From the Marrakesh to the Sahara: A Desert Journey, Spanish Travelers, and Tracing Jewish History in the Ancient Hills 🐪
A road trip from Marrakesh to the Sahara: Camels, COVID, new friends—and History
On our road trip and 3-month sojourn in Mexico, we now found ourselves in the American South: New Orleans, my birthplace, and new home to both the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (5 Star!) and an Airbnb called Synagogue, in a former synagogue, with all history removed and in its stead, Christian art (decidedly NOT 5 stars). Read my reviews of both with photos, and get yourself to NOLA!
Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience — ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️
Synagogue: NOLA’s hottest Vacation & Art House — ⭐️⭐️
5,280 miles, more or less. You may know this number from the number of feet in a mile (random! And we should be on metric), and it’s also the distance I’ve traveled by car with my boyfriend in the past month:
We ventured from Mexico City and back to the gorgeous San Miguel and Guanajuato, up the coast of Mexico to Tijuana, to the San Diego area, then across the southwest.
Sights from Puerto Vallarta and Guadalajara (Instagram below):
Jewish sights in the amazing Santa Fe:
Before arriving in Miami for the holidays, we stopped in New Orleans to see my brother and the sights. Brian had never been, and my return for a week last year left me wanting more of my hometown. I was born there, lived there a few years, and moved away when I was still very young.
We stayed in an Airbnb called Synagogue, which was a bit mysterious by name only as their listing gives nothing of the history (only the longest entry I’ve ever seen of rules and limitations, and more on that later). A google search revealed the congregation left the city in 1975, leaving the beautiful brick building to languish as they set up shop in the safer suburb of Metairie.
I recalled the area distinctly from my visit exactly a year before: a brick church across the street with similar, gorgeous Americana architecture, plus a neon sign flashing its Christian nature.
We actually tried to cancel our stay here and for the first time since I’ve used Airbnb in over a decade, they said no. I can’t recommend it. It’s gorgeous and it’s historic, sure, but it’s not Jewish at all, and you’d not know it was a synagogue at any point by any of the building or its decor. In fact, you’re greeted as if it were a former church instead:
Above: two very not Jewish images grace the former synagogue; one of Jesus (?) shooting a hot pink laser beam out of his eyes, and one of a woman playing a harpsichord while girls watch, all with pink bars covering their eyes; giant letters hover above them saying “REPENT” in the same pink.
These Christian images (above) really remind me of Messianic Christians appropriating Judaism, Jewish culture, and traditions, with their churches even calling themselves “synagogues” and their pastors “rabbis”. When your tradition and people have nearly been exterminated by another, having some in that larger culture pretend to be yours—and then try to convert the rest of the Jews—is insult to injury. I don’t believe the designers here had this at all in mind when putting Christian iconography, no matter how tongue-in-cheek, in a former synagogue while also calling the place Synagogue. Pick a lane. Christianity is not interchangeable with Judaism.
Cool building; poor decisions (photos above: interior and exterior of Synagogue
The Jewish history of this otherwise beautiful building is not all that was hidden; immediately after booking, the host informed me that it’s A) nonrefundable if you cancel, and B) there’s an additional pet fee that costs more than a night’s stay. In fact, it was the equivalent of 1.5 extra nights, and I quickly gave them and Airbnb support hell, since I’ve never seen additional pet fees, ever, at an Airbnb (and I’ve stayed at many with my dog); I’ve also see this trend of cleaning and other fees making a stay more than double the actual list cost; and the pet fees here were BURIED in that lengthy novella of a description, easy to miss, and not in the actual House Rules where they belong. Costs and inflation and in particular, VC-funded apps like Airbnb and Uber are incredibly expensive right now; wages aren’t up for most of us and in fact, mine are still way down, despite my ability to travel. And in this case, I saved up for 18 months to be able to take time off.
But alas, Airbnb didn’t care about these issues, the host was snide (“We are well aware of… blah blah blah”), and they got a bad review from me—especially after I saw their response to someone else’s review, which was, um, insulting. Don’t stay here. It’s a bad business practice to refuse to budge even a bit, especially if you’re a bigger business with say, money to renovate a large building, and I told them in advance they were getting a bad review, yet they had me anyway and refused a refund.
So don’t give Synagogue (the Airbnb in New Orleans) your money, but DO visit the new Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience downtown.
MSJE New Orleans covers 13 states of the south: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia. It recently opened after a move from Utica, Mississippi after closing there in 2012, and the new space and city serve it so well. It’s beautiful, it’s friendly, it’s educational, and it’s moving.
You enter a beautiful brick and modern facade and are greeted by outgoing, helpful staff who lead you into the first room for a beautiful film about the southern Jewish experience. Different voices tell anecdotes of growing up Jewish in the south: they have southern drawls, went to synagogue, played football, and mix traditional Jewish and southern foods.
These are the Jews I grew up with. (Continued below)
Above: images from the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, New Orleans. Tap “pause” to read, or previous / next to navigate the gallery.
My family is from North Carolina and Virginia; Brian’s lives in Florida, and his mother now lives in NC as well. I grew up in Texas and was born here in NOLA; the south is in our roots, and it’s evident how much it’s in the blood of the Jews who settled here, too, from the moment you enter the first room. These people embraced the south with vigor and unique creativity; sadly, the Americas didn’t always embrace them back.
The museum’s displays are a quick one-hour tour or so with some interactivity near the end, and I was particularly moved by the Civil Rights era history, the WWII room, and the very first informational wall which detailed just how early the first Jewish settlers came to the states. If you think Jews all immigrated from Europe post-war or from Russia near the turn of the 20th century, think again; Jews were in what would become the United States in the 1600 and 1700s, and many came to Galveston, Texas, not far from where I lived as a child in the Houston suburbs.
Go to New Orleans, and if you’re kosher and can’t enjoy the gumbo, crawfish, or jambalaya, you can definitely enjoy the Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience (and pick up a kosher cookbook).
MSJE New Orleans
818 Howard Ave, New Orleans, LA 70113
Entry: $15, and $10 for kids