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Charleston's Southern Comfort

September 3, 2009 By:
George Medavoy, JE Feature
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"Redneck caviar" is a treat at Hyman's Deli. Photos by George Medavoy

I never thought I'd find a Jewish gift for our 40th wedding anniversary here in the charming South Carolina city of Charleston. But sometimes, things turn out, well, in ways you least expect.

Jewish life in Charleston, my wife and I discovered, has roots going back to Colonial America.What luck we had to be introduced to it all by Janice Kahn, a witty and knowledgeable guide who leads personalized tours of the city -- including Jewish Charleston -- through Chai Y'All Tours.

Kahn met us in front of the Francis Marion Hotel, a delightful place centrally located across the street from Francis Marion Square and named for the father of guerrilla warfare in the American Revolution, the hero known as "the Swamp Fox."

The square is also the site of Charleston's Holocaust memorial, a large iron screen behind which a 12-foot, bronzed tallit covers the ground.

Kahn took us down King Street -- Charleston's intimate shopping district lined with lovely palmetto palms -- to the Battery area. Here, colorful antebellum mansions overlook Fort Sumter, the legendary Civil War coastal fortification in Charleston Harbor.

Along the way, we passed the College of Charleston, home of the Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies program, where Sunday-morning brunches draw people from the broader South Carolina community.

East Toward Jerusalem

Jews started arriving here in 1695, so taken with South Carolina's civil and religious liberty that they lovingly called the city "New Jerusalem." In 1749, they organized Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim ("Holy Congregation House of God") -- the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the United States, and also America's founding Reform Jewish congregation after a split-off from the Orthodox.

As we approached the current synagogue, a lovely 19th-century Greek Revival structure graced with white colonnades, it was a bit disorienting because the front door doesn't face the street.

Of course! Unlike the Catholic church on the other side of the tiny street, KKBE -- as it's affectionately known here -- faces east toward Jerusalem.

A National Historic Landmark, KKBE is something to behold, especially the beautiful ark made of Santo Domingo mahogany.

Docent Linda Bergman, who retired here from California with her rabbi husband, gave us a tour of the synagogue, and also touched on some of Jewish Charleston's rather checkered past.

It seems that Grace Peixotto, the daughter of one of KKBE's early cantors, ran the city's infamous 19th-century brothel in a building that interested parties can still see on nearby Fulton Street.

"When she died," said Bergman, "her funeral was the second largest in South Carolina history after John C. Calhoun. But with a twist: The men sent their carriages empty as a sign of respect."

The earliest members of KKBE were Sephardic Jews, and almost two dozen of them served in the War of Independence, including Francis Salvador, the first Jew known to die in the war.

A good way to gauge Charleston's Jewish history is at the Coming Street Cemetery, the oldest and largest Colonial Jewish cemetery in the South. Kahn unlocked the gate and guided us past faded markers under a canopy of spreading magnolia trees. One could literally feel the pull of early American Jewish history here.

The cemetery is not far from Charleston's central district, a very intimate area that's very easy to navigate on foot or by bike.

Especially by bike.

Just ask Kristin Walker, a real estate agent who likes to take clients to neighborhoods on bikes whenever possible. "Charleston is definitely biking friendly," she said, "because it's the Low Country ... it's flat or near sea level."

But no matter how you go exploring, the Upper King Street design district near the Francis Marion has everything from small boutiques to bigger stores like Saks Fifth Avenue.

The general area has many restaurants, too, including Hyman's Seafood and Aaron's Deli, owned by the Hyman family, who arrived in Charleston in the late 19th century from Poland.

This is where we met owner Eli Hyman, who stopped by our table to check on our food. "What's special about Hyman's," he said, "is being sincere, passionate and honest with your customers."

You can't miss Hyman's from the big sign and the long line on the sidewalk. The snapper-fish dinner that we ordered was really good, but the appetizer of boiled peanuts -- called "redneck caviar" -- was an unexpected treat.

Before we left Hyman's, Eli led us to photographs on the wall of himself in the uniform of Nahal, an Israeli-army infantry brigade.

"My father and mother were very Zionistic," he said, "and they sent all their children over there."

The next time you're in Charleston, put Hyman's on your list for Southern hospitality... and remember that y'all can have some boiled peanuts and speak a little Hebrew with Eli Hyman.

And, of course, at KKBE, be sure to visit the Judaica gift shop. It's where I found a framed print of King Solomon's "Woman of Valor" to mark our 40th wedding anniversary.

For more information, visit the Charleston Area Convention & Visitors Bureau at: www.charlestoncvb.com.

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