An excerpt from the book, Spirits of the Bayou: Sanctuaries, Cemeteries and Hauntings

The book noted above features a chapter on Jewish Cemeteries in New Orleans. There you will find not only the history of the cemetery but the unique traditions of Jewish burials. This post will share excerpts from the book along with travel information.

The cemetery is home to members of four Jewish congregations that owned or maintained the cemetery through the years. They include the Congregations Chevra Thilim, Beth Israel, Tememe Derech, and Gates of Prayer.

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Today the congregations mingle as one as there’s no clear marker on where one cemetery begins and the other ends. But all are very tidy and for the most part well kept. Many of the stones are quite massive with poignant engravings. Most of the epitaphs are in both English and Hebrew, and they travel across the nineteenth and twentieth centuries with people from all over the world.

And then there are monuments with no names as the case of the stone that memorializes the victims of a ferocious epidemic. Massive outbreaks of yellow fever hit New Orleans during the nineteenth century; one of the most vicious was the 1853 epidemic that claimed 7,849 lives according to the New Orleans Library. Many immigrant Jews were stricken with the disease and died. Several of the victims were not known, and so a stunning copper-colored granite headstone was dedicated to the memory of all Jewish yellow fever victims that died in the 1867 epidemic.

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Jewish burial practices require in-ground burials, quite the opposite of what you generally see in the New Orleans tomb style communities. Here you will find what is called copings, a process where the grave is framed with a retaining wall to hold the soil. Although the body still remains beneath the ground, the coping helps raise the grave twelve to fifteen inches above the ground. It also helps establish a set perimeter for the gravesite along with a small green space. But not all have green space, as some of the larger burial sites own a large slab of concrete or granite with an equally expansive headstone.

A prominent piece of architecture that acts as a beacon for the cemetery is a lighthouse monument. Shaped like a miniature lighthouse including an illuminated top, it is home
to Harry Offner, a hardware dealer who served as the president of the Lighthouse for the Blind, a New Orleans nonprofit dedicated to helping the blind gain a means of employment.

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Another lauded Jewish family plot is the Karnofsky site, home to Louis and Tillie Karnofsky who influenced Louis Armstrong’s musical career. Jacob Karno, a retired New Orleans judge and great nephew of Louis and Tillie, said his father shortened the family name. Although Armstrong was not Jewish, he had a great affection for the Karnofsky family. For it was this Jewish family that helped mold Armstrong’s work ethics and ignited his love for music.

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Among the Jewish turn-of-the-century businesses in New Orleans, the Karnofskys sold coal from a delivery wagon. The family took Armstrong in as a laborer at a young age. Living with his grandmother, Armstrong woke at sunup riding shotgun with Morris Karnofsky, a young gent close to Armstrong’s age.

It was Morris that loaned Armstrong two dollars to purchase his first horn. A Coronet they saw in a pawnshop, what Armstrong described as a “old tarnished beat up’ “B” Flat Coronet.” The horn cost five dollars and Armstrong put away fifty cents from his weekly salary to complete the purchase. The rest is history.

Travel notes:

The history of and lineage of Jewish Synagogues in the Greater New Orleans area can be found in the Sanctuaries section of the book. See Table of Contents for more details.

Gates of Prayer/Chevra Tehilim/Beth Israel Cemetery, 4824 Canal St, New Orleans
National Association of Chevra Kadisha, http://www.nasck.org/about.htm

New Chevra Thilim Cemetery, 5000 Iberville Street, New Orleans, www.jewishnola.com