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Posts Tagged ‘South Carolina’

Jewish Soldiers Find Spiritual Home At Fort Jackson, S.C.

Wednesday, December 7th, 2011

When Rabbi Henry Soussan went through training at Fort Jackson in 2002, area Jewish options were limited, and being able to participate in Jewish holiday celebrations was tough. Nearly 10 years later, the instructor at the Columbia, South Carolina installation’s chaplain school is proud of the Chabad-Lubavitch-run Aleph House, which gives civilians and soldiers a Jewish base while they’re away from home.

During the 10 to 12 weeks of basic training at Fort Jackson – which is also home to the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force chaplaincy training programs – soldiers are not expected to leave the base, but in a first for Fort Jackson, dozens of trainees got to spend the High Holidays at the Aleph House.

“That’s quite a change,” said Soussan, who worked together with Fort Jackson’s chaplain and commanding general to make their attendance possible.

One trainee was even granted permission to stay overnight with Rabbi Heshy Epstein, co-director of Chabad of South Carolina, so he wouldn’t have to drive on Yom Kippur.

“I never heard of that before,” remarked Soussan.

Operated jointly by Chabad of South Carolina and the Aleph Institute, a Bal Harbour, Fla.-based organization that serves Jewish military personnel and prisoners, the Aleph House provides Jewish soldiers at Fort Jackson an array of services, including graduation ceremonies for trainees completing basic training or chaplaincy school.

“We have had people come from all over America,” many of whom were not particularly close to their home Jewish communities, said Soussan. “But because they had this celebration at the Aleph House, they were able to reconnect.”

Epstein makes sure to plug soldiers back in to Chabad Houses and synagogues back home and near their new assignments.

Because of the success of the High Holiday programming, Epstein wants to add Chanukah events and Passover celebrations for soldiers in basic training. Because Jewish soldiers frequently have non-Jewish battle buddies – recruits travel in pairs and are not allowed to be apart during training – opportunities to come to synagogue can frequently dispel Jewish stereotypes.

Jewish soldiers celebrate the High Holidays with the help of the Aleph Institute.

“It’s quite amazing the feedback I get out of these services,” remarked Soussan. “They’re grateful that they’re being treated nicely, and we include everyone as much as possible.”

Epstein spoke of the positive relationship between Aleph House and Fort Jackson, noting that working with soldiers has been an inspiring experience.

“Basic training is very difficult. The soldiers are under extremely high pressure and stress, and it causes them to question what their values are,” he explained.

Coming to services and having access to holiday events “allows them to be better soldiers, and better prepared mentally and emotionally for their mission. Often we talk about Jewish values and how they pertain to their mission as soldiers.”

Weekly services draw between 30 and 40 soldiers. Depending on the time of year, the soldiers also receive packages for Purim, Passover and Yom Kippur, as well as e-mails about upcoming holidays and Jewish practice.

Rabbi Aaron Lipskar, executive director of the Aleph Institute, said that it’s a relationship Jewish soldiers can count on no matter where in the world they may find themselves.

“Through getting connected at the Aleph House, they’re being given that opportunity to know what’s available to them and who they can turn to regardless of where they may be stationed and deployed,” he said.

The Reform Movement Comes To Charleston

Wednesday, June 2nd, 2010

Note: All quotes are from “The Charleston Organ Case” by Allan Tarshish, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 54, 1965 (http://www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm).

 

Last month we traced the establishment and development of the Jewish Community in Charleston, South Carolina, and its first synagogue, Kahal Kodesh (Holy Congregation) Beth Elokim (KKBE). From its inception in 1749 the synagogue was Orthodox and followed the Sephardic ritual. (This was the case with all of the synagogues founded during colonial times.)

 

The Jews of Charleston fared well, and by 1820 the Jewish population was the largest in America. But something happened in 1824 that would split the Jewish community and eventually have far reaching repercussions for Judaism throughout America: Several members of KKBE presented a petition calling for a number of changes in synagogue ritual.

 

The changes requested were that the Hebrew prayers be translated into English, a shortening of services by the omission of some of the prayers, the abolishment of monetary pledges during services, and an English sermon based on the portion of the week.

 

     When their petition was rejected and they realized they could not command the necessary two-thirds vote of the congregation for the changes they sought, they took further steps. It was actually not until January 16, 1825, that they formally organized “The Reformed Society of Israelites” and prepared its constitution, which was unanimously adopted on February 15, 1825 by forty-four people present.

