get involved.” That’s particularly true ever since the advent of Bacchus and Endymion, the “superkrewes” that democratized and supersized Mardi Gras beginning in the late 1960s. The superkrewes were founded by merchants and professionals, many of them Jews, who sought to capitalize on Mardi Gras’ untapped tourist potential. On the weekend before Mardi Gras, they mount massive, glitzy parades presided over by celebrity honorees. This year, Bacchus was portrayed by Drew Brees, the quarterback of the Saints, who is himself something of a deity in New Orleans.
By the 1980s, the superkrewes had completely overshadowed the old-line krewes, whose classical allusions and low-tech parades had come to seem quaint. Still, their symbolic importance kept them relevant—and made them the target of a belated effort to force them to integrate. In 1991, an African-American councilwoman named Dorothy Mae Taylor proposed a city ordinance that would require all krewes that wished to parade on city streets—and thus avail themselves of public services—to prove they did not discriminate based on race in their membership policies. (Perhaps because the ordinance did not have the support of many prominent Jews, religion was not mentioned.) After a sometimes incendiary, sometimes comical public debate, a rather skewed compromise was reached. The krewes would not have to reveal their membership rolls, but they would have to sign sworn affidavits pledging that their policies were not discriminatory. Comus refused to comply and chose to quit parading, as did Proteus and Momus. They would retreat to their racially pure caves and focus all their Mardi Gras energies on their elaborate, invitation-only balls, which are now held on private property. Rex—always considered a bit more liberal—chose to comply and still officially reigns over Carnival. Eight years later, Proteus also complied and returned to parading.
The businessmen’s lunch clubs that are closely linked to the old-line krewes remain bastions of white, Christian manhood. One cannot apply for membership but must be nominated. Exclusivity is maintained via a “blackball” system, which means that a nominee can be vetoed by any current member, who need not reveal himself or his reasons. This makes it exceedingly difficult to prove any discriminatory intent. Still, a few years after Dorothy Mae Taylor’s ordinance passed, a coalition of African-American leaders and civil-rights lawyers persuaded the city to force the clubs to comply with it. The clubs sued preemptively in federal court, and won the case easily, on the grounds that they were private organizations with a First Amendment right to include or exclude whomever they liked. The ruling was upheld on appeal. Thus, Jews and other minorities (and, of course, women) are still unable to access these traditional hubs of elite social networking, which play a vital role in the city’s most important civic ritual and exert an undeniable—if difficult to quantify—influence on its politics and economy.
This is a source of resentment for some Jews. “You have a limited business base here,” said one retired Jewish lawyer, who spent years at one of the city’s major law firms and complained that the clubs had an effect on the bottom lines of many businesses. “They want to keep this as a self-sustaining situation where they take care of each other,” he said of the club’s members. “They’ve got their own doctors and insurance men, and the businesses feed off each other.”
One prominent Jewish New Orleanian who was involved in the fight against the old-line krewes and the businessmen’s clubs is Joseph Bernstein. A successful lawyer and entrepreneur, Bernstein is now retired. Ten years ago he moved to Bay St. Louis, a prosperous enclave just over the state line in Mississippi. Bernstein had welcomed the revelations in Trillin’s 1968 article, and he tried to encourage the Jewish community to take a more aggressive stance against discrimination. Frustrated by the lack of support he felt, and bitter about what he saw as the city’s unchanging culture of intolerance, Bernstein gave up. “I got out of New Orleans for the very reasons that Calvin was writing about—this discrimination and anti-Semitism and racism,” he told me recently. “I just couldn’t live there anymore, so I moved away.”
Middle-aged professionals in the Jewish community seem less concerned about the clubs than the older generation, partially because they believe the influence the clubs exert has diminished substantially over the years. I was particularly interested in the views of the city’s most high-profile Jewish resident, Councilman Arnie Fielkow, who is one of the most popular politicians in town. At first, Fielkow told me that he didn’t know enough about the clubs to form an opinion about them. I pressed him a bit. “As a Jewish person I’m always very sensitive to exclusion, and I don’t agree with it,” he said. “But it’s not a top-of-mind issue that I can see from my constituents.” I asked him about the clubs’ political influence. “I have supporters, financial supporters and political supporters, from every realm of this community, and many of them do come from the business community, and I’m sure many of them come from the different krewes and the different clubs,” he said. “But I haven’t focused on that. I mean, my focus is on trying to move New Orleans forward and trying to unify New Orleans.”
