Mardi Gras, New Orleans, Yellow Fever, and Jewish Orphans
Lent is fast approaching, and my teenage daughter must come up with a craft activity relating to this season in the Christian calendar, for the kindergarteners in her interfaith Sunday School class. I was trying to help, but I had trouble thinking of a craft activity related to not eating candy. Then, because we lived for three years in Brazil, my thoughts turned to Carnival, or the New Orleans equivalent: Mardi Gras. How about a craft activity relating to the festivals that celebrate the final days before Lent? Perhaps, making Mardi Gras beads?
So I was already thinking about New Orleans when a message arrived this week, as if straight out of my ancestral past. Ironically, my daughter knows that she has ancestors who lived in New Orleans. I presume they did not celebrate Lent because they were Jewish, though they may have, indeed, celebrated Mardi Gras. Apparently the first Rex, or King of Carnival, was a Jewish businessman named Louis Solomon.
Anyway, I often describe to my children how my great-grandfather, Rabbi Emanuel Michael Rosenfelder, met my great-grandmother, Sarah Adler, when she was an orphan in New Orleans, and he was the director of the orphanage. This is not quite as scandalous as it sounds. The Hebrew Benevolent Society supported orphans until adulthood, even paying dowries for the girls in their care. We know that Sarah was orphaned when her parents, Neuman and Augusta Adler, both died in New Orleans in one of the great yellow fever epidemics of the 1860s. My grandmother used to recount how her mother remembered being removed from the mosquito netting around her mother’s deathbed.
All I knew was this fragment of the story of my great-great-grandparents, until my cousin Sig took a trip to Mississippi and Louisiana this year, and stopped in Natchez, where Rabbi Rosenfelder once served the local congregation. A local history researcher named Teri Tillman gave Sig a tour of the Natchez synagogue. Later, Teri’s expert research skills turned up a newspaper clipping describing the deaths of Sarah Adler’s parents. This week she sent us this poignant story, the purple prose transcribed from the pages of the New Orleans Daily Picayune, from September 7th, 1867.
The yellow fever, in its ravages, often, in a few brief hours, darkens and makes desolate many hitherto happy homes. Heart-rending incidents of this kind we hear of daily.A few days ago, Newton [sic] Adler, an humble and industrious tailor, with a happy and cheerful wife and seven daughters, the oldest barely ten years of age, resided and pursued his avocation on Lafayette street, near the City Hall. Within a moment, both husband and wife were stricken down with the yellow scourge; the shop was closed, and the little ones seemed to run about uncared for by any one, and ignorant of the great affliction of their parents, who side by side, rested in the dark room in the rear of the tailor shop.
Several days passed and yesterday the wife was relieved from her suffering by the cold embrace of death. The body was quietly removed by a few friends, and the husband in mental and physical agony lingered until 2 o’clock this morning, when he also died. This morning, the seven little ones thus suddenly thrown upon the cold charity of the world, were taken charge of by the Hebrew Benevolent Society, the small stock of goods belonging to the deceased packed up and the store closed.