Finding Judaism in the Holy City

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Photograph of interior room of Armida Cohen Emanuel's home, by Reid Whitford, circa 1890, courtesy of Special Collections at College of Charleston Libraries.

Photograph of interior room of Armida Cohen Emanuel's home, by Reid Whitford, circa 1890, courtesy of College of Charleston Special Collections.

Mezuzah, 2021, courtesy of L.V. Olavi Rantala. 

Mezuzah, 2021, courtesy of L.V. Olavi Rantala. 

"Happy New Year," a Rosh Hashanah postcard, illustration by Friedrich Kaskeline, courtesy of Special Collections at the College of Charleston.

In 1915 Rabbi Isaac Marcusson, who served a brief term as KKBE’s rabbi, lamented the absence of “[t]he enthusiasm which should permeate every part of the congregation.” He was far from the first religious leader to notice that rates of synagogue membership and attendance in Charleston were low. Indeed, even as they established houses of worship throughout the city, many Charleston Jews found Judaism most meaningful not within synagogue sanctuaries but within intimate domestic spaces: parlors, kitchens, dining rooms, and even bedrooms. Here, they negotiated between ancient Jewish laws and the norms of everyday life for white Charlestonians.

In the urban slave society of antebellum Charleston, whites saw the home as an idealized space made up of the white patriarchal head or “master;” his wife who assisted in managing domestic affairs; their children; and enslaved Black servants. Families with the means to employ enslaved laborers expected them to work in the family’s business, clean the home, care for children from infancy, and assist adult members of the family. The wealthiest Charleston families also oversaw vast plantations in the country with separate quarters for enslaved people who worked across the plantation. However, in plantation homes and in city homes, enslaved laborers who directly cared for the family lived in the same house as their white enslavers. To a limited degree, these dynamics shifted after emancipation as whites endeavored to maintain this hierarchical model of southern domestic relations.

For Jewish families, the home was a site of devotion and a place where gender and family-member roles were put into practice. While more modest Jewish merchants might live in boardinghouses or in quarters attached to their stores, their ideal was to maintain a private domestic space. The home was the setting of many Jewish practices, which helped to make men, women, and families Jewish. Jewish homes were often marked by a small, encased scroll called a mezuzah, posted on the exterior door. It was the place where families welcomed mourners for the one-week period of shiva after the death of a loved one, and, for many, it was where they held circumcisions on the eighth day of a baby boy’s life and performed the rites of a marriage “according to the laws of Moses and Israel.” 

Woman lighting Sabbath candles, postcard reproduction of a painting by Morris Katz, courtesy of Special Collections at the College of Charleston.

Woman lighting Sabbath candles, postcard reproduction of a painting by Morris Katz, courtesy of College of Charleston Special Collections..

Women were central to creating and maintaining a Jewish home. In fact, the home was central to the three commandments specifically designated for Jewish women: observing laws of menstrual purity as well as baking bread and lighting candles in preparation for the Sabbath. It was where women prepared and served festive meals celebrating the Sabbath and other holidays. Women also ensured that food preparation was carried out properly. Jewish law dictated that meat remain separated from milk products and restricted its consumption by both type of animal and butchery method. Even grooming and attire bore the weight of religious meaning; among the more observant members of Charleston’s orthodox congregations–Brith Sholom, Shari Emouna, and Beth Israel–women dressed modestly and covered their hair. Their husbands sported beards and head coverings.

Jewish domestic practice extended into a number of other Jewish spaces in the city, which varied in their visibility to the general public. Mourning extended into a Jewish cemetery; Coming Street Cemetery was associated with KKBE from 1764, and subsequent congregations purchased their own burial grounds. From 1809, women observing the laws of marital purity could immerse in the city’s mikveh, or ritual bath, in order to resume sexual intimacy with their husbands after menstruation. Jewish men and women observed Passover with the help of a designated matzah oven, and throughout the year they could procure Kosher meat from Jewish purveyors in the market. During the Civil War, for instance, Confederate soldier Isaac Levy reported that he was able to “observe the festival in a truly Orthodox style,” because his brother had purchased matzah and kosher beef in Charleston. 

Illustration of weighing and kneading flour for matzoth in the presence of a rabbi, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, New York, 1858, courtesy of Library of Congress.

Illustration of a rabbi observing the weighing and kneading flour for matzoth, making it kosher for Passover, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, New York, 1858, courtesy of Library of Congress.