To some observers, though, the clubs reflect the very attitudes that prevent unity. “I am still shocked by the casual anti-Semitism you encounter in conversation—even with very educated people—in this town,” said James Gill, a veteran Times-Picayune writer who moved to the United States from his native Great Britain in the 1970s. “It is really quite strange,” He added that he is puzzled by what he sees as the Jewish community’s tacit acceptance of this prejudice. “I don’t know why they put up with it,” he said. “I really don’t.”
L.J. Goldstein moved to New Orleans in 1994, when he was in his late 20s. Raised in Manhattan, he had just completed a post-college pre-med program at Towson University in Maryland, and he’d been offered a job as a chemist in a laboratory. “I said, ‘No, thank you, I don’t want to spend my life under fluorescent lights doing this.’ I decided I was going to move to New Orleans to be a photographer. So that’s what I did.”
Soon after moving to the city, Goldstein experienced what he described as a “transformative moment” while watching the Mardi Gras parade of the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club. The aid and pleasure clubs play a somewhat similar role in the black community to that played by old-line krewes in the white community. The Zulus came to prominence in the early 20th century by staging a Mardi Gras parade that satirized Rex and lampooned white society’s prejudice against black people through a comic embrace of racist stereotypes. That, at least, is how the parade is generally interpreted today, though it continues to discomfit many onlookers, including some African-Americans. The Zulus don blackface and adopt black caricatures from the unpleasant oeuvre of minstrelsy: the Big Shot, the Witch Doctor, Mr. Big Stuff. They wear grass skirts, and their most prized “throws” are coconuts.
But Goldstein found it inspiring. “It was unlike anything I had ever seen before,” he told me recently, reminiscing about his early days in New Orleans. We met at what he calls his bunker—a dark, chaotic workspace near his house in the Tremé area, which is considered by some historians to be the oldest African-American neighborhood in the United States. “You had African-Americans wearing blackface and Afro wigs and handing out spears and coconuts,” he recalled, smiling. “It was refreshing and shocking and normalized.”
After the Zulu parade had passed, Goldstein was surprised to see a procession of klezmer musicians arrive in its wake, leading an impromptu second-line of sorts. The cumulative experience—the street parade, the racial satire, the Jewish music—had a profound effect on him. For the next two years, he joked about creating a krewe that would do for Jews what Zulu did for African-Americans. “You know, we’d wear big noses and throw decorated bagels,” he’d tell friends. The Krewe du Jieux became a reality in 1996 when Goldstein and a few dozen others were invited to form a sub-krewe in the Krewe du Vieux parade.
Krewe du Vieux is a sort of Mardi Gras fringe festival that since the 1980s has provided a very downtown alternative to the staid traditional Uptown parades. It’s an attempt to restore the upside-down quality that once defined Carnival. It features bawdy, often pornographic floats propelled along by some of the city’s best brass bands. The most compelling float this year was the Krewe of Comatose’s “Jindal Drops the Pelican’s Briefs,” which starred a 10-foot tall, uncannily accurate paper-mâché model of Louisiana’s conservative Republican governor, Bobby Jindal. Jindal had five arms: one held a Bible, two others held checks made out to “Creationists, Inc,” and the final two reached for the rear end of huge paper-mâché pelican positioned in front of him. Out of Jindal’s fly poked an oversized pencil. When the float started rolling, a strategically placed motor allowed Jindal to treat the state’s official bird in the manner that many New Orleanians feel he has treated them.
Krewe du Vieux was a good fit for the Jieuxs, who created their own Zulu-esque cast of characters. Their Witch Doctor is the Rich Doctor, their Big Shot is the Big Macher. There is also the Gaza Stripper, played by a local burlesque dancer, and a Jewish Mother, who approaches parade-watchers and worries aloud about their eating habits: “You look so thin. Here, have a bagel!”
