Nostalgia is often the default setting for those who have left New Orleans. Author Peter Wolf’s new book, “My New Orleans, Gone Away: A Memoir of Loss and Renewal” is powered by a more informed nostalgia. Though he left New Orleans more than 50 years ago, never to solidly return, Wolf’s new book paints what he calls a “lost period” of New Orleans’s culture.
“There was a whole way of life going on in the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s, not just in New Orleans but one that resonated nationally,” Wolf said. “There had been much more of a family entrepreneurism, before globalism. The city has lost some of its local-ness over the years. It has also come out of Katrina a better, more vibrant and stronger place than it was previously. But it’s lost a little of the spirit it had when I was growing up, a little of the self-assurance.”
“My New Orleans, Gone Away” depicts the once-seedy French Quarter, including his parents’ favorite hangout, the Beverly Country Club gambling house.
“They loved going to places like the Roosevelt Hotel, which had a wonderful bar with music. During the racetrack season they were there every weekend. They enjoyed just being with their circle of friends, and so they were out nearly every night, eating, drinking, talking and being congenial. This was not unusual. It was just part of the New Orleans gaiety that was so heralded — and children were kind of secondary.”
The book’s Jewish themes won Wolf his invitation to speak in New Orleans this coming Monday, Nov. 4, for the Women’s Zionist Organization of America’s 100-year-old volunteer organization, Hadassah, which focuses on women’s and children’s health, education and social issues.
“My New Orleans, Gone Away” deals with pre-Civil Rights interaction between black and whites, but also between Jews and the rest of New Orleans. “My book isn’t about anti-Semitism,” Wolf asserts, “but I didn’t think it was fair to tell this story without touching on the ways in which I came upon (racism) in New Orleans.”
Growing up, Wolf was aware of a multi-layered caste system based on religion and subtle skin shades. Nonetheless, “In Metairie I had almost no awareness of being Jewish,” says Wolf. “I went to Country Day and had one Jewish friend. It wasn’t relevant to my life that I was Jewish.”
Wolf claims that, too, as a loss. “Our family practiced a Judaism that is these days almost completely unknown: a very laconic, nonobservant, but culturally Jewish life. Jews who go to temple and synagogues today, even if they are Reform, they observe the rituals of Judaism more rigorously than we did in the 50s.”
As a result of his culturally sheltered New Orleans upbringing, “I didn’t hear about the Holocaust until I went away to college. When I found out, I was horrified and devastated,” says Wolf. “My Jewish awakening came through friends who were Jews at Yale (now famous humorist Calvin Trillin, art historian Henry Geldzahler, and New Yorker writer Gerald Jonas). They were fascinated by my background being a Jew but not knowing much about Judaism.”
Following college, Wolf worked for several years in his father’s highly successful cotton business, before finally moving away from New Orleans around 1965.
Living in the north ever since, Wolf continued his education and became an expert in both land use and architecture — two professions that might be of particular use in New Orleans.
Wolf and his sister recently restored a pavilion in New Orleans’ Audubon Park, and helped start the Godchaux Reserve Plantation Fund in order to (thus far unsuccessfully) restore the old historic River Road home of New Orleans sugar tycoon and department store owner, Leon Godchaux.
For several days in early November, Wolf will be in New Orleans instead of just wishing he were here. Catch him at the Hadassah event, 7 p.m., Monday, Nov. 4 at Congregation Beth Israel, 4004 West Esplanade Avenue; 7 p.m., Wednesday, Nov. 6, at Metairie Park Country Day School, 300 Park Road; and brunch at 11 a.m., Sunday, Nov 10, at Temple Sinai, 6227 St Charles Ave.