Charleston, S.C, is one of the most popular travel destinations in the United States, with its perfectly preserved old mansions and its charm and grace, in addition to the genuine human warmth of its residents. Just walk along any of its streets and the first person you meet will surely give you a friendly hello.
The beautifully renovated historic mansion which houses The Broad Streeet Guest House. [Erika Leviant photo]
What makes Charleston especially attractive is its visible Jewish history, coupled with the great annual world-class arts festival, Spoleto Festival USA, which takes place from May 22 to June 7 this year.
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 is the historic 1790 letter that George Washington wrote in response to the synagogue’s good wishes upon his becoming president: “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 5,000 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, a Jewish community centre and a well-established day school.
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 a new and elegant kosher bed and breakfast – The Broad Street Guest House – has opened in the heart of Charleston’s historic district, within walking distance of the synagogue and all the major Spoleto Festival events.
According to its website, The Broad Street Guest House is Charleston’s only kosher bed and breakfast, certified kosher by Rabbi Ari Sytner, under the “Palmetto K” symbol. It serves only glatt kosher Shabbat meals and chalav yisroel breakfasts.
In this beautifully renovated historic mansion at 133 Broad St., 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 challah and fabulous desserts, all of which would be the envy of any three-star Michelin restaurant.
The College of Charleston, the oldest municipal college in the United States, also has a broad-ranging and ever-growing Jewish studies program – now with its own building, thanks to the generosity of Henry and Sylvia Yaschik – under the devoted direction of Prof. Marty Perlmutter. The Jewish studies unit also sponsors several Jewish-themed events during the festival. One major musical event is usually held in the Reform synagogue
The three Charleston congregations are unique in that their rabbis co-operate 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 came up to him and joked, “What are you doing here? Today’s not Yom Kippur.” In response, the 80-year-old quipped in his slight Carolina drawl, “Well, then I hope God forgives me for coming today.”
The Spoleto Festival is an all-encompassing cultural experience: opera, dance, theatre, jazz and classical music. This year, among the Spoleto highlights are a production of Massenet’s opera, Louise, which has been called the French La Bohème, and dance groups including the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater; and a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Don John.
Spoleto is also full of music. This year you can hear many concerts, including Mozart’s Requiem, Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde and Sarah Chang playing Brahms’ Violin Concerto. The twice-daily chamber concerts, hosted by the inimitable classical pianist and musical promoter Charles Wadsworth, are considered the musical anchor of the festival.
The Piccolo Spoleto Festival, which runs during the same two and a half weeks, offers a dizzying array of classical music, plays, jazz, cabaret, comedy acts, and much, much more.
There is so much to choose from one does not know where to begin. In Charleston, too, lived the characters that inspired Porgy and Bess, by George and Ira Gershwin, who resided temporarily on James Island, just outside the city, while writing their opera. One of the great tunes, of course, is Summertime, with its Yiddish-sounding melody.
The welcome we received in shul is typical of Charlestonian warmth. One Friday night at sundown we visited the Brith Sholom Beth Israel Synagogue (182 Rutledge Ave.), 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 said they hoped we would come back, not only to visit but to stay.