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
Rabbi David Shofet to Serve as Iranians’ Spiritual Leader
Nearly 90 religious and social leaders from Southern California’s Iranian Jewish community have formally and unanimously recognized Rabbi David Shofet of the Nessah Cultural Center as the community’s new spiritual head.
While Shofet was not elected, the leadership from leading Iranian Jewish organizations signed a resolution approving him to serve as their primary religious leader. The pronouncement was made at a community gathering Sept. 29 at the Olympic Collection in West Los Angeles.
For more than 25 years, Shofet worked alongside his father, Hacham Yedidia Shofet, the community’s longtime spiritual leader, who died last summer.
“The resolution was an expression of confidence that Rav David was the best person to follow in the footsteps of his father, Hacham Yedidia, as our community’s leading spiritual leader,” said Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian Jewish Federation.
The event was hosted by Dr. H. Kermanshachi, past chairman and founder of the Iranian Jewish Federation.
The Other Side of the South
When director Warner Shook saw Alfred Uhry’s "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" in 1997, he immediately recognized the story.
Shook ("The Kentucky Cycle") was familiar with genteel Southern anti-Semitism and its repercussions — but from the non-Jewish side. "I grew up a privileged WASP," he said.
His great-grandfather, Braxton Bragg Comer, was governor of Alabama and a founder of the textile mill Uhry refers to in his play, "Driving Miss Daisy." Like Daisy, Shook’s parents employed a black chauffeur who was close to the family.
Nevertheless, his childhood in Birmingham, Ala., was white and segregated. His few Jewish friends seemed to live in another world: "Our home was very chintz and Chippendale, and I recall going over to a Jewish friend’s house that had velvet and looked different," Shook, 54, said. "Even the smells were different — not a clove of garlic passed through the Shook house — and it just seemed very exotic to a little WASP boy."
Yet, young Shook understood that his friend couldn’t join his restricted country club; nor were Jews welcome at the cotillions where his sisters made their debuts.
"So the Jews of Birmingham had their own country clubs and debutante balls, a phenomenon described in ‘Ballyhoo,’" he said.
What surprised him was the play’s reference to Jewish bigotry: "I had known nothing about the conflict between German and Eastern European Jews," he said. Shook was so fascinated he decided to direct the piece; to learn more, he read books on Jewish Atlanta and watched documentaries such as "Delta Jews," narrated by Uhry.
He had his cast do the same while rehearsing Ballyhoo at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre in 1999 and last month at South Coast Repertory.
During recent rehearsals, he found himself acting as a "translator" for his actors, none of whom are from the deep South. "Some of the characters’ behavior seems foreign to them," he said. "So I tell them stories about my family and about people I have known. I offer insights about Southern behavior that, I think, add to the patina of the play."
He spoke of his family estate on Shook Hill Road, an exclusive neighborhood similar to the Habersham Road address described in the play; he talked of learning to ride a bicycle in the resort town of Point Clear, Ala., which is mentioned in "Ballyhoo;" and of the veneer of graciousness his mother sometimes used to her advantage ("She could charm a snake," he said).
He emphasized that while the behavior is Southern, the message is universal. "The play is a testament to self-acceptance," he said.
TV writer Loraine Despres dreamed up her award-winning debut novel, "The Scandalous Summer of Sissy LeBlanc," (William Morrow, $24) after a creative writing class stirred her memories of growing up Jewish in Amite, La.
Despres recalled the bullet holes in her bedroom wall, courtesy of the night the anti-Semitic "Just Our Kind" gang tried to run her family out of town in the early 1900s. "They galloped into the yard of our white, columned house yelling, ‘Prepare to meet your maker!’" says Despres, who’ll speak about her book at the National Council of Jewish Women on Dec. 4. "Fortunately, my great-grandmother was a good shot."
Another family story was the time a neighbor walked into her grandfather’s store after spying his wife with another man in a nearby bar. "He bought a gun, walked back to the bar, and shot them dead," the author says. "My grandfather felt so guilty that he vowed he’d never sell another handgun on credit."
Over time, Despres’ reminiscences began congealing into a story — a fictional love triangle set at the dawn of the civil-rights movement in an anti-Semitic hamlet just like Amite. The author envisioned the illicit lovers as Sissy LeBlanc, a 32-year-old housewife stuck in a sham marriage; and Parker Davidson, her tall, dark and Jewish high school sweetheart, just returned to town. Despres decided that the first time Sissy sees Parker again, she’d notice that "his shrink-to-fit jeans had shrunk just right."
