I visited New Orleans for the first time in the second decade of the twenty-first century. Don’t you go to New Orleans, friends who knew warned me, you’ll never leave.
I made a pilgrimage to the statue of Louis Armstrong in a public park on the border of the Treme.
I continued into the Treme and walked, looking everywhere for the spirits of the iconic stories I knew that were birthed from that place. There was some day activity, some repair, much construction in the city and I felt the past speaking to me out of the modest streets I clip-clopped on through my wandering.
I wandered a little too far and began to lose my bearings; back towards the French Quarter, nearer again to Rampart Street, out came a group of four, five men dressed as women just as I was passing their house. They were dressed in dramatic fashion, several of them were six inches taller than me, they wore decorated hose and boutique skirts, several with bustier type contraptions around their chests, a couple with long blonde wigs (I think) and very tasty cowboy hats.
I looked at them as they came down the walk from what I imagined was their lodging on a street at the edge of the Treme. I’m sure I looked a little surprised and ambushed. They opened with, “What are you doing here?”
What the heck — I told them. I told them about my pilgrimage to the Louis Armstrong site, that I had never been to New Orleans before, that I was a musician who takes his roots seriously and I made this holy pilgrimage to the Source on that day and now I was exploring semi-lost in their neighborhood. I also told them my day job is rabbi. That seemed to open everything to them. They got serious with me and expressed their understanding and appreciation of my pilgrimage, once they realized I was for real.
I walked with them down the street. Where are you going? I asked them. Honey, we’re going to work. As we walked into the French Quarter chattering away, tourists (I assume) stopped, got out of the their cars or interrupted their strolls to take pictures.
We were strolling like old friends. They got a tremendous kick out of when I mentioned my profession. On one corner they stopped and stared at me.
You’re a Jewish rabbi . . .
By this time we had developed a seriousness between us. On the corner where they directed me one way and they were off another, one of them asked, will you bless me? Yes, they all chimed in, will you bless me, me too?
I’ve never been blessed by a Jewish rabbi.
Sure I said, and they all moved closer together into the circle we had made on the corner at the edge of the French Quarter and I sang-chanted fine and mellow the three-fold priestly blessing, the holy blessing from the Priests in the book of Numbers (6:23-27):
Ye-va-re-che-cha Adonai ve-yish-me-re-cha.
May G*d bless you and protect you.
Ya-eir Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha vi-chu-ne-ka.
May G*d’s face shine for you and be gracious to you.
Yi-sa Adonai pa-nav ei-le-cha ve-ya-seim le-cha sha-lom.
May G*d’s face be lifted to you and give you peace.
First I sang it in Hebrew, then in English, then in Hebrew again. I did not hurry. The first time I chanted it with my eyes closed, then I opened them and everyone’s eyes in the circle were closed, then they all opened their eyes and I chanted the last verse again with all eyes open like a mirror into our interiors.
That was real, somebody said. Somebody else used the phrase the blessing underground. Thank you thank you went all around and we stood for a moment kind of hushed on the street corner, they then went their way and I went mine, and I’m thinking maybe none of us will forget that day.
Sometimes my day job opens a door to the Interior. I get to go deep with people in unexpected places. Then I write the stories so I won’t forget.