Lowcountry Leisure — Southern Escape Steeped in History
So you’ve seen “Big Fish,” “Forrest Gump” and “Driving Miss Daisy,” and now you think you know what the South is all about — old mansions, moss-draped oaks, steamy swamps. Think again.
The South is a vibrant tapestry of culture, and its Jewish communities are important threads. Atlanta, Miami and Nashville are thriving tourism destinations, but Charleston, S.C., featuring luxuriant gardens, long porches and rocking chairs filled with laughing guests sipping sweet tea, is also flush with Jewish history that dates back to the 17th century.
It’s a city founded and steeped in religious tolerance. In 1669, an elaborate charter for the Carolina colony drawn up by English philosopher John Locke granted liberty of consciousness to “Jews, heathens and dissenters.” Sephardic Jews made this Atlantic port city the largest Jewish community in North America prior to the Revolutionary War, sharing the Lowcountry streets with Catholics and Protestants from France, Scotland, Ireland and Germany.
A popular winter destination for wealthy colonial Bostonians, Charleston also became a haven for religious colonists fleeing harsh policies in Georgia from 1740 to 1741. A substantial Jewish population founded Charleston’s first synagogue a decade later, followed by the Jewish Coming Street Cemetery in 1762.
More than 6,000 Jews currently make their home in Charleston, a community that features three synagogues, a day school and a Jewish community center, as well as a Jewish studies program at a local university. For observant tourists who want to feel transported back to the 18th century, a downtown kosher bed and breakfast is located a short walk from the city’s Orthodox synagogue.
Charleston not only features America’s first museum (The Charleston Museum) and its first Anglican church, but it is also home to the first Reform congregation established in the United States. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim on Hasell Street is the oldest Jewish building in Charleston and the second oldest synagogue in the United States.
Established in 1749, the congregation completed its current Greek revival-style synagogue in 1840, after a fire devastated its original site in 1838. During construction, the synagogue became the first in America to install an organ, a change that came 17 years after congregant Isaac Harby first lead 47 Jews to petition for English-language Shabbat services and prayers that reflected contemporary American life. A weathered plaque hangs outside, listing the site on the National Register of Historic Places, and the synagogue remains the oldest in continuous use in the United States and the oldest surviving Reform synagogue in the world.
Congregation Brith Sholom Beth Israel is an Orthodox synagogue located on Rutledge Avenue in the Medical district. Founded in 1854 under the name Berith Shalome by Polish and Prussian Jews, the shul was the first Ashkenazi Orthodox congregation in the city and is the oldest of its kind in the South. The congregation’s Web site features a list of city’s kosher amenities.
Synagogue Emanu-El on Windsor Drive is Charleston’s newest kid on the block, having been founded in 1947. The Conservative congregation is the first in the state and is located on five wooded acres in the West Ashley area.
Two books are available to help you unearth the Jewish history of Charleston during your stay, “A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life ” by Theodore and Dale Rosengarten (University of South Carolina, 2002) and “Explorations in Charleston’s Jewish History” by Solmon Breibart (History, 2005). But who better to bring the rich story of Charleston’s Jewish community to life than a tour guide?
Janice Kahn of Chai Y’all Tours has more than 30 years experience as a licensed tour guide. While certain elements of her Jewish heritage tour always remain the same, she customizes each tour based on the interests of the participants.
Also available is Rhetta Mendelsohn, who has been conducting tours of Charleston as a licensed guide for more than 25 years. Her tours average two to three hours and focus on Jewish history, with many stories about Jewish families in the Charleston area and its surrounding plantations.
There is no shortage of historic lodgings, like the John Rutledge House, the Wentworth Mansion or the Francis Marion Hotel. After all, who wouldn’t want to sleep in a comfortable four-poster bed, surrounded by antique furniture with an ornate fireplace and luxurious carpets?
But you don’t have to sacrifice if you keep kosher. The Broad Street Guest House is a bed and breakfast set in a three-and-a-half-story home constructed in 1884. Located in the South of Broad neighborhood, the home is a short walk from Congregation Brith Sholom Beth Israel, as well as the harbor, shops and other Charleston attractions. The Orthodox shul’s Rabbi Ari Sytner oversees kashrut for Broad Street, which serves three glatt kosher meals a day, as well as a special Friday night dinner and Saturday lunch. Rooms at the house feature kitchenettes.
“[Guests] always tell me how courteous the people of Charleston have been to them as they tour the city,” said Broad Street’s innkeeper, Hadassah Rothenberg, who added that the best season to visit is either spring or fall.
There is always enough to see and do in Charleston’s Historic district. Occupy half a day shopping on King Street, where many of the shops started by Jewish proprietors still exist today. Berlin’s for Men (and now Berlin’s for Women), Bluestein’s Men’s Wear and Read Brothers Fabrics recall a time when King Street was once called “Little Jerusalem,” an area featuring jewelry stores, dry goods establishments, groceries and delicatessens all owned by Jewish merchants.
When it comes to dining, King Street features Pita King, a kosher Mediterranean restaurant run by expat Israelis Moshe and Talia Cohen. Customers can choose to dine in or take out.
Just east of King Street is Jestine’s Kitchen at 215 Meeting St., where a friendly wait staff serves up traditional Southern cooking — fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, green beans, collards and key lime pie. The restaurant is owned by Dana Berlin (niece of Henry Berlin) and named for Jestine Matthews, who worked for the Berlin family for many years and stayed with the family for generations.
Hyman’s Seafood Company at 215 Meeting St. is a popular local restaurant, as is Aaron’s Deli, located next door at 213 Meeting St. The brothers, Hyman and Aaron continue to operate this family restaurant, which first opened its doors in 1890.
Roslyn Farhi is the author of two children’s books, “Molly’s Cupboard” and “Molly’s Century.”
Synagogue Emanu-El — firstname.lastname@example.org