The Lure Of Jewish History
With its quaint pastel houses, palmetto courtyards and candles flickering from colonial window frames, Charleston, S.C., is an atmospheric place at Christmastime.
But every year, more of those candles are lit for Chanukah, the original Festival of Lights.
In a city where history is the draw, Jewish history is drawing ever-growing numbers of visitors. So many guests have inquired recently that Charleston Place Hotel, a luxury resort in the heart of downtown, launched a Chanukah Jewish Heritage package — two nights with a “special gelt turn-down and in-room menorah,” plus a guided tour of nearby Jewish historic sites.
“We just had so many people request it,” explained Ashley Mitchell, the hotel’s reservation supervisor. “Our concierge noticed we were getting a ton of guests coming in to see the synagogue; it’s right next door.”
That synagogue would be Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim, one of the nation’s oldest temples in continuous use and among the first American Reform congregations (though it started out Sephardic Orthodox in Colonial times). Between its storied history and its glorious, white-pillared Greek Revival building, KKBE draws legions of tourists each year.
In fact, the city’s Jewish sights, including collections at the College of Charleston, are all within convenient walking distance of each other in downtown.
Within the synagogue, KKBE houses a museum with an engaging variety of items from across the temple’s centuries: antique congregational record books, a painting of the original 1790s sanctuary and prayer books dating back 250 years.
Just outside is the shul’s Coming Street Cemetery, on the National Register of Historic Places, where some of the oldest tombs are of congregants who died in the Revolutionary War.
Many of those interested in Jewish history come from the Northeast, said Mitchell. Locals have also noticed an increase in visits by so-called “snowbirds,” who spend a few days sightseeing en route to and from Florida.
Charleston’s profile rose last year, when officials kicked off the sesquicentennial of the start of the Civil War by celebrating the city’s historic role. (Sesquicentennial events, which commemorate the 150th anniversary of the war, are ongoing through 2015.)
When Charleston was named top city destination by Condé Nast readers for 2012 — in addition to number-one American city for the second straight year — international travelers took notice, Europeans in particular.
For New Yorkers, Charleston just got easier to reach, too: JetBlue recently announced nonstop service from JFK and Boston’s Logan Airport beginning later this winter.
Long known for its elegant plantation homes, historical downtown and air of Southern refinement, Charleston is also home to one of America’s oldest Jewish communities. It was in colonial South Carolina, after all, that Sephardic immigrants established a nexus of prewar Jewish life, drawn by the territory’s notable religious-freedom laws.
Though more secular and ethnically diverse today, South Carolina Jewry is still vibrant — and the local obsession with history means Jewish heritage is well-preserved.
Two important Jewish collections bookend the leafy College of Charleston campus in downtown. At one end, the college’s shiny, newish Yaschik Jewish Studies Center houses archives and a Judaica library, as well as the Jewish Student Union/Hillel and the offices of the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina. Farther north on campus, the Addlestone Library’s Jewish Heritage Collection is the repository for 400 years of manuscripts, photographs, the KKBE archives, a magnificent oral history collection, and more.
Even in wintertime, downtown Charleston is verdant and sunny, with mild afternoons made for strolling outdoors. From the College, it’s a short walk to stately Marion Square, where you’ll find Charleston’s Holocaust Memorial, dedicated to survivors who settled in the Palmetto State.
With so much visual charm around every corner, it’s not hard to see why generations of Jews have migrated here. But to appreciate Southern living at its finest, make sure to visit at least one of the city’s famous estates; they’re three-dimensional museums of a bygone era.
At any time of year, you can walk amid blooming flowers at Magnolia Plantation, which boasts the nation’s oldest unrestored gardens (dating to 1680). In the plantation’s Biblical Garden, Old Testament-inspired plantings are arranged in a Star of David.
Draped in moss, crowned by pillars, this onetime home of the Drayton family was built more than a century before the Revolutionary War. (It is still owned by the family.) You can fill a day exploring the estate’s acres of forest and marshland, a nice contrast to the indoor formality of downtown Charleston.
Scenic train rides shuttle around the property, and a cruise takes visitors wildlife-watching along the rice fields of the Ashley River.
Spotting alligators from a boat is hardly your typical Chanukah activity — but to storm-weary Northerners with cabin fever, it may seem like a miracle.