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A "portion of the People"

 
A Harvard couple help showcase the rich history of South Carolina’s Jews.

When Dale and Theodore Rosengarten sent out the invitations to their son’s bar mitzvah in 1993, their northern friends and family members barely concealed their surprise, according to Dale (Rosen) ’69, Ph.D. ’97. "How could we raise a good Jewish boy in a small Southern town where everyone goes to church on Sunday? Where in the wilderness of South Carolina had we managed to find a Hebrew teacher?" The answers, wrapped in 300 years of little-known history, had only recently been revealed to the Rosengartens themselves.

Sugar or sweetmeat bowl presented to Congregation Beth Elohim in 1841
Sugar or sweetmeat bowl presented to Congregation Beth Elohim in 1841
Courtesy McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina
In 1800, they learned, South Carolina had more Jews than any other place in North America. The state also claims the first professing Jew elected to public office in the Western world—farmer Francis Salvador (who later became the first Jewish soldier to die in the American Revolution when his militia troop was ambushed by Indians and Tories); and the first group (led by the playwright and journalist Isaac Harby) to have introduced Reform Judaism into the United States. "Our kinfolk blinked in disbelief when I told them that two hundred years ago Charleston was the cultural capital of Jewish America," Dale recounts in A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life (University of South Carolina Press). Dale led the research efforts, and she and Ted, Ph.D. ’76—writer, historian, and youth-soccer coach—collaborated on composing and editing the text, which includes several essays by others. The result is a richly detailed, 268-page hardback catalog for the eponymous exhibition that appears at the Center for Jewish History in New York City (from February 6 through July 20) before moving to the Museum of the New South in Charlotte, North Carolina, in September. (Visit www.cofc.edu/~jhc.)

It took Dale, an historian and curator with the College of Charleston Libraries, seven years to amass the exhibit’s oral histories and 215 items, including portraits and photographs. (Also featured is a striking contemporary photo essay by Bill Aron, author of Shalom Y’All). There are the dainty portrait miniatures, prayer books, silver candlesticks, a wedding dress and trousseau trunk, a silver sugar bowl presented to a synagogue in 1841, the medicine chest of prominent citizen and slaveholder Moses Cohen Mordecai, and a painting depicting Confederate president Jefferson Davis with his secretary of state, Judah Benjamin.

"We were not looking for Judaica or religious objects," Dale says. "We wanted objects that had to do with the way Jewish people lived and became part of their communities, but continued being Jewish—or didn’t. Identifying the objects was of interest because of the stories they told, and those stories, and the history, became the core of the exhibit."

Dale and Theodore Rosengarten
Album quilt of chintz and calico on muslin, made for Eleanor Israel Solomons in the early 1850s. Right: New Year’s pop-up greeting card, ca. 1910
Photographs courtesy of the McKissick Museum, University of South Carolina

The show’s title and focus come from a letter sent to then-U.S. Secretary of State James Monroe in 1816 by Isaac Harby, protesting the removal of Mordecai Manuel Noah as consul to Tunis. "[Jews] are by no means to be considered as a religious sect, tolerated by the government," Harby wrote. "They constitute a portion of the People. They are, in every respect, woven in and compacted with the citizens of the Republic."

Why did Jews become such a significant group in seventeenth-century South Carolina? What brought them to a colonial port? The Rosengartens point to the "Fundamental Constitutions of 1669," a document drafted by Enlightenment philosopher John Locke (then the private secretary to Anthony Ashley Cooper, one of the colony’s "Lords Proprietors,") that granted the right of people of any religion—except Catholics—to form a church. This was not necessarily a friendly act of pluralism, Dale notes: "They put that in because the thought was that if you let these people into society, they would see the light and convert." Though never enacted, the document expressed the intent of the authorities to allow "fringe" groups like the Jews and the French Huguenots, both successful mercantile groups in diasporas at the time, to settle in the fledgling Charles Town. "It was a business decision," she believes. "They were looking for settlers who would be strong economic contributors."

The strategy seems to have worked. Among the earliest documented references to Jews in South Carolina was a "linguister," listed in 1695 military records, who translated for a colonial governor interrogating captives from Spanish Florida. By 1696, the colony’s Huguenots and Jews joined forces to petition Parliament to protect their rights to trade. "The Jews’ confidence in the power of petition and their freedom to make partnerships with gentiles point to a new situation in Jewish history," the catalog notes. Businessman Simon Valentine, one of four Jews who applied for citizenship in 1697, became the first documented Jewish landowner—which entitled him to vote. The enterprising Sephardim Moses Lindo, who promoted the lucrative cultivation of indigo, was also a slaveowner (as were many Jewish settlers) and one of the few Jews in South Carolina known to own a ship that carried Africans to America between 1735 and 1775. "Carolina was the first political entity to treat Jews as equals, but it was also the only colony on the American mainland whose charter sanctioned racial slavery," Ted writes in the book’s introduction. "Jews indeed were equal—to other white people."