But just as Zulu is not universally loved by African-Americans, some Jews took issue with the Krewe du Jieux, at least at first. According to Joel Nitzkin, a health-policy consultant who joined the krewe in its early years, some members of the Jewish establishment found objectionable the krewe’s flaunting of its Jewish identity, even (or perhaps especially) in a humorous way. “That was so against the prevailing ethic at the time,” he said. “They wanted to be in the background. There were certainly lots of people who were active in the Jewish community that were also active in the lay community, but it was like they lived in two separate worlds, and never let the lay community know that they were Jewish.”
Goldstein ultimately earned a law degree from Tulane. Through his photography, he became an avid chronicler of the black community’s parading and musical culture, getting to know many of its leading lights and becoming an honorary member of the Happy House Social Aid and Pleasure Club and a full member of the Tremé Sidewalk Steppers, a parading outfit. He sees the Krewe du Jieux as a means of building a bridge between Jews and blacks in New Orleans. He aims to take ideas from traditional Judaism “and mix them into a modern secular Judaism that is in turn trying to get in touch with what makes New Orleans special, which is its African-American influence. New Orleans wouldn’t be on the map if it weren’t for what the African-Americans did here. But when you look into that history, you see Jewish fingers in the pie. I mean, Louis Armstrong wore a Jewish star around his neck.” (He did so to honor the Karnofsky family, Jewish immigrants who acted as a sort of surrogate family to him.)
Over the years, Goldstein began to take the krewe’s mission more and more seriously. “When people take hold of these stereotypes and debunk them, and take the power away from them, and do this outrageous, comical display, it makes the world a better place for everybody,” he told me.
But not everyone shared this ambitious vision. In 2002, a schism began to develop within the Krewe du Jieux. A number of members objected to what they saw as Goldstein’s autocratic style of leadership. Goldstein concedes that the krewe was not a democracy. “You don’t make art by committee,” is his response.
But there was a deeper problem. Joel Nitzkin, who led the anti-Goldstein faction, explained it this way: “L.J. saw this very, very seriously. You know, this was going be a krewe that was going to save the world. It was going to eliminate anti-Semitism, at least locally, by having a theme that poked fun at certain Jewish stereotypes. And the rest of the group didn’t share that concept. We just wanted to have a good time.”
Nitzkin’s faction ultimately left the Krewe du Jieux to form their own group. The final schism happened, fittingly, in the aftermath of Katrina. After protracted negotiations, a compromise was reached: Goldstein kept the rights to the name Krewe du Jieux and a sort of intellectual-property right to its approach and aesthetic, while Nitzkin and his group kept the spot in the Krewe du Vieux parade, in which they would march as the Krewe du Mishigas. (This year, Goldstein’s group marched in the inaugural parade of Krewedelusion, a new organization that formed partly out of a sense that Krewe du Vieux has become too big and mainstream.)
The Krewe du Mishigas includes an epidemiologist, a physicist, a judge, and a few doctors. In spite of their membership in the city’s professional class—or perhaps because of it—the group gleefully embraces Krewe du Vieux’s X-rated ethos. This year, their theme was “Krewe du Mishigas Stokes the Burning Bush.” I visited the studio where krewe members were putting the final touches on the float. It depicted “Mistress Hot Knish,” a figure composed of a pair of enormous bare breasts adorned with Star of David pasties and a set of splayed legs, in between which sat a glowing orange-and-red “bush.” The Mistress had no head. (“Only the important parts,” a krewe member explained.)
During the parade the following night, I tried to gauge how the Mishigas float was perceived by the audience. One man, a visitor from Alabama, watched the parade on Decatur Street near Jackson Square and cheered as the Krewe du Mishigas passed. I asked him if he “got” the float. “Did I get it?” he said. “All I saw was it was tits and pussy. And we’ve got tits and pussy in Alabama, too.” A block away, I asked some college-age kids if they understood the float. A girl wearing a denim jacket gave me a quizzical look and said, “Of course. They’re burning the Jews. Duh! How could you even ask?”