Through diaries, documents, letters, and photographs, Charleston's Jewish communities documented their experiences in the Holy City. These archival materials help tell the story of their religious, familial, and public life in Charleston, South Carolina.
Charleston's nineteenth-century Jewish synagogue history is notable for its early reformers, including Isaac Harby (above) and Barnett Abraham Elzas (below). These reforms resulted in changes such as men and women sitting together in synagogue, an organ added to the Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE) synagogue, and women playing a more prominent role in worship. Hebrew Union College, the oldest Jewish seminary in the United States, became an important educational center for American Reform Judaism where some of Charleston's rabbis were educated. More traditional congregations, though, continued to prohibit instrumental music in the Sabbath service and family seating. In the orthodox "Polish" congregation, Brith Sholom, women sat in the balcony and men sat on the main floor.
These father and son portraits reflect some of the cultural changes taking place among Jews who became acculturated in southern cities, with Jacob Raisin's father, Aaron, maintaining tradition with a beard versus his son without one.
Jewish women played an active role in helping establish new reform practices and then participating in them as well. Penina Moïse is an example of a woman involved early on in reform practices. As a poet and hymnist, her work reflects two notable aspects of her identity: she was a devout Jew, and she was a Southerner. Moïse's brother, Abraham, and Issac Harby were among the early KKBE reformers. The men asked Moïse to write hymns for the congregation. In addition to penning nearly 200 hymns for KKBE, Moïse was also a teacher and served as superintendent at the Beth Elohim Sunday School starting in 1845. A prolific poet, Moïse's writing addressed issues of antisemitism, politics, and history, including her support of the Confederacy. Another result of reform practices was that Jewish teenagers participated in confirmations, a practice that developed in Reform congregations in Germany and spread to the United States in the mid-1800s. KKBE's meeting minutes reflect this practice with the Board having "cheerfully granted" consent of "the confirmation of a young lady from Kingstree, S.C."
Laura Wineman's letter to the KKBE Board also highlights the ways in which women contributed to the Reform Movement. In her letter, Wineman discusses the incorporation of instrumental music with the choir's singing. Instrumental music was not traditional in Jewish worship. While Reform congregations like KKBE did eventually incorporate it, traditional congregations in Charleston did not. Wineman understood the use of the organ would upset some congregants' sense of the status quo even in a Reform congregation. She concluded her letter to the KKBE Board by saying, "It can scarcely be expected that the introduction and rendering of sacred music accompanied with the organ should at once give satisfaction to every member of the congregation, some never before having heard an organ, but I feel assured that this beautiful addition to our service will in time produce true harmony..." Wineman was correct as the organ is still used by the KKBE congregation.
Changes such as these, however, did not work for all of Charleston's Jews, including new Eastern European immigrants. Eastern European Jewish women formed Daughters of Israel, seeking to practice Judaism in ways that more closely resembled their own traditional practices. To support their worship and community, they built spaces for religious education and community both physically and theologically separate from other less traditional Jewish congregations and organizations in Charleston, which included the building of the Sabbath School and Meeting Hall at 64 Saint Phillips Street.
Multi-generational Jewish homes, like the one in the postcard above, help illuminate some of the ways that Jews in Charleston maintained some and adapted other cultural practices. Written in both Hebrew and English, this postcard celebrating Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, captures three generations of men who reflect generational changes in facial hair and head-covering customs of Jewish men. It is notable that the matriarch is also not wearing a head covering.
As new Jewish immigrants arrived in Charleston, they brought with them traditional practices such as keeping kosher. Kosher meal preparation and cooking took place in their homes, but they required kosher markets to maintain this practice. Advertisements as old as 1866 reveal that Charleston Jews had access to kosher markets. Alongside the above advertisements, the 1866 article entitled "The Holidays" outlines Christian Easter celebrations as well as Jewish Passover celebrations, an indication that many Charlestonians knew their Jewish neighbors, but likely did not know the details of Jew's religious practices taking place inside their homes.