 

     In brief, they wrote a new and abbreviated ritual service with some original prayers: original prayers and services for circumcision, naming a daughter, confirmation and the marriage ceremony; used instrumental music, worshipped without hats and revised the Maimonidean creed. They planned to educate some youth to serve as their spiritual leader.

 

   Three of the Rambam’s Thirteen Principles of Faith were eliminated in their document – the Divine Revelation of the Scriptures; the expectation of the coming Messiah, and the resurrection of the dead.

 

   Those who opposed these reformers characterized their efforts as follows:

 

     They published a document, in which was avowed their determination to discard what they termed “the idle comments of the Rabbins”; to abolish the offerings which they termed “profane,” and the Spanish and Portuguese Rites of the Church [this term used by the Traditionalists, not the Reformers], which they called an “insult”; and to bring all Religious Faith to the test of human philosophy, declaring such Faith to be only “the result of rational demonstration.” They commenced their scheme of this Religion of Reason by denouncing and abandoning many of the usages which had prevailed among the Jews, since the days of the great Synagogue. Proceeding step by step, they actually changed the creeds of the Jewish people, and in a Ritual published by their authority in 1825, set forth another form of Creed, in which they left out three of the fundamental Articles of Faith.

 

The Society enjoyed some success, and within a year it had increased its membership to about 50. KKBE retained approximately 70 members. Within a few years, however, Society membership began to decrease and in 1833 the Society disbanded. A number of the defunct Society’s members again began to daven in KKBE. Things now looked good for the proponents of Orthodoxy in Charleston, but there was more trouble down the road.

 

Reform Rises Again

 

   In 1824 there were about 3,000 Jews living in America. By 1840 this number increased to 15,000. Substantial numbers of German Jews began immigrating to America in the middle 1830s. Many of these new German immigrants had either been affiliated with or influenced by the Reform movement in Germany. Some of them settled in Charleston and would play important roles in the future of Reform there. The key player in the reestablishment of Reform in Charleston was the “Reverend” Gustavus Poznanski.

 

   In 1836 a vacancy in the position of chazzan (minister) at KKBE occurred. The synagogue was firmly controlled at this time by those who supported Orthodoxy. Wary of any possible inroads by reformers, they “set themselves to the task of finding a Minister, who would faithfully execute his duties, according to those Rabbinical and Mosaical laws, which were deemed vital to the existence of the Congregation, and who would also oppose innovation and change .”

 

Gustavus Poznanski, who at the time was associated with Congregation Shearith Israel of New York, was highly recommended by Isaac Lesser (considered by many to be the leader of American Orthodoxy at the time) as being a staunch supporter of traditional Judaism. But this was not enough for the leaders of the congregation, who sent a committee to interview him. These men were completely satisfied with Poznanski’s traditional views on all counts, and he was elected to the position. He assumed his duties at the beginning of 1837. The leaders of KKBE were so pleased with him that in 1838 they offered him a lifetime contract, even before the conclusion of his probationary term.

 

     Then, another episode had its effect. In April, 1838, the synagogue of Beth Elokim, together with a number of surrounding buildings, was destroyed by a disastrous fire and a new one was erected, which was finished in April, 1840. In these few years, a change evidently developed in the thinking of the Reverend Poznanski, for rumors began to spread that he was in favor of instrumental music in the new synagogue. It was also noted that some members of the old Reformed Society of Israelites, who had not hitherto re-associated themselves with Beth Elokim, now began to return.

 

     So it was that, on July 14, 1840, a special meeting of the Board of Trustees received a petition from thirty-eight members, requesting that the Board call a general meeting of the congregation to consider the propriety of erecting an organ in the synagogue.

 

In their petition they wrote:

 

     We, the undersigned members of the congregation of K.K. Beth Elokim, feeling a deep interest in our religion, and anxious to embrace every laudable and sacred mode by which the rising generation may be made to conform to and attend our holy worship, Respectfully petition Your body, to call a General meeting of the congregation at the earliest and most convenient period you may deem proper … to discuss the propriety of erecting an organ in the synagogue to assist the vocal part of the service.

