Jewish South Carolina: A Tale of Two Citiesby Judith Fein March 28, 2018
The extraordinary thing about South Carolina’s original constitution is that it was written by the English Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, and guaranteed religious freedom. The document, never formally adopted, was nonetheless adhered to. “And there’s more,” said Anita Moise Rosenberg, as my husband and I sat in the Social Hall of the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (known as KKBE) synagogue in Charleston. “Any seven people – people, not just men – could hold a religious meeting and not be disturbed. They could constitute a religion.”
“And by 1720, this was one of the first places in the world where Jews could vote,” chimed in Randi Serrins.
The infectious knowledge, humor and warmth of the two women volunteer docents make their KKBE tour a mandatory stop in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s not just the straight-on history of the synagogue that’s fascinating, but also the quirky Jewish Charleston tales in the margin. Want some multi-cultural history? Try this: In 1695, a Spanish speaking Jew acted as translator for the colonial Governor in negotiations with the Indians. Jewish business skills? In 1762, Moses Lindo was the first Jew with a major position as Inspector of Indigo (also, at a later date, he was one of three Jews responsible for getting Brown University to change their admittance policy to accept Jews). Wealth? From 1800-1820, one of every four Jews in America lived in Charleston; it was the largest and wealthiest Jewish population in North America. What about the women? In 1819, Penina Moise was America’s first published Jewish woman poet and hymnist. Something not to be proud of? 83 percent of Jews owned slaves.
The story of KKBE spans more than 250 years, and it includes ongoing schisms and then reintegration and then defections and merging and court cases between the Orthodox and Reform Jews. The Reverend Poznanski, who supported having music in the Service, was actually the first Reform clergyman in America. The Orthodox strongly opposed it. And besides human problems, there was a devastating fire, destruction by Yankee troops in the Civil War and then an earthquake.
One of the big surprises of the tour was learning that Luis de Torres, Anita’s ancestor, came to America with Columbus, and her relatives just kept coming. “We’ve all been marrying our cousins forever,” she said. Anita and Randi show visitors the history of Jews and KKBE in Charleston that was painted on murals by William Halsey; it hangs prominently in the social hall. And Randi names the two slaves who helped to build the synagogue: Kit and George. (“They were very skilled carpenters.”) She also points to the image of Francis Salvador, who, in 1775, was the first Jew elected to public office anywhere in the world. “During the Revolutionary War, he got word that the Tories were fueling the Cherokee with alcohol and ammunition and guns in support of England, and the Cherokee were preparing to attack. Salvador rode for hours to warn the villagers about the imminent danger. He was scalped and killed and no one knows where he was buried. He was the Jewish Paul Revere, and the first professed Jew to die in the Revolutionary War,” Randi explained.
We strolled into the elegant sanctuary, where we learned about the conflict between those who wanted an open ark and others who insisted it be closed: the brilliant compromise was that wooden doors were used for when it was open, and leaded glass doors for when the ark was closed. And the synagogue museum has treasures like a diorama of Francis Salvador’s story, the poems of Penina Moise that were made into hymnals, a sketch of Jefferson Davis’s cabinet with KKBE member Judah P. Benjamin on the left, and a $2 Confederate bill with the latter’s likeness on it.
Then we jumped into a car with Randi and Anita, stopping along the way to look at Penina Moise’s house. She never married, lived in poverty, had a salon in her house for society girls and taught them classic literature by memory. She went blind in mid-life and composed poetry she never wrote down. “I own a chair of hers,” Anita said. “People brought their babies for her to hold in this chair, hoping they would be imbued with her character.”
After hearing Penina’s tale, we headed for the Coming Street Cemetery, which is the oldest extant Jewish cemetery in the South. “It’s not our primary cemetery, but it is still an active burial ground. “Almost every person buried here is a relative of mine,” Anita commented.
As we walked along, Anita told us the story of Grace Peixotto, who infamously ran a brothel near the synagogue when her father was the leader. “It’s rumored that at her funeral there were more carriages than at John C. Calhoun’s. Her clients sent their carriages because they couldn’t be seen attending her funeral.” One part of the cemetery symbolizes the ongoing conflicts between the Orthodox and the Reform in the past. The breakaway Orthodox synagogue, Shearith Israel, built a 12-foot wall to separate them from the Reform, even in death. And don’t be surprised if you see the word “consort” on a tomb; according to Randi, it means a woman who dies before her husband. And the word “relict” means a woman who was a widow.
Randi and Anita know each inch of the cemetery and have done extensive research on the known and unknown deceased. They even found 19 bodies through ground-penetrating radar a few years ago. Nine of the interred are Revolutionary War soldiers and six fought in the War of 1812. I don’t want to be a spoiler about the Jewish ghost or the unusual tabletop and box tombs; for that you’ll have to take the tour.
