As I was blog-hopping today, I wound up at Culture For All. While I was reading the responses left under the post entitled "The Nature of Being Jewish", I happened across a comment left by one of my fellow Louisianians. It was so remarkably incorrect that felt very motivated to point this out lest anyone else happen upon that post and believe him. It then occurred to me that it might make sense to cross-post my remarks here. I started another post a few days ago that I think will be slightly related to this Culture For All post. I suppose I should go ahead and finish it tonight. Anyway, here is a slightly modified version of what I said there:
I'm used to seeing people make assumptions about New Orleans despite the fact that they were not raised here and may not have even ever lived here at all. During Carnival, it's always funny watching the big stations (e.g. CNN, MSNBC, FoxNews) air stories about Mardi Gras or Voodoo or some other facet of New Orleans that outsiders in "white bread America" might be curious about. They are usually so clueless about the culture here that they are stuck talking about what's "apparently" true instead of what is true. However, I get a bit aggravated when locals, the born-and-raised folks, get in front of outsiders and show that they haven't taken the time to understand anything about the culture they were blessed to be raised in.
Under "The Nature of Being Jewish", Thomas Forsyth makes a bunch of very silly and erroneous comments about my beloved city. One of the things that really bugged me was his comparison of New Orleans' Catholic schools to the public schools.
"While I went to Catholic school, it was not because my mother was especially religious. It was instead because the public schools in New Orleans are failures with a few exceptions."
What he fails to mention is that the Catholic schools, like other private schools, are not subjected to the Louisiana Educational Assessment Program (L.E.A.P.) testing that all public school students must pass in order to be promoted and eventually graduate. Of course, the Catholic schools could choose to administer the test to students but it really wouldn't be to their advantage because many families opt to send their children to these private schools so that they won't have to take the test and it would definitely affect their financial bottom line if testing showed that their education wasn't any better despite the grades that students receive. Since that is the case, there really isn't any reason to believe that Catholic schools in New Orleans are doing any better than public schools when it comes to educating comparable students. Given the other statements Forsyth made, I'm inclined to believe that his family just bought into the scare-tactics private schools use to hype their for-pay programs.
By the way, for the record, students have always been able to do well in public schools here when they are given the proper environment for learning. My parents were big believers in public school and we all went to them. Our magnet school program is one to be envied by many places. One of them, New Orleans Center For Creative Arts, is the absolute best school in the state with many parents sending their children from out of town and even other states just to attend it. The same can not be said of any of our city's Catholic schools; There is no Catholic school that can boast of having produced even nearly as many of our city's famous arts icons as N.O.C.C.A.
It's also a bit embarrassing to hear a Catholic person from New Orleans who attended Catholic schools in this city claim that there is no Catholic culture even though he admits that he spent the first decade of his life thinking that everyone in the world was Catholic. With the plethora of churches (the majority of which are not Catholic) in New Orleans, I don't ever remember being unaware that there were many, many other religions. There were so many holidays (e.g. Tet, Kwanzaa, Chanukkah) celebrated in the public schools that I think his experience is the exception and not the rule. Personally, I think that the diversity of our public schools is another reason to eschew the private school system in favor of one that better reflects the society around it. I, for one, have no desire to send my child to any supposed place of learning where most segments of our society are conspicuously and purposely absent or under-represented.
For hundreds of years, New Orleans has taken great pride in its religious and cultural diversity. Nevertheless, New Orleans provides proof that Catholic culture does exist. As a matter of fact, whenever a significantly large number of adherents to a particular religion reside in a distinct geographical location you'll find that their religion plays a large role in what constitutes the culture of that area. I think it's generally true that culture plays a major role in creating religions and, conversely, religion greatly affects the formation of the cultures where its adherents reside.
In New Orleans, we have the Carnival season which is a distinctly Catholic holiday. The culmination of the Carnival season is Mardi Gras and Ash Wednesday, which are also Catholic affairs. Following Carnival, there is Lent. I can not think of a single upscale restaurant in the city that does not offer special menu offerings catering to the dietary restrictions of this period. Heck, even the student cafeteria at the University of New Orleans has a Lenten menu and it's a public school.
There's also the fact that our entire state of Louisiana is not divided up into counties but instead into parishes modeled after the Catholic church's territorial divisions of authority. Several of our parishes are even named after Catholic saints: St. Bernard, St. Tammany, St. Helena. Indeed, none of the parishes are named after non-Catholic religious figures.
While there are several distinct ethnic groups here most share the Catholic culture regardless of their actual religion. I also come from a very old Southern family (We are direct descendents of Gilbert du Montier Lafayette himself amongst others). Despite the fact that my family's various Louisianian branches are African, Native-American, Irish, and French there is not a single one of these groups that hasn't been greatly altered by the Catholic culture that exists here despite the fact that many of them were not all practicing Catholics or even any sort of Catholic at all.
As a result of all this, I don't see the use of the term "Jewish" as an ethnic identifier and as a descriptor for adherents of a particular religion to be a unique or even uncommon phenomenon. There are many others. A big example of this would be the term "Hindu". It can refer to those who live in a particular area of the world or it can mean the adherents of a religion. In the attempt to make Jewish suffering seem worse than all others, I think that some people erroneously claim that the Jewish experiences are unique to them. The other post I'm writing will discuss this a bit more.