 

     Your petitioners would be among the last to ask for innovation in any respect in relation to the usages and formula of the Service. But your body is aware, that in this petition, there is nothing incompatible with the practice of our brethren where they continue strict conformists. It is a matter of notoriety that farther than a century back, an organ was made part of the service in the city of Prague, the capital of Bohemia, and at a later period, organs have been introduced in other parts of Germany and in the South of France.

 

The stage was now set for a struggle between the reformers and those committed to tradition. It would lead to what became known as the Charleston Organ Case.

 

More next month.

 

 

   Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

The Early Jewish Community Of Charleston

Wednesday, May 5th, 2010

Note: Unless otherwise indicated all quotes are from “The Jews of Charleston, A History of an American Jewish Community” by Charles Reznikoff in collaboration with Uriah Z. Engelman, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1950.

 

The English first settled at Albemarle Point in what is now South Carolina in 1670. In 1680 this settlement was moved to a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers, and became Charles Town (named in honor King Charles II). The new location was more healthful than the original settlement, and, since it was behind the islands of a land-locked harbor, provided safety from attack. The name was changed to Charleston at the end of the War of Independence.

 

“By the late 1680s, the colony was beginning to enjoy prosperity, especially in the coastal areas. Its economic base depended initially on the fur trade, which fostered generally good relations between the Carolinian settlers and the local Indian tribes.”1

 

In 1695, four Indians from Florida (then Spanish territory), who had been captured by the Yamasee Indians, were brought to town: the captives “could speak Spanish,” wrote the governor of the colony afterwards, “and I had a Jew for an interpreter, so upon examination I found they profess’d the Christian Religion as the Papists do; and the governor, accordingly, sent the captives back to St. Augustine.” [Page 4]

 

This is the first mention we have of a Jew in the Carolinas. Given that he knew Spanish, he may very well have been a Marrano.

 

The constitution of the colony was heavily influenced by the political philosopher John Locke, resulting in a veritable Magna Charta of liberty and tolerance.

 

In 1697, the colonial Assembly declared that religious persecution had forced aliens to settle in South Carolina and acknowledged that these had proved themselves law-abiding and industrious; accordingly, the Assembly enacted that “all aliens … of what nation soever, which now are inhabitants of South Carolina” should have all the rights of any person born of English parents. Full freedom of worship was granted, however, only to Christians – “Papists excepted”; but all other rights were granted every alien who applied by petition if such alien would swear allegiance to the king. [Page 4]

 

It is little wonder, then, that Jews as well as other persecuted minorities such as Huguenots and German Palatines found South Carolina a save haven and settled there in increasing numbers.

 

The Jews who first went to Charles Town came, almost all of them, from England and English possessions in the western hemisphere: from New York to the north, from Georgia to the south, and, like the English from Barbados, from the British West Indies. For the most part they came to the growing port as merchants; but like other merchants in Charles Town some hoped, no doubt, to buy land and become planters. If a few were men of consequence with transactions involving large sums, others, as stated above, were no more than petty tradesmen, ready to sell a loaf of bread or of sugar, a ribbon for a lady or a cut of rough cloth for a slave.

About 1741, Jews, as well as many Christians, who had been among the earliest settlers in Georgia, left Savannah because the trustees of the colony would not let them have the use of Negro slaves. (Many returned to Georgia when slavery was permitted in 1749.) [Pages 11-12]

 

Synagogue and Social Life

 

After the arrival of the Jews from Georgia, there certainly were enough Jews to sustain a regular minyan. However, it was not until 1749 that a congregation, which they called Beth Elokim Unveh Shalom, was formed. The synagogue soon became known as Kahal Kodesh (Holy Congregation) Beth Elokim (KKBE).

 

From 1750 to 1757, Kahal Kodesh met for worship in a small wooden house – that had been most likely used for a dwelling – on Union Street (now State Street and so since the days of the Secession). From 1757 to 1764, the Charles Town congregation met in a house “back in the yard,” afterwards 318 King Street, near Hasell Street; and, from 1764 until 1780, on Beresford Street near King Street. [Pages 17-18]

 

The synagogue was Orthodox and followed the Sephardic ritual (as was the case with all synagogues founded in the American colonies). Moses Cohen served as the first chazzan and reader and Joseph Tobias was the first parnas (president).

 

In 1820, the estimated Jewish population of Charleston was 700 as compared to 550 in New York City, 450 in Philadelphia, 200 in Richmond, 150 in Baltimore, 100 in Savannah and 500 to 600 others scattered in the balance of the United States.

