The porch of Broad Street Guest House
Photos courtesy Curt Leviant
May 01, 2008
Charleston, SC — one of the most popular travel destinations in the USA — with its perfectly preserved old mansions, has charm and grace, in addition to genuine human warmth. Just walk along any of its streets and the first person you meet will surely give you a friendly “hello.”
What makes Charleston especially attractive is its visible Jewish history, coupled with the great annual world-class arts festival, Spoleto USA. This year’s event takes place May 23-June 8.
Jews have resided in Charleston since 1695, attracted by economic opportunities and its proclamation of religious liberty for all. In 1749, there were enough Jewish pioneers in town to organize a congregation, Beth Elohim, the second oldest synagogue in the country (now Reform), and the oldest in continuous use. Its imposing colonnaded neo-classical structure on Hasell Street was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1980.
In the synagogue’s small museum, note the historic 1790 letter George Washington wrote in response to the synagogue’s good wishes upon his presidency: “May the same temporal and eternal blessing which you implore for me rest upon your Congregation.” This letter is emblematic of the spirit of friendship between the gentile establishment and Jews and the acceptance, even early on, of Jews into the American mainstream.
During the first decade of the 1800s, Charleston, with its 500 Jews, was considered the largest, most cultured, and wealthiest Jewish community in America. Today, the nearly 2,000 Jews in the city are in the professions, trade and business, teaching, politics, and the arts. In addition to three synagogues, one each from the major branches of American Jewry, there are a number of Jewish philanthropic and communal organizations, and a well-established day school.
The orthodox shul, Brith Sholom Beth Israel…
Jews who keep kosher — or for that matter anyone who wants to stay in a luxuriously appointed inn with superb amenities and gourmet dining — will be delighted to learn that The Broad Street Guest House (843-577-5965), a new and elegant kosher bed and breakfast, has opened in the heart of Charleston’s historic district, within walking distance of Brith Sholom Beth Israel, the Orthodox synagogue, and all the major Spoleto events. In this beautifully renovated historic mansion, you can have your own suite and fully equipped kosher kitchen. In the grandly appointed dining room, Hadassah Rothenberg, the welcoming owner and chef, serves hearty breakfasts and imaginative and delicious full-course Sabbath meals, wine in crystal goblets, home-baked hallah, and fabulous desserts, all of which can be the envy of three-star Michelin restaurants.
Also in the downtown area is the kosher Pita King restaurant at 437 King Street (843-722-1977), which offers lunches and dinners and features tasty and reasonably priced Israeli and Middle Eastern specialties. Try their excellent hummus, falafel, and baba ganoush.
The College of Charleston, the oldest municipal college in the United States, also has a broad-ranging Jewish Studies program — now with its own building, thanks to the generosity of Henry and Sylvia Yaschik — under the devoted direction of Professor Marty Perlmutter. The Jewish Studies unit also sponsors several Jewish-themed events during Spoleto.
The three congregations are unique in that their rabbis cooperate for the greater good of the community and even meet once a month for lunch and a study session. Another fascinating crossover is that many Jews in the community belong to more than one shul.
One longtime Jewish resident, a spry and active octogenarian agnostic, proudly and only half-facetiously remarked, “I belong to all three shuls, thank God, but you won’t catch me praying in any of them.” And when he was indeed “caught” one Sabbath morning davening in the Orthodox shul, one of his pals joked, “What are you doing here? Today’s not Yom Kippur.” In response, he quipped in his slight Carolina drawl, “Well, then I hope God forgives me for coming today.”
...Charleston’s Reform synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim
The Spoleto USA Festival is an all-encompassing cultural experience: opera, dance, theater, jazz, and classical music. Among the highlights this year are a production of Rossini’s La Cenerentola; the Geneva Ballet Company; a play by Sophocles; a Chinese music theater that combines opera, acrobatics, and martial arts; South Indian classical dance; several major orchestral concerts; and the ever-popular and always fantastic twice-daily chamber concerts. The Piccolo Spoleto Festival, which runs during the same two-and-a-half weeks, offers a dizzying array of music, plays, jazz, cabaret, and comedy acts.
In Charleston, too, lived the characters that inspired Porgy and Bess by George and Ira Gershwin, who resided temporarily on an island just outside the city while writing their opera. One of the great tunes, of course, is “Summertime,” with its Yiddish-sounding melody.
Be sure to take a horse and buggy ride in the historic district. The knowledgeable guides will take you on an hour-long ride through the residential part of town, focusing on the homes and the history of their occupants. Then stroll along the quiet streets and in the famous covered market, and tour the nearby plantations.
The welcome we received in shul is paradigmatic of Charlestonian warmth. One Friday night at sundown, we visited the Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue (182 Rutledge Avenue), founded in 1854 and one of the oldest Orthodox synagogues in America. Seeing new faces, the congregants welcomed us, chatted at length, invited us for the next day’s munificent kiddush, and hoped we would come back, not only to visit but to stay.
Curt Leviant’s latest fiction is the two-novella work, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Original Music of the Hebrew Alphabet and Weekend in Mustara. His latest book is a translation of Yudl Rosenberg’s 1909 classic novel, The Golem and the Wondrous Deeds of the Maharal of Prague. Erika Pfeifer Leviant writes on Jewish art for various periodicals.
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