The storefront door of a Charleston Jew with a sign noting the store is closed on Saturdays, 1949, courtesy of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

An observant Jewish business owner's storefront with a sign noting the store is closed during the Sabbath, Charleston, 1949, courtesy of the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life.

When Eastern European immigrants arrived around the turn of the twentieth century, they established their own versions of these institutions. For instance, from 1910 members of the Russian Jewish Zalkin family operated a meat market on King Street, which likely offered kosher products; by 1923 it was publicly advertised as a kosher establishment. Into the twentieth century, the biggest hurdle to traditional Jewish practice was Charleston’s strict Sunday closing laws; at a time when most people had to work six days of the week, it was much easier for middle class Jewish women to observe the biblical commandment to rest on Saturdays than it was for working men and women. 

In families that could afford it, food preparation—and other adjuncts to domestic religious practice, like cleaning for Passover and polishing Sabbath candlesticks—were almost certainly performed by Black women under the oversight of Jewish wives. By 1830, 83% of Jewish households in Charleston included enslaved people, just below the city’s overall average of 87%; while several Jews manumitted enslaved people upon their deaths, the majority bequeathed them to their family members—a pattern reflecting that of the city’s white slaveholders. When slavery ended, Eleanor H. Cohen, the daughter of a prominent Jewish family, described in her diary the new domestic labors she was compelled to perform and eulogized the “devotion” of the people her family had enslaved, who she imagined were “forced” to leave their service. Cohen’s language mirrors that of white Christian women after emancipation, who also lamented the loss of their “faithful” servants. The mythologized “loyal slave”—in the case of women, the mammie figure—carried on the minds of Southern families, including Jewish families, who continued to employ Black domestic workers well into the twentieth century. Like white Christian southerners, Cohen and other Jewish Charlestonians often understood these to be affectionate relationships, but they were fundamentally structured by an imbalance of power that aligned with a racist social order. The Pearlstine family included Black workers in a photo of their 1904 Passover seder, commemorating the biblical Exodus from Egypt, although they stand on the periphery of the image, looking ill at ease. 

Charleston Jews’ identification with southern whiteness influenced religious practice in other ways as well. David Lopez, who died in 1811, was eulogized on his gravestone in the Coming Street Cemetery as “Patriotic as a citizen [and] humane as a master”; later gravestones would proudly record Confederate military service. Lifecycle events became elegant celebrations open to Jews and Christians alike and families like the Pearlstines styled themselves in the fashions of the day—including the uniform of the military academy at the Citadel—even in moments of ritual celebration.

Illustration of a private mikvah taken from The Secret of the Jew, by Rabbi David Miller, circa 1930.

Illustration of a private mikvah taken from The Secret of the Jew, by Rabbi David Miller, circa 1930.

Jewish domestic practices had become fused with local values, but for some Charleston Jews, the latter superseded the former. For instance, Jewish women moved away from practices of ritual purity, the monthly visit to the mikveh, deciding that abiding by more general values of female moral purity served as a sufficient alternative. Some Jewish women never married at all, an acceptable choice for well-to-do southern women that allowed them to work for the benefit of their community. This was the case for poetess Penina Moïse and for her niece, Jacqueline Ellen Levy, who was eulogized in KKBE’s Sunday School companion in terms that could have easily been applied to a Christian woman; she was “truly womanly in her thoughts and feelings'' and “unaffectedly religious. Faith was in her the offspring of love and the parent of hope.” Other Charleston Jews married outside of the community, indicating the extent to which they had come to value their commonalities with white Christians above Jewish law and custom. Many also abandoned—partially or totally—the kosher food regulations that prevented them from breaking bread with Christians and from enjoying local culinary staples like shellfish and pork.

Those who embraced Reform Judaism could find clear validation of these changes in the Pittsburgh Platform of 1885, a landmark rabbinic statement of principles, which “accept[ed] as binding only [Judaism’s] moral laws, and maintain only such ceremonies as elevate and sanctify our lives.”  Other Charleston Jews—especially the Eastern European Jewish immigrants who would flood the city in the decades to come—rejected this view, insisting that Jewish law remained obligatory. Therefore, Jewish homes operated along a spectrum, with some families maintaining kosher food laws and traditional Jewish gender norms, while others more fully embraced Southern traditions. Despite their differences, however, what united these Jews was the attempt to create meaningful lives, loving families, and comfortable homes within a city that valued white mastery and in relationship to a religious tradition that dictated aspects of everyday life far beyond the four walls of the synagogue.