Finding Judaism in the Holy City

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(Left Image) Portrait of Eugenia Levy Phillips, from A Belle of the Fifties, circa 1870. (Right Image) "A Southern Woman's Story of Her Imprisonment During the War of 1861 and 1862," by Eugenia Levy Phillips, 1889, courtesy of Special Collections at College of Charleston Libraries.

(Left) Portrait of Eugenia Levy Phillips, from A Belle of the Fifties, circa 1870, courtesy of Library of Congress. (Right) "A Southern Woman's Story of Her Imprisonment During the War of 1861 and 1862," by Eugenia Levy Phillips, 1889, courtesy of College of Charleston Special Collections. 

The traditional texts that early Charleston Jews prayed and learned from in their homes and synagogues cast them as a people chosen by God, who bore responsibility for one another, and who one day would be returned to the land of Zion. At the same time, these Jews were products of a long history under the rule of European Christians, who treated them as a self-governing collectivity while enforcing laws that restricted their lives and activities. Matters as personal as where Jews lived and when they married were subject to government oversight and there were contentious public debates about whether Jews could become European citizens. Even with the advent of movements for Jewish emancipation in the nineteenth century, Jews were not granted full citizenship in German lands until 1871 and in Russia until the Bolshevik revolution of 1917. As a result, access to citizenship was a novelty not only to Jews living during the period of the American founding, but to those who immigrated in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. These Jews treasured their new political rights, which they worked to harmonize with a persistent sense of Jewish collectivity.

Portrait of Solomon "Sollie" Emanuel, Howell & Brown Photographers, circa 1870, courtesy of Special Collections at College of Charleston Libraries.

Portrait of Solomon "Sollie" Emanuel, Howell & Brown Photographers, circa 1870, courtesy of College of Charleston Special Collections..

Living in a city with a Black majority, Charleston Jews quickly gained the confidence and ability to enter the public sphere as white citizens. Jewish men were active in electoral politics and served in the military in every conflict from the Revolutionary War until World War I, while Jewish women provided key forms of material and moral support. In many cases their wartime records and recollections appeared identical to those of white Christians in the city. If anything, Charleston Jews—and especially the women among them—could seem even more emphatic than their white Christian neighbors in their commitment to white southern politics. Charlestonian Eugenia Levy Phillips was twice imprisoned for her passionate loyalty to the Confederacy and, after the Civil War, Penina Moïse published a poem expressing her support for a proposed monument to the “Lost Cause” of the Confederacy. 

At the same time, Jews were a religious minority with immigrant origins and global ties who were periodically subject to suspicion and animosity. Already during the Revolutionary War, Jews in the city were on the defensive, claiming, “the Charleston Israelites hitherto have behaved as staunchly as any other citizens of this State.” In 1832 a group felt compelled to publicly deny a recent accusation that Jews were “a peculiar community” when it came to voting. And yet, they did protest as a group in 1812 and 1844 when governors issued Christian prayers for days of public thanksgiving, and they continually fought against Sunday closing laws, in the press and occasionally in court. Even when they fought against forms of Christian dominance, however, they rarely changed their votes from the dominant Democratic Party and regularly relied on the American language of religious freedom.

In their efforts to demonstrate that they were responsible citizens, while also fulfilling collective religious obligations, charity was a crucial tool. Charleston Jews cared for the local Jewish poor—particularly important in southern states which had few public welfare provisions—ensuring that they would not become public charges. Their charitable work also allowed them to gain a reputation for generosity. In an 1815 report, Episcopalian Bishop Theodore Dehon evaluated his own church’s generosity against Jews, writing, “it ought not to be believed that Christians, in seasons of prosperity, will be surpassed in generosity to the Almighty by Jews.” 

Portrait of Phoebe Yates Levy Pember, circa 1855, courtesy of UNC Libraries.

Portrait of Phoebe Yates Levy Pember, circa 1855, courtesy of UNC Libraries. Pember was one of the most notable matrons who worked at the famous Civil War hospital, Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. Chimborazo was built by enslaved men, and its operation was dependant upon the labor of enslaved women.

Invitation for Jewish soldiers, sailors, and marines to attend a Jewish service, Charleston, courtesy of Special Collections at College of Charleston Libraries.

Jews’ charitable activities, like other aspects of their lives, addressed a combination of local interests and traditional concerns. In 1850 representatives from both the Hebrew Benevolent Society (1784) and the Hebrew Orphan Asylum (1801) marched in the funeral parade of pro-slavery Democrat John C. Calhoun, demonstrating their commitment to Charleston’s white political establishment. At the same time, they regularly offered donations and other forms of support to far-away Jews in crisis, from New Orleans Yellow Fever victims to Russian refugees to traveling emissaries from Palestine.

Charleston Jews not only showed their neighbors that their religious commitments did not hinder good citizenship through charitable acts, but they also regularly found ways to tell them. Phoebe Pember, who served as a Confederate hospital superintendent during the Civil War, even argued in her memoir that Judaism had been a better religion for a Confederate than Christianity because it “did not enjoin forgiveness on its enemies, that enjoyed the blessed privilege of praying for an eye for an eye.” Much later, in 1905, German-born Rabbi Barnett Elzas wrote that “South Carolina [can] boast of no more loyal and devoted sons and daughters than were her Jewish citizens in the hour of her need.” This claim appeared in his The Jews of South Carolina, from the Earliest times to the Present Day (1905), one of two books on Charleston Jewish history that he authored. World War I would provide another opportunity to highlight Charleston Jews’ contributions to public well-being. In its aftermath, local Jewish groups worked to erect a monument memorializing Lieutenant Samuel D. Turtletaub, who had been killed in action in France. Jews’ historical narratives and commemorative sites alike worked to designate Charleston Jewish citizenship as something not only normal, but meaningful and even sacred.

At the consecration of KKBE’s new synagogue in 1841, Gustavus Poznanski had insisted: “This synagogue is our temple, this city our Jerusalem, this happy land.” In allowing Charleston to serve as a symbolic Jerusalem, Poznanski was reconfiguring centuries of Jewish messianism focused on the land of Israel. The Reform Judaism that KKBE came to embrace argued that the “mission of Israel” was for Jews to live around the world as exemplars of ethical monotheism, rather than as a concentrated group. The 1885 Pittsburgh Platform, the landmark rabbinic statement of Reform Jewish principles, insisted, “We consider ourselves no longer a nation, but a religious community, and therefore expect [no] return to Palestine.” Many Reform Jews agreed with Poznanski that their primary commitments lay in Charleston, not in Jerusalem. However, most Eastern European Jewish immigrants embraced Zionism, which argued that a Jewish nation-state in Palestine was a necessary balm for contemporary antisemitism. In Charleston, Eastern European Jews worked to raise funds and awareness for Zionist organizations, even if they never planned to leave Charleston themselves. While pro-Zionist Jews in Charleston were generally Eastern Europeans, some Jews from KKBE also supported Zionist efforts. From 1915 onward, the city’s Zionists included amongst their number the rabbi of KKBE, the Polish-born Jacob Raisin.

Charleston Jews were simultaneously insiders and outsiders, individuals and a collective, locals and cosmopolitans. These tensions meant that Judaism spilled out of the synagogue and the home and into the public sphere. There Jews worked to resolve these contradictions, insisting to their neighbors—through their actions and their words—that they could be good white Charlestonians without ceasing to be good Jews.