The religious, cultural and economic climate of Charleston was favorable to Jews and Jews were accepted easily in community life. Jews voted in an election in 1703, probably the first time in the Western world, and participated actively in almost every area of life. Many of them had fought in the Revolution. Leading Jews of Charleston brought steam navigation to the Savannah River, established a line of steamships between Charleston and Havana, reestablished the Chamber of Commerce, introduced illuminating gas to the city and pioneered in other industrial enterprises. The community abounded with well-known Jewish writers, painters, teachers, lawyers and physicians. At one time, during this period, of the four newspapers in Charleston, two were edited by Jews. Of the nine people who founded the Supreme Council of Scottish Rite Masonry in Charleston in 1801, “Mother Council of the World,” four were Jews. And Jews were also prominent in the social and charitable life of the region.2

 

Not all was well, however. Many of the Jews of Charleston were influenced by its long tradition of liberalism and pluralism as well as the new waves of thought that were affecting various segments of Protestant America at this time. They were certainly aware of the beginnings of the Reform movement in Germany. In addition, some of Charleston’s Jews undoubtedly were affected by the development of the Unitarian Church in Charleston under the leadership of Samuel Gilman.

 

Some of the Jews compared the Orthodox services conducted at KKBE with those of their fellow Christians and found them lacking in decorum and dignity. It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that in 1824 forty-seven members of the KKBE presented a petition to the congregation which in part said that while they believed the “present system of worship” had “certain defects,” they sought “no other end than the future welfare and respectability of the [Jews] . We wish not to overthrow, but to rebuild; we wish not to destroy, but to reform and revise the evils complained of; we wish not to abandon the institutions of Moses, but to understand and observe them 3

 

Their initial request for change was modest – they wanted the Hebrew prayers translated into English, a shortening of services by the omission of some of the prayers, the abolishment of monetary pledges during services, and an English sermon based on the portion of the week.

 

This petition was rejected by the officers of KKBE on the grounds that it violated the Constitution of the synagogue. However, this was by no means the end of the matter. Indeed, it eventually led to the establishment of the first Reform temple in America.

 

Part II will appear in next month’s Glimpses column.

 

http://www.u-s-history.com/pages/h637.html

2 “The Charleston Organ Case” by Allan Tarshish, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 54, 1965. This article is available at no cost at http://www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm

3 Ibid.

 

 

Dr. Yitzchok Levine served as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey before retiring in 2008. He now teaches as an adjunct at Stevens. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Mordecai Sheftall – Revolutionary War Patriot

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

   In Savannah, Georgia, there is a memorial to the American Revolution called Battlefield Memorial Park. One of the markers there is for Colonel Mordecai Sheftall.
   As deputy commissary general of issues for Georgia and South Carolina, Col. Sheftall was the highest-ranking Jewish officer during the Revolutionary War. He was captured by the British in the Battle of Savannah and imprisoned for two years.
   Sheftall’s parents, Benjamin and Perla, were among the first 42 Jews to arrive in Savannah on July 11, 1733. Mordecai was born on December 2, 1735. His mother passed away the following October, and his father married Hannah Solomons in 1738. In 1739 Hannah gave birth to Mordecai’s half-brother Levi.
   The Sheftalls were Orthodox Jews, despite the difficulties of maintaining religious observance in a city like Savannah that had a very small Jewish population.
   When Mordecai became bar mitzvah, his father had neither a siddur nor a pair of tefillin for him. Such religious items had to come from abroad, and King George’s War (1740-1748) made it difficult for British ships to come to Georgia.

   Benjamin’s anguish at the thought that son would be improperly prepared for full-fledged membership in the Jewish community is reflected in a March 1748 note to his friends in England (spelling and wording of the original have been preserved):

  

            As I have received some letters five days ago from one of our relation, Samule, who writes me that you was so good as to send mee some books and other things, which I to my misfortune never have received, and as I do not no [know] which way they wear [were] sent, nor no [know] the name of the captain or the name of the ship, so I can’t enquier for them. I hope your honour will soon find it out wether that ship is taken by an enemy or lost at sea.