"Sissy began to bother me after that," confides Despres, who now lives in Beverly Hills with her husband, a TV producer. "She kept coming to me at night. I’d be lying in bed, and I’d have to get up to write down what she said."
Like the fictional Parker, Despres had parents who admonished her not to embarrass them in front of the town gentiles. "We played down our Jewishness, but I still felt like an outsider," confides the author, who attended Christian Bible schools because there wasn’t a synagogue for miles.
It wasn’t until she was 12 and her family moved to Chicago that Despres enrolled in Hebrew school and learned about Judaism. Eventually, she studied theater at Northwestern University, moved to Los Angeles in 1975 and began writing for "Love Boat" and "Dynasty." She says she went to work for "Dallas" because "I was Southern, and the show had no Southern writers. They were all New York Jews."
After penning the show’s famed "Who Shot J.R.?" episode, Despres taught screenwriting at UCLA, but tired of the genre by the late 1990s. "I didn’t feel like I had any ideas anymore," says the author, who instead became determined to write her first novel.
As "Sissy" took shape, Despres decided to head each chapter with a different rule from the "Southern Belle’s Handbook" — which is what she had ironically titled the compendium of helpful hints and rules her aunt and grandmother had tried to instill in her.
Despres’ "rules" include tart tips like "When deciding whether or not to have sex, a Southern Belle does exactly what she wants, while perpetuating the illusion that, although this might not be her first time, it’s certainly the first time that ever mattered." She believes her rules have helped out "all those Yankee readers who are beautiful, worked-out, but miserable because they don’t know how to handle a man." Yet she insists her "handbook" is not to be confused with the 1995 self-help book, "The Rules," also for single women, by the Yankee Jewish authors Ellen Fein and Sherrie Schneider. Those rules include tips like "Don’t talk to a man first." "But a Southern woman does what she pleases," Despres sniffs.
For information about Despres’ appearance at the National Council of Jewish Women, 543 N. Fairfax Ave., Los Angeles, call (323) 852-8518.
From Krakow to Pico
When Pavel Vogler left Krakow for Southern California in 1992, he brought almost 100 of his favorite paintings. The darkly shaded oil works in blue, black and purple show Vogler’s vision of his hometown and its medieval Jewish quarter, Kazimierz, filled with empty synagogues. Moonlight, twilight and the glow of streetlamps illuminate Vogler’s Polish works, where ghosts of a Jewish history haunt cobblestone streets.
Vogler’s first solo exhibit in the United States, now on view at A Shenere Velt Gallery, displays a range of the artist’s styles and settings. In “Past and Present from Poland to Pico: Memories and Paintings,” Vogler displays four series of work, created in Poland and his new home in West Covina. The paintings include “Shadows,” the last painting Vogler completed in Krakow, and “The Sign” (left) a brightly colored, swirling print of a man holding a Torah, the first of Vogler’s California works and a striking contrast to the dark Polish images.
The breadth of the artist’s talent is evident in the series titled “Family and Friends,” six portraits ranging from the agitated study in motion of “My Father” to the serene “La Paloma.” Unlike much of his work, many of the portrait subjects are not Jewish. “I just love working with people,” Vogler says.
Though the 38-year-old Vogler has exhibited his paintings widely in Europe, he is best known in America for his film work. Vogler’s films include “Three Stories,” based on the life of his father, Henryk, a well-known Polish author who was among the few Jews to return to Krakow after years in WWII concentration camps. Vogler is currently developing another film, “Moloch,” based on one of his father’s novels.
The artist hopes that this exhibit will lead to an opportunity for large-scale projects. “I’d love to do a series on Los Angeles,” he says, “a whole exhibition on how Jewish cultures are crisscrossing and thriving here.”
Through Aug. 31. A Shenere Velt Gallery, 1525 Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles. For more information, call (310) 552-2007 or visit www.fluxfire.com/pv.n
Disney, Boycotts and the Hollywood Elite
It’s hard to feel sorry for the Walt Disney Company, a multibillion-dollar mouse-forged empire that seems to own a part of most children’s hearts, including that of my own 2 1/2-year-old. Yet, in recent weeks, the venerable Burbank entertainment giant has been subjected to two major boycotts, one from the right-leaning Southern Baptists and the other from Latino media activists.
Why target Disney? To a large extent, notes the Anti-Defamation League’s David Lehrer, it’s simply a reflection of that company’s success. “Disney is a big target because it’s big and successful,” he says. “It’s an easy place to get attention if you go after it.”