In the quiet of their homes, Jewish Charlestonians were able to uphold religious practices, such as observing the Sabbath. While observation of the Sabbath was possible for some, others Jewish families found it difficult to manage. Christian-oriented Sunday closing laws in Charleston required businesses remain closed. However, with Saturday as the Jewish day of rest, observing the Sabbath was sometimes a costly practice that not all Jewish families could afford. Other practices straddled private and public spheres as well, such as mikvahs. Some observant Jewish women used public Mikvahs, but in the book, The Secret of the Jew, Rabbi David Miller outlines how Jewish families could create mikvahs in their homes.
The King Street storefront, M. H. Lazarus Co. Hardware, was owned by Jewish businesswoman Phobe Yates Levy Pember until 1909. Pember sold it to Marks Hubert Lazarus who opened a hardware store. Shops like Lazarus Co. Hardware and Read & Dumas are evidence of Jewish families' presence in Charleston’s economic landscape. They also reveal the connections among the Jewish communities in Charleston. Marks Lazarus and his wife, Mordenai Charlotte Blair Levy Lazarus, were the parents of Jane Lazarus, and their family had a long history in South Carolina. Jane went on to marry Rabbi Jacob Raisin, an recent Eastern European immigrant who became the rabbi at KKBE. Jane founded the first Charleston chapter of Hadassah Women's Zionist Organization of America, a Jewish charitable organization.
Charleston's Hebrew Orphan Society, founded in 1801, occupied the above building starting in the early 1830s. The society formed "for the purpose of relieving widows, educating, clothing and maintaining orphans and children of indigent parents." The building was used as a community gathering place, serving for a time as the KKBE congregational meeting place when their synagogue was burned in the Charleston fire of 1838. It also served as a Hebrew school briefly. Like Kosher groceries and other Jewish-owned businesses, the Hebrew Orphan Society building stood as a symbol of Jews' presence in the city—in this case, of their charitable contributions in Charleston. In the process of raising funds for local and international Jewish causes, charitable and social societies also provided a distinctively Jewish social spaces for Jews of all stripes.
Before slavery was abolished, most Jews in Charleston, like most white Christians in Charleston, were slaveholders. In addition to participating in urban slavery, some Jewish families also owned plantations or were invested in the slave trade. After slavery was abolished, and Charleston saw new waves of Jewish immigrants, archival materials show that Jews in the city had an increasingly wide range of views about slavery and racism. Rabbi Raisin, who immigrated from Poland at the turn of the century, wrote in his diary about the difficulty he had in understanding the racism and violence African Americans experienced at the hands of whites. Jewish families who had long been in the region, however, were not only slaveholders, but their thoughts and feelings about slavery and racism mirrored white Christians’. Eleanor H. Cohen Seixas' diary entry stands in stark contrast to Jacob Raisin's as she stated her support of slavery and her dismay in seeing her family's newly freed enslaved people decide to leave her household.
All Jews who lived in Charleston, regardless of their views, regularly interacted with enslaved or free Black Charlestonians. With Charleston’s population a Black majority for most of its history, African Americans labored inside of Jewish homes and shops as well as on plantations. When schools were established in Charleston for Black Children after the Civil War, Jewish women worked as teachers. Fannie Simmonhoff, daughter of Rabbi Jacob Simonhoff, for example, was a teacher at Shaw Memorial School, a school for Black children established during the Civil War.
Beginning with the American Revolutionary War, Jewish men have served in every war that the United States has entered. This includes the Civil War where American Jews fought with either the Union Army or the Confederate States Army. The military they served with was largely reflective of the region they lived in. The Lowcountry Jewish men in the portraits above all served in the Confederacy.
In addition to expressing their cultural and political perspectives, military service was a way for Jews to fully participate in their citizenship, a right they had not always had before immigrating to the United States. Military service and the public commemoration of it also provided an opportunity for Jews to remind their Christian neighbors of their commitment to their country, or in the case of the Civil War, their commitment to the Southern states.
Commemoration of military service was an aspect of their lives that Jews chose to make public in Charleston. After World War I, members of the Jewish community erected a monument in honor of Samuel D. Turtletaub, First Lieutenant of the African American 371st Infantry regiment, who was killed in action while in France. Jewish families sometimes also chose to commemorate military service on gravestones, a practice seen in multiple gravestones in the KKBE Coming Street Cemetery. Later in the twentieth century, KKBE used plaques to identify the gravestones of all those with military service. These commemorations symbolize the important role that military service played in Jews cultural assimilation not only in Charleston but in the United States.