            If she is not taken nor lost, I hop your honour will let me no [know] where to inquier for them. I live [leave] your honour to guess in what grife I am in to be so misfortenabel, my eldest son binq [being] three months ago thirten years of age and I not to have any frauntlets [phylacteries] nor books fit for him. I won’t troubel your houner with much writing, for my heart is full of grife. [On Love, Marriage, Children and Death, collected and edited by Jacob R. Marcus, Society of Jewish Bibliophiles 1965]

 

   This letter demonstrates Benjamin’s determination to raise his children as observant Jews, despite the obstacles of living in a place where there were few Jewish families and no formal Jewish education.

   

            [Mordecai] Sheftall was only eleven years old when his formal education ended, for lack of schools. By the time he was seventeen, he had begun what was to be a highly successful career as a merchant, buying and tanning deerskins to sell at a profit. When he was just eighteen years old, he had accumulated enough money to purchase fifty acres in Vernonburg, near Savannah.
            Throughout his life, Sheftall speculated in real estate. His pre-Revolution holdings were immense. Well-connected with friends and family in mercantile and shipping in England; the Caribbean; Charleston, South Carolina; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, he developed a network of contacts to help build up his own business by his mid-twenties. Sheftall married Frances Hart, the sister of one of his Charleston merchant contacts, in 1761. The couple had six children, all but one living to adulthood. A year after their marriage, they owned 1,000 acres of land and nine slaves. Sheftall took up cattle ranching, acquiring another 1,000 acres in St. George Parish (later Burke County) in 1767 for grazing and timber harvesting. The cattle business led to his building a tanning facility with his half-brother Levi, and in 1768 the Georgia Houses of Assembly appointed him Inspector of Tanned Leather for the Port of Savannah.

            . In 1772 he donated one and a half acres of land for the establishment of Georgia’s first large Jewish cemetery. Known familiarly as the Sheftall Cemetery until the mid-1800s, it was open to all Jews in good standing with their community. [www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/nge/ArticlePrintable.jsp?id=h-3183]

 

   By nature a political activist, Mordecai strongly supported the colonies in their differences with England and played a key role in the political affairs of Georgia.

  

            During the summer of 1775, when the crisis between the recalcitrant colonies and unrelenting Britain was moving steadily beyond the possibility of a compromise solution, Mordecai Sheftall served in Savannah as chairman of the “Parochial Committee,” comparable to the county committees of safety in other colonies. Conscientiously enforcing the First Continental Congress’s boycott of British goods, Mordecai’s committee prevented ships from unloading their cargoes and offered “fresh insults” to British authority everyday.

            In October, 1775, “Committee Men,” among whom were Mordecai and Levi Sheftall, entered the Customs House and demanded that the officials on duty hand over the ship’s papers of the sloop Charlotte so that they could send the ship, which customs officials had seized, on its way. When their demand was rejected, the “Committee Men” forced the locks on the desks in the office, rummaged “for the space of two hours,” and took the Charlotte’s papers . 1

  

   The following summer, colonial resistance became all-out war.

   

            In 1777 Sheftall was appointed commissary-general to the troops of Georgia and to the Continental troops also; in October of the following year he became “Deputy Commissary of Issues in South Carolina and Georgia”; and he figured as a staff-officer in the Continental line of the Georgia brigade during the war [with the rank of colonel, making him the highest ranking Jewish officer on the American side]. When the British attacked Savannah in 1778, Sheftall not only took an active part in its defense, but he also advanced considerable sums of money for the American cause. After the city had been taken he was captured, but he resisted all inducements to give up the cause of liberty; as a result he suffered severely from persecution on the part of the British, and was placed on board a prison-ship. The British appear to have spoken of Sheftall as “a very great rebel.”2

  

   In 1780 Sheftall was freed in a prisoner exchange and then made his way to Philadelphia, where he was eventually reunited with his wife and children. While residing in Philadelphia, he became one of the founders of Congregation Mikveh Israel in 1782.
   Unfortunately, Sheftalls’ financial situation was not good. Mordecai asked Congress to have consideration for a man who had “sacrificed everything in the cause of his country.” He requested back pay due him, but was willing to settle for the repayment of funds he’d contributed to the war effort.

   The Sheftalls, who loved Georgia, returned to Savannah in December 1782, five months after the British left.

  

            Mordecai was approaching fifty years of age now, but the ordeal of war, even with the suffering and sacrifice it had imposed, had changed him little. He was still the energetic businessman, the dedicated family man, the political activist, the friend of the poor, the devotee of his religion, and the leader of the Jewish community.
            There were about fifteen Jewish families in the Savannah area, and they all looked to Mordecai Sheftall for leadership. In the late summer of 1790 he led the local Jewish congregation, which “was again Established on … the 7th Day of July, 1786,” to seek a state charter for the purpose of incorporating its synagogue. Succeeding in this endeavor, the Savannah Jews re-constructed themselves as Congregation Mickve Israel, Mordecai, Levi, and Sheftall Sheftall being among the first officers chosen by the congregation.

            The Sheftall brothers demonstrated that Jews could do in Georgia what others did, simply by insisting upon their rights as citizens and conducting themselves in such a way as to prove that they deserved no less than others. They bridged the gap between the Jewish and gentile communities, setting an admirable example in race relations and interfaith cooperation. The Sheftalls of Savannah, ambitious businessmen, patriotic Americans, generous humanitarians, and dedicated Jews, left behind them a name worthy of remembrance.3

  

1“The Sheftalls of Savannah” by David T. Morgan, American Jewish Historical Quarterly (1961-1978); Sep 1972-Jun 1973; 62, 1-4; AJHS Journal (www.ajhs.org/reference/adaje.cfm).

 

2 The Jewish Encyclopedia (www.jewishencyclopedia.com/view.jsp?artid=581&letter=S&search=sheftall).

 

3 “The Sheftalls of Savannah.”

 

 

   Dr. Yitzchok Levine formerly worked as a professor in the Department of Mathematical Sciences at Stevens Institute of Technology, Hoboken, New Jersey. Glimpses Into American Jewish History appears the first week of each month. Dr. Levine can be contacted at llevine@stevens.edu.

Shalom Y’All: The Southern Jewish Experience

Wednesday, March 2nd, 2005

Imagining the tempting aroma of pecan pie and fresh challah, the age-old rhythms of Southern Jewry unfold before our eyes in the seductively handsome exhibition of photographs, Shalom Y’all, currently at the Jewish Museum of Florida in Miami Beach. The show artfully fulfills the museum’s fundamental mission of presenting exhibits of Florida Jewish life, past and present. The enormous Jewish community in southern Florida (625,000, third largest Jewish community in the U.S.) is home to many who originated in southern states.

The museum is housed in the stately former home of Congregation Beth Jacob, the first congregation in Miami Beach. This restored 1936 Art Deco sanctuary features a copper dome, a marble bimah, and 80 stained glass windows that flood the interior with a luminous light. The permanent historical exhibition detailing Florida’s Jewish life from 1763 to the present, Mosaic, stretches around the central exhibition space concluding with a small sampling of contemporary Judaica. While the museum maintains an active exhibition schedule, films and public programming, there is nonetheless a sadness about the setting. A video monitor lecturing on Jewish history occupies the place of the holy ark, while the main Jewish population has moved on to other neighborhoods.

Shalom Y’all, based on the a book of the same name, juxtaposes 44 large black and white photographs by Bill Aron with textual testimonies collected by Vickie Reikes Fox between 1986 and 1999. The text reveals an important dimension behind the images, exposing the history, experiences, fears and anxieties of Southern Jews. Therein lies the genius of the exhibition.

The photos are divided into five categories creating a conceptual framework. “Road Trip” documents the geographical range of Jewish merchants reflected in town names and Jewish business scattered throughout the South. “Lox, Bagels and Grits” features happy cooks busily preparing challahs, schnecken and matzo balls. Two hopelessly charming five-year-old twins from Russia proudly hold fresh baked challah in the Jewish Community Center Nursery School in New Orleans, Louisiana, to prove the obvious centrality of food to Jewish experience.

“Southern Ties” provides additional portraits of Jewish Southerners who have been mainstays of their communities for most of the 20th century. They are the Jews who remember to remember. The wall captions and texts from the book allow a more complex picture of Southern Jewishness to slowly emerge. The text next to one beaming older couple reports, “My father’s mother was born in the South, a true Southerner. Her religion was that she didn’t eat bacon on Saturday.” The threat of assimilation wafts through the exhibition like the smell of cooking through an old house.

The images shift from celebration to introspection in “Peddlers, Planters and Politicians,” showing proud owners of dry goods stores alongside demoralizing store closings and the demise of businesses that flourished for a hundred years or more. Diversity and success stand alongside failure and the evaporation of once thriving communities as the Jewish South shifts from small towns into the larger regional centers and cities. A close reading of captions proves sobering.

Communal life in “Magnolias and Menorahs” further plumbs the complex currents of Southern Jewish life. Struggling minyans in small towns contrast with thriving youth groups in larger congregations, to present a Jewish community in the throes of change and challenge. Two members of Congregation Ahavath Rayim, the last Orthodox synagogue in Mississippi, proudly stand with their Sifrei Torah. They are a determined testament to a tradition that was long ago challenged by the first Reform congregation in the United States (1840) of Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim in Charleston, South Carolina.

The strength of the Reform movement is presented in a rehearsal for tenth grade Confirmation ceremony in Birmingham, Atlanta, and a havdalah service at the North American Federation of Temple Youth Camp at Utica, Mississippi. The boys and girls, clad in shorts and tee shirts, look happily all-American in their youthful commitment to Judaism. The strangely provocative image of “Avram Aizenman” at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina provides a stark contrast. This young man, the son of the rabbi at the Chabad Day School, is seen praying the morning service in tallis and tefillin at the ocean’s edge. Within the context of this exhibition, he seems foreign and not typically Southern. He is pictured next to a similarly atypical image of Reuben Greenberg, the Chief of the Charleston Police Force and member of the Conservative synagogue Emanu-El. Clad in tallis and kipah, holding an open Chumash, this Black Jew is dignified, serious and clearly distinct from stereotypical notions of American Jews.

These deceptively simple “Images of Jewish Life in the American South” exposes much more than the anomalies of a diverse Jewish population.

Alfred Uhry, celebrated playwright, comments in his introduction that “they weren’t black and they weren’t exactly white. They were just Jews… they just hung on.”

American Jews in the South faced dual aspects of being different. The overwhelmingly Christian South never failed to remind them that they were Jewish, just as they were constantly prodded by their fellow Jews that they were Southern. The latter condition was easily adjusted to; the former would prove to be considerably more complex. In caption after caption, especially as one peruses the book that offers additional testimonies and images, the role of being a Jew in a Christian world was never far from consciousness.

Each individual frequently feels that “You are the Jewish community, whether you like it or not… You do those things that are expected of you. You go out of your way to make sure that you do not cast aspersions upon the Jewish people by your individual actions.” Being different is central to Southern Jewish consciousness.

“The first time I realized I was really different was during high school when I was not invited to join a sorority because I was Jewish. My best friend was invited and she joined and we weren’t good friends after that. Years later, at our 30th high-school reunion, she came up to me and said, ‘Do you remember when I was asked to join the sorority and you weren’t? I always felt badly about that because that meant that you weren’t saved.’”

For a newcomer in the South, frequently the first thing you are asked is, “What church do you go to?” This barrage of religious belief produces a wonderful clarity of Jewish identity not fully experienced in many other parts of the country.

The Jewish Museum of Florida has added to the exhibition dozens of family photographs, documents and anecdotes that trace the “Florida Connection.” A state-by-state survey depicts 33 families who finally made Florida their home after more than a century of contribution to Southern Jewish life.

The most moving image of the exhibition is a still life, “Shabbat in the Mississippi Delta.” The small round table is set with two shiny challahs under a simple cover. A pecan pie, a dish of pecans and a full Kiddush cup sit opposite two seforim and lit Shabbos candles. All is ready for Shabbos as we gaze out the white curtained window to sunlit cotton fields that stretch from the house to the distant trees. We are inside and confident in our faith and tradition while the South, epitomized by the mixed legacy of cotton, slavery, cultivation and rural life, is never far from our gaze. It is a world in which Jews, Southern Jews, are on the front lines with Christian America. Perhaps that is why the favored greeting is Shalom, Y’all!.


Shalom Y’all: Images of Jewish Life in the American South. Photographs by Bill Aron, Text by Vicki Reikes Fox – Jewish Museum of Florida – 301 Washington Avenue, Miami Beach, Florida. (www.jewishmuseum.com) (305 672 5044). Tuesday – Sunday; 10 a.m.-5:00 p.m.; Closed Mondays and Jewish holidays. $5 adults, $4 seniors and students. Until May 15, 2005.

 

Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/sections/shalom-yall-the-southern-jewish-experience/2005/03/02/

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