Columbia, the capital city of South Carolina, is a two-hour drive from Charleston, and in Memorial Park I visited a very striking Holocaust Monument. Engraved on a central, gray, granite stone is a map of concentration camps in Latvia, Germany, Poland, Hungary and France where the Final Solution was carried out. On black side panels is a timeline that begins in 1920 when the Nazi party met in Munich, to l946, when Jewish leaders were tortured and murdered near Krakow and Lodz. The text says that pogroms erupted in Poland, and 100,000 Jews left the homeland.
Next to the monument is a low, gray, granite bench inscribed with the words, “Do not take your families for granted, keep them close to you. No matter how we feel today, what we went through can happen again. We must never forget.” These are the words of Cela Miller, a survivor. Two other benches have powerful quotes from other survivors, and a fourth bears the words of T. Moffatt Burriss, a liberator: “We were prepared for everything, immune to shock … but it didn’t prepare us for what we found at Wobbelin, Germany at the concentration camp.” On the back of the monument is a quote from Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of Allied forces in Europe, who went to see evidence of the Nazis first hand, in case in the future, “there develops a tendency to charge these allegations merely as ‘propaganda.’” And close by is a sobering list of South Carolina liberators and Holocaust victims. If this isn’t all chilling enough, the monument is incised with images of Jews getting off cattle cars, standing behind barbed wire, and a crematory oven with the words: “May God remember them for good with all the righteous of the world.”
The feeling was very different at an upbeat Jewish Walking tour led by Katharine Allen, the Research and Archives Manager at Historic Columbia. She was full of information about the impact Jews had on the capital city – like the fact that by 1850, the city had its second Jewish mayor, which is great, and that the father of the second mayor was an auctioneer who sold, among other things, slaves, which is the opposite of great.
We walked along Main Street (formerly Richardson Street) and she pointed out where Gergel’s Men’s Shop – owned by Joseph Gergel, who fled Russia and started out as a peddler – flourished in the 1940s and early ‘50s. Today Joseph’s grandson Richard Gergel is a Federal judge in Charleston and he has a passion for Civil Rights history. Farther down the street, Katharine said the historic Arcade Mall used to be a restaurant owned by Ben David, and she also informed us that during the antebellum period in Columbia, the Jews were mostly Sephardic and came from Portugal; from the l880s to the 1920s, most of the Jews were Ashkenazi. “The 1600 block on Main is the Jewish block,” Katharine told us as we continued walking, although “Kings is the only Jewish shop that is still owned by Jews. Today Jews are doctors, lawyers, educators and not shop owners.” The Jewish Columbia Heritage Committee interviewed more than 50 members of the Jewish community to get information on Jewish stores and Jewish history.
Katharine said there are two synagogues in Columbia today (Tree of Life, which is Reform, and Beth Shalom, which is Orthodox), and when we arrived at Washington Street, between Park and Main, she said the area mostly housed African American businesses during the Jim Crow era. “Jewish businesses were known for catering to African Americans.
Orthodox Jews lived here too, because they had to walk to the old House of Peace synagogue which used to be on Park Street.” I was relieved and proud to hear that although Jews owned slaves, later, they were also active in the Civil Rights movement.
I was wondering if there was any place to connect physically to the Jews who used to own shops and trade on Main Street, and I found it an hour later at the Hebrew Benevolent Society Cemetery. Do you remember the classic film “Singing in the Rain?” It was co-choreographed and directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen; the Donen family’s burial plot is in the cemetery. Stanley was born Jewish, but became an atheist early on because he felt isolated as a Jew in Columbia, where he was bullied by anti-Semitic kids. He sought refuge in the local movie theatre, where, happily, his lifelong passion for film was ignited.
What intrigued me about the cemetery was that it is the final resting place for the Jews I heard about on the walking tour – the mayor, the shop owners, the auctioneer. They become much more than names, they lived, loved, worked, fought, laughed, worshipped, suffered, thrived and brought an injection of vibrant culture to the city.
If you go:
The KKBE synagogue tour is $10, the Cemetery Tour is $18 and a combination tour is $25. All tour arrangements for Coming Street Cemetery are made through the Temple office at: kkbe.org.
There are three other synagogues and a Chabad Center in Charleston. To learn about Charleston: charlestoncvb.com. For public private, and web based tours of Jewish Columbia: historiccolumbia.org.
Historic Columbia can arrange group tours and bus tours for l0
or more: 803-252-1770 x 23 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
For foodies, Kugels & Collards is a fascinating blog with Jewish recipes and stories from Columbia. It is part of the Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative: kugelsandcollards.org/about-1/
To learn about Columbia Jewish Heritage Initiative:
Judith Fein, a former resident of San Diego, is an award-winning international travel journalist and speaker. Her website is: