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Southern Comfort

Charleston, S.C., has had a Jewish presence since 1695, and now, a few centuries later, it has introduced a Jewish Culture Festival, which its organizers hope will teach Charleston about its Jews and teach other Jews about the South.

It’s a long history. Jews arrived barely 25 years after the British landed and established the first permanent European settlement in the Carolinas area, which they called “Charles Town,” after Charles II, King of England. More Jews arrived in the mid-1700s from other colonies and abroad, and by the eve of the Civil War there were 2,000 Jews living in South Carolina, which had been the first state to secede from the Union.

Jeffrey Kaplan, historian at Charleston’s Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue — founded 160 years ago, the South’s oldest Orthodox synagogue — stressed the Jewish leadership’s fear that Jews from the South could wind up killing Jews from the North, and vice versa. Ten thousand Jews fought in the war, one-third of them from the South. Jewish fraternity was compromised, but Kaplan also shared the story of Myer Levy, a Union soldier who joined a Virginia Confederate family for the Seder during the last days of the war. Levy, who had seen a boy eating matzo on his front steps and startled him by asking for a piece, wound up receiving an invitation from the boy’s mother for the Passover meal.

Kaplan’s lunchtime lecture in the synagogue’s social hall was an opening feature of the Jewish Culture Festival, which ran for 10 days in early June. Available to participants in the festival were a series of Jewish musical performances (an eight-piece Jewish Jazz Ensemble, led by Ian Kay, included, among others, members of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra and the trumpet player from Michael Bolton’s European tour last summer), a kosher café, historical lectures and city tours, and a special Sabbath program with a visiting cantor and meals at the synagogue.

There were even slices of Coca-Cola cake (developed when postwar rationing forced home bakers to sweeten with cola) after the evening concerts, compliments of Jestine’s Kitchen, a nonkosher Charleston restaurant whose baker prepared the signature dessert in the synagogue’s own kitchen.

Although limited in scope itself, the festival was accepted for inclusion in the official Piccolo Spoleto Festival, a well-known yearly Charleston event featuring more than two weeks of local talent. Piccolo Spoleto, in turn, coincides with the city’s famed Spoleto Festival USA, which presents world and American premieres in performance and art, with world-class artists and, at times, significantly higher ticket prices.

Stanley Baker, president of BSBI, said that the synagogue’s intent is to contribute substantively to the cultural richness of the city, to “show that the Jewish community is part of the community… to share in the Southern experience.” At the same time, the congregation wants to win the attention of the larger Jewish population — from Charleston and beyond.

On top of recent capital expenditures, there’s now the investment of creating a new festival. “We have debt,” Baker said, “$600,000. The congregation is taking a chance that we have something that other Jews want to be a part of.”

The festival is intended to appeal to all ages and sensibilities. Baker beamed when he told me about the phone call he received a couple of days into the event, from Ellen Moryl, director of Charleston’s Office of Cultural Affairs, the entity that runs the citywide festival. She’d received a call from a major supporter of Piccolo Spoleto, saying that the show with Ian Kay & the Charleston Jewish Jazz Ensemble was “as good as any in town.”

English-born and Brooklyn-raised, Kay, who has resided in Charleston for the past 14 years, is a product of the Catskill era, a saxophonist and évocateur of the klezmer and Yiddish music tradition. He likes to move onstage, play to the audience, he told me as we spoke about an hour before show time. There’s the classic “Bay Mir Bistu Sheyn,” followed by a heavy infusion of parody from the repertoire of Mickey Katz, the clarinetist and vocalist who reworked popular tunes of the ’50s, turning them into Yiddish or Yiddish-accented hits.

Two hours later, Kay was winding up the show, sporting a coonskin cap and singing Katz’s “Duvid Crockett” (“King of Delancey Street”). He danced the dance and then switched to a more somber tune, “My Yidishe Mama,” the schmaltzy but effective closing number of the show.

The visiting cantor, Yehoshua Redfern from Maryland, took over the musical stage once the Sabbath arrived, leading Friday evening and Saturday morning services, and presenting an informative, if lengthy, talk on Jewish music at the noontime meal. Redfern evoked the sacred liturgical tunes from the 14th and 15th centuries (“Scarbova”) and the modern synagogue music that emerged in the 19th century (Salomon Sulzer’s “Vay’hi Binsoa Ha’aron”; Louis Lewandowski’s “Kiddush,” and Zeidel Rovner’s “Bei Ano Rochitz”) before moving chronologically through to the greats of our time, such as Shlomo Carlebach and Ben Zion Shenker.

The festival is over, but BSBI wants to continue the momentum. For starters, the synagogue has decided to extend the kosher café concept. Charleston has no kosher restaurant, though many people in town want one. “We’re going to have kosher food all year to accommodate travelers,” Baker promised. The synagogue is expecting many new faces in August, when it inaugurates yet another festival, this time Charleston’s first Jewish film festival, also intended as an annual event.

Charleston has more to offer than just a festival backdrop. Janice Kahn, a guide of 38 years, directed my attention to the unique features of its historic homes. As she hugged the wheel of her car, Kahn maneuvered through the streets, until we parked and crossed to the gated entrance of the Coming Street Cemetery, the oldest Jewish burial place in the South, established in 1762, half a mile outside the then city limits. Owned by the Reform synagogue, which was started in 1749, it’s a private area and kept locked, but Kahn has keys, and so we went inside to view a selection of the more than 500 stones, some bearing special markers.

Jews fought in the American Revolution, and 10 are buried here: a minyan of early congregants of the synagogue. Many inscriptions are worn away, often difficult to read. But some Jews in Charleston are working hard to keep the script alive.

Judah S. Harris is a photographer, filmmaker, speaker and writer.

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