Yet there may be something more serious lurking behind these boycotts, Lehrer and others suspect — a revival of the traditional concerns among various groups about “Jewish control” of the means of mass communications. Disney might be less exploitative and venal in its product line than the rest of Hollywood, but its leadership comprises some of the most visible and powerful Jewish figures in the industry (not the least of whom is Chairman Michael Eisner).
Although this linkage between Hollywood and Jews is rarely spoken of in press releases here, Lehrer says that it is once again a regular staple in the somewhat snide British press. More ominously, however, the Southern Baptist boycott comes from the very organization that last year openly advocated the mass conversion of Jews from their faith.
“Southern Baptists don’t talk about Jews; they talk about the Walt Disney Company,” says Rabbi James Rudin, director of interreligious affairs for the American Jewish Committee. “But in the back of their mind, they are thinking about Jews in the entertainment companies.”
Rudin is no stranger to the religious right, having worked assiduously to improve relations between conservative Christians and mainstream Jewish organizations. He points out that the Southern Baptists have become increasingly hard-line in recent years on issues from homosexuality and abortion to the conversion of non-Christians. In the process, he adds, they have lost thousands of members and much of their grass-roots support. Many Southern Baptists, including those around Orlando, Disney’s Florida hub, have distanced themselves from the boycott.
But Rudin suggests that the boycott does also reflect a legitimate complaint — that Hollywood, and its largely Jewish leadership, is guilty of a kind of “elitism,” particularly when it comes to the views felt in the “flyover zone” between the coasts. “It’s a bigger issue about control of the culture by elites, and the Jews are part of it,” Rudin says.
If this is true of Southern Baptists, much of the same can be said of the other boycotting group, the National Latino Media Coalition. Like other non-Jews in the entertainment media, many Latinos have felt excluded in their access to jobs, particularly in upper management at the studios. Many of them complain that the Hollywood elite sees only stereotypical roles for Latinos in the media, even though they live adjacent to the largest Hispanic community north of Mexico City.
“All we see are the stereotypes,” says Alex Nogales, chairman of the coalition, which has won the support of such prominent figures as Los Angeles County Supervisor Gloria Molina. “We have been people selling oranges under the freeway, the nanny, the gardener, the gangbanger. That’s what we seem to fit into.”
Nogales and other Latinos in the media believe that many Jewish executives, including Eisner, have become socially isolated from the diverse and complex multiracial Los Angeles that exists around them. Certainly, this is not only a Disney problem; Steven Spielberg’s wife, Kate Capshaw, once said that she wanted to move to New York to be in a “more diverse” city. One wonders whether she, and many other Hollywood types, ever sojourn east of La Cienega Boulevard.
This reflects a troubling tendency among Hollywood executives. Many of them may live in Los Angeles, the world’s most diverse major city, but are not of it. Instead, they cling to ethnic mentalities nurtured in the predominantly black-and-white environments of 1960s Chicago, New York or Boston of their youths. If they seek to open themselves to other influences, it tends to be more oriented to African-Americans, who have made huge strides into at least creative parts of the business.
“A lot of Jews have forgotten what it’s like to be a newcomer and have obstacles put in front of them,” Nogales says. “They have become so isolated — the Eisners and that type — they are now excluding others, just as the Jewish immigrant was once excluded.”
Although somewhat hyperbolic, Nogales’ assertions cannot be dismissed as anti-Semitic. For one thing, Nogales is married to a Jew and sends his kids to a Jewish summer camp. His concerns should also be those of our community: After being perhaps too solicitous of non-Jews in the days of the Mayers and the Warners, the Jewish Hollywood elite and others must face the fact that there is a growing chasm between the entertainment industry and large parts of its audience, as can be seen in repeated congressional hearings and in the growing movement to control and label Hollywood content.
This chasm represents an important issue that Jews, both inside and outside of the entertainment industry, will need to address among themselves in years ahead.
Not that the boycotts of Disney will do much to advance that discussion within our community or with outsiders. Although they work as publicity stunts, the two boycotts will likely fail to keep Baptist or Latino parents from their appointed rounds, taking their children to Disneyland, Disneyworld or to see “Hercules” at Hollywood’s El Capitan. What is needed instead is a more comprehensive dialogue between the entertainment moguls and their audience — both in the “flyover zone” and here in the heart of increasingly Latino Los Angeles — that addresses these complex issues in a less confrontational and more thoughtful way.
Joel Kotkin is the John M. Olin Fellow at the Pepperdine Institute for Public Policy and author of “Tribes: How Race, Religion and Identity Determine Success in the New Global Economy.”