Forget kugel, the traditional Jewish noodle dish. Dale Gaber's family commemorates the Jewish high holidays with trout and creole meuniere sauce at Galatoire's restaurant on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. That's ritual in a city where synagogues have jazz services with trumpet-blowing rabbis.
But Gaber, like the rest of that city's small, tightknit Jewish community, is far from home this year as the most intense period of the religious calendar begins. The 10 days that begin with Rosh Hashanah and end with Yom Kippur are a time of reflection and routine, when observant and not-so-observant Jews embrace the same temple, foods and people they did the year before -- and the year before that.
When Rosh Hashanah -- the start of the Jewish year -- begins at sundown today, Gaber, 57, will be at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase, where people are welcoming but are strangers. Since evacuating from Louisiana for Hurricane Katrina, Gaber and her 90-year-old father have been staying on the first floor of her daughter's small Wheaton home. Instead of spending her days baking prune plum pie, the way she did and her mother did before her, Gaber has been on the phone, trying to reach insurance companies and doctors.
"It's a bittersweet experience," said Gaber, a psychotherapist whose family had been in New Orleans since the 1920s. "We usually go to the early services so we can visit in between and see everyone. Everyone knows everyone. You get dressed up and see people, and everyone is kissing each other."
Being homeless and distracted is no small spiritual matter in a period during which Jews believe that God decides "who shall live, and who shall die . . . who by fire and who by water," as the traditional prayer goes. This 10-day period is the last chance of the year to beg forgiveness from God and be sealed in the Book of Life; in other words, it's important to concentrate.
Karen Remer, who came from New Orleans to the Washington area with her two young sons, her ex-husband and her boyfriend, said she is worried that all the time and quiet will be a vacuum that will be filled with a massive list of things to do. She has found since Katrina that her practice as an Orthodox Jew of observing the weekly Sabbath -- which lasts from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday -- by not working or driving or shopping has gone from a "time to chill" to a time to stress.
"It just gave me too much time to think. When I had time to sit and think is when I had time to mourn. During the week I'd be in action mode, and the only time I've felt down" was the Sabbath, she said. "It gave me a time to go: 'Oh, my God, look at my life.' I hope that doesn't happen during the holidays."
Remer, 45, a genetics professor at Tulane University, has an extra layer of the abnormal to deal with.
Remer and her ex-husband, who share custody of their sons, ages 7 and 11, agreed to settle temporarily in the Washington area for the school year. In order to give the children a stable home, the two switch off weeks in a rented Silver Spring house. One week, she sleeps at the house with the kids, and the next week, her husband does while she stays at a friend's or her sister's. For Rosh Hashanah, instead of going to their usual small, old synagogue in New Orleans, Remer will accompany her sons and ex-husband to a Silver Spring temple while her boyfriend spends the holiday with Remer's sister in Fairfax Station.
Remer's boyfriend, Aaron Marcus, said he's trying to be positive about the situation and the New Year in general.
"You have to close the book on the old year. That's something a lot of people in New Orleans will have to do," said Marcus, a lawyer who was born in New Orleans.
Being away from home may seem routine to many residents of the transient Washington area. But New Orleans is the opposite. The Jewish community there is familiar and small, about 10,000 people in a metropolitan region of 1.3 million. Jews in New Orleans belong to synagogues at a rate higher than the national average, the city's rabbis say, and they stay for generations.
"If you don't know someone, you know his aunt or his cousin or something," said Leon Rittenberg III, whose family has been in Louisiana since 1840. He is now in Houston, along with what the Jewish Federation of Greater New Orleans estimates is half of the city's Jewish population.
Fear of losing that continuity is among the main anxieties that Jewish leaders have as the high holidays begin. What if people don't come back?
For now, it is the rhythm of this holiest of periods that is thrown off. Traditions such as eating apples and honey for a sweet new year will remain somewhat the same. Others will not, such as the tashlich service, in which Jews throw bread crumbs into a body of moving water to symbolize the desire to let go of sins and be forgiven by God. Some Gulf Coast Jews talked wistfully about going to the banks of the Mississippi River for tashlich every Rosh Hashanah, others to Lake Pontchartrain.
Nitsa Rosenzweig is originally from Israel but has spent the past decade with her husband and two children in New Orleans. After fleeing Katrina, Rosenzweig yesterday was trying to re-create a tradition at the townhouse her family is renting in McLean, cooking some traditional Israeli high holiday dishes whose Hebrew names are similar to the words for some ancient holiday wishes.
She rattled them off: "I am preparing spinach, which means, 'We are wishing our enemies are decimated,' and sweet beets, which means 'May our enemies be removed.'
"The word for sweet carrots means, 'May our merits be increased.' "
Many displaced Jews said they have been lifted by the realization of the gifts they do have, everything from being alive to the generosity of strangers to the chance to simply go to synagogue on the high holidays.
Rabbi Daniel Zemel of Temple Micah in Glover Park in Northwest Washington said he was thinking about the connection between people displaced by Katrina and the section of the Torah that is read at this time of year by Jews around the world -- a section about Abraham. Zemel plans to talk to congregants this week about how God told Abraham to leave his home and to expect wonderful things. Instead, Abraham immediately encountered a famine.
"We know hope," he said of the Jewish people. "We have known the darkest places of human history and we as a people have triumphed." He then quoted a legend about a famous Ukrainian temple with a sign that read: "Jews don't despair."