 

The Rosengartens’ own southern migration began in December 1968, when Dale was working on her senior thesis about the communist-led Sharecroppers Union of the 1930s. She and Ted, then a graduate student in American civilization, drove to Alabama (switching their northern plates when they hit the border) to interview a union survivor named Ned Cobb. He turned out to be a "spellbinding storyteller," she says. In the summer of 1971, Ted returned to record Cobb’s life story as part of his dissertation—material which later became his 1974 book, All God’s Dangers:The Life of Nate Shaw, which won the National Book Award.

Dale and Theodore Rosengarten
Dale and Theodore Rosengarten, collaborators on the catalog and exhibit.
Photograph by Thom Hiers
a-rosengarten
The catalog cover features an 1876 portrait of Caroline Agnes Moïse Lopez painted by her grandfather.

The couple returned in 1976 because Ted wanted to write a Southern-based novel (on which he is still working). Charleston was a "sleepy town with no restaurants, no crowds, very little tourism, these remarkable archives"—and a small, but appealing, counterculture population, says Dale (who was almost thrown out of Radcliffe due to her participation in the 1969 takeover of University Hall and subsequent arrest. Ted’s knee was broken during the melee outside.) They rented a house in the coastal fishing town of McClellanville, 45 miles north of the city, and thought they’d stick around for six months or so. "That was 26 years ago," Ted notes. He soon found an archived manuscript diary of a nineteenth-century planter named Thomas B. Chaplin, which culminated in his 1986 book Tombee: Portrait of a Cotton Planter.

Dale curated an exhibit on traditional African-American basket weaving at the University of South Carolina’s McKissick Museum, and wrote the accompanying catalog, Row Upon Row: Sea Grass Baskets of the South Carolina Low Country. That led to her work on A Portion of the People, which is part of the Jewish Heritage Collection, a partnership of the museum, the College of Charleston, and the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina. "In 1992 I discovered there was this enormous, extremely well-networked community of Jewish South Carolinians that was like a ripe plum ready to fall from the tree," she explains. "They were so eager to have their history explored and exhibited that within six weeks I had a proposal saying this would be a great project."

Among those she met crisscrossing the state in search of family histories and objects was Rosa Poliakoff (mother of Edward ’67 and grandmother of Eli ’00), the owner of D. Poliakoff Department Store in Abbeville—"a fabulous dry goods store, with its original fixtures and every generation of adding machine they ever used—it was like a museum." Inside the nearby Chamber of Commerce, housed in an old bank, she found five nine-foot depictions of moments in Abbeville history, including the last council held by Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Painted in 1922 by Wilbur George Kurtz (a Civil War buff and technical adviser to the movie Gone with the Wind), the mural is, Dale says, "a perfect, very sentimentalized view of the ‘lost cause’ and there was our Jewish guy, secretary of state Judah Benjamin, sitting to Davis’s left, in the middle of it all." The restored painting is now part of the exhibit. (Benjamin subsequently fled to Florida, and on to England, where he was qualified to practice before the House of Lords, wrote a treatise on personal property which is still read, and lived the rest of his life as a prominent citizen, Dale says.)

Despite Benjamin’s political stature, "By the 1820s Charleston’s star had already begun to fade; contemporaries described the port city as a ‘place of tombs,’" Ted writes. "In 1830, the pace of American immigration picked up and New York surpassed Charleston as the Capital of American Jewry." Today, Charleston claims about 12,000 Jewish residents, and only a smattering of historically Jewish-owned businesses are still operating. The Poliakoffs’ store closed in 2000 after Rosa Poliakoff died. "There’s nobody to run it—her children are professionals with other careers," Dale explains. "The Jewish community I found in South Carolina was tiny and aged by the time I got there. There are remnants around that meet every Friday night for services. They are doing their best to keep that tradition going."

Now Dale herself, a secular Jew, is part of that process. "I had no connection to the Jewish community before working on this project," she concedes. In 1979, she and Ted showed up to be married in a rabbi’s study in South Carolina with their best friend, a Southern Baptist. They did not know a single Jew who could witness their wedding—the rabbi had to "haul in two elders from the congregation to sign the certificate." Today, she says, "I know more people and more about South Carolina’s Jewish genealogical history—who married whom, whose family is where, whose cousin is whose—than anyone else in the state. People call me with questions about their Jewish relatives."