Beyond synagogues and cemeteries: the built environment as an aspect of vernacular Jewish material culture in Charleston, South Carolina.

Author:Stiefel, Barry L.

To date, synagogues and cemeteries have received the bulk of attention in the analysis and preservation of large, immovable Jewish material culture in the United States, skewing our understanding of buildings and neighborhoods as a type of cultural artifact. This is in contrast to smaller, movable material items, such as ritual objects and personal effects. However, despite the time even the most pious Jews may have spent in a synagogue--or at their eternal rest within a cemetery--American Jews do not live in these places. They live in houses and work elsewhere, spending most of their lives outside of synagogues and cemeteries. From a material culture perspective, little attention has been paid to the places where American Jews do live and work, and what they do (or do not do) to make those places Jewish. For example, there are between eight and fifteen thousand historic house museums in the United States. Of these, only six are known to have a Jewish theme, and to have been the place where the primary person or family of interest who resided there lived a Jewish lifestyle of some form. (1) Perhaps the most famous of these are some of the apartments in the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. This study will focus on such residences, places of employment, and other institutional facilities in order to counterbalance our understanding, so that we have a more holistic appreciation of Jewish material culture in America.

No place provides a better opportunity to extend this more holistic appreciation than Charleston, South Carolina. This city makes for an intriguing case study because it is often seen as the birthplace of the Reform movement in North America, though it also continues to have Orthodox congregations. (2) The city's built environment also reveals a variety of visions about what it means to be an American Jew and a Southern Jew--a reflection of how South Carolinians in general have perceived themselves to be a part of and separate from the American milieu.

Charleston has been home to Jewish residents since the mid-1690s, the second longest uninterrupted habitation by Jews in what is now the United States, after that of New Amsterdam/New York. For this reason, Charleston serves as an advantageous setting for an immovable material culture analysis regarding how Jews have left an impact on the buildings and urban fabric of the city, with an emphasis on Charleston's historic core. Given the long settlement of Jews in Charleston, we can also see how their occupations evolved, which often had an impact on the built environment. This article will not ignore synagogues and cemeteries in its analysis, but rather discuss them alongside other buildings and sites in order to understand them in the context of the shifting built environment and to contextualize certain aspects of the development of Jewish identity. When synagogues and cemeteries are taken into account with other structures, we see that Jewishness was more integrated into daily life. A sense of Jewish identity was constantly being negotiated with pedestrian traffic flow and sociocultural networks, and responding to the shifting built environment when it changed. Additionally, while Charleston is home to several historic house museums and plantations, none tell a Jewish story. This study will help to fill the void regarding aspects of Charleston's built environment as Jewish material culture. For those familiar with the public history presented at Charleston's historic buildings and sites, this scholarship will illuminate a very important minority group that is largely missing from the portrayed, interpreted narrative, outside of the city's synagogues.

An extensive body of scholarship has been published on the architectural history and built environment of Charleston, as well as on its Jewish history, with the overlap of the two subjects primarily focusing on synagogues, with some attention to cemeteries. The Historic Charleston Foundation maintains an updated bibliography on researching historic properties within the city. (3) The Southern Jewish Historical Society also keeps a bibliography on South Carolina's Jewish history, extensively focused on Charleston, at its website. (4) Scholarly interest on both subjects began at the dawn of the twentieth century, coinciding with the emergence of the Charleston Renaissance, a time period when Charleston experienced a renewal of culture, art, literature, and an appreciation of the built environment, extending from about 1900 to 1941. (5) This was the Charleston of American writer Edwin DuBose Heyward (1885-1940), author of the novel Porgy, which was subsequently turned into the opera Porgy and Bess by American Jewish composer George Gershwin (1898-1937) in 1935. (6) A book by Barnett A. Elzas, The Old Jewish Cemeteries at Charleston, S.C.: A Transcript of the Inscriptions on Their Tombstones, 1762-1903 evinced the earliest interest in Charleston's built environment and history related to Jews. (7) Two years later, Elzas completed a larger work, The Jews of South Carolina, which was printed in 1905 by J.B. Lippincott & Company, a firm located in Philadelphia. (8) Both works by Elzas established a foundation for further scholarship on South Carolina's Jews. Lippincott is significant because it also issued The Dwelling Houses of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1917, by Alice R. H. Smith and D E. H. Smith. Dwelling Houses is considered to be the first and foremost book to provide a study of Charleston's historic architecture and buildings. (9)


Many more publications on Charleston's built environment have been written since, with an intended audience of visiting tourists, preservation practitioners, or architectural historians. However, other than research on individual buildings--specifically, the historic synagogues--scholarship on the overlapping subject of Charleston's built environment regarding Jews has been nearly nonexistent. (10) A volume edited by Theodore Rosengarten and Dale Rosengarten, A Portion of the People: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life, focuses on the study of many South Carolina and Charleston Jewish material objects, but all are small, movable antiquities and curiosities. (11) Other scholars look at Jewish built environments, but primarily in European and Israeli contexts. These include Ruth Ellen Gruber in Virtually Jewish: Reinventing Jewish Culture in Europe, and Julia Brauch, Anna Lipphardt, and Alexandra Nocke, the editors of Jewish Topographies: Visions of Space, Traditions of Place. Indeed, the latter volume spends only some attention on New York and Toronto, let alone any other part of North America. (12), The edited three-volume series City of Promises: A History of the Jews of New York, which mainly describes the "urban Jewish built environment--its tenements and banks, its communal buildings and synagogues, its department stores and settlement houses," (13) is also focused entirely on New York.

Works on Jewish architects have also appeared. Kathryn E. Holliday's Leopold Eidlitz: Architecture and Idealism in the Gilded Age relates to the historic building environment in North America. Holliday's study covers synagogues and other buildings designed by Eidlitz, the first professional Jewish architect in the United States. (14) My article "David Lopez, Jr. (1809-84): Builder, Defender of the Confederacy, and Industrialist" in the American Jewish Archives Journal, a biography of Charleston's most significant Jewish building contractor, touches on other projects of Lopez's besides synagogues, such as government, residential, and commercial buildings. But that article limited itself to the buildings Lopez and his immediate family members actually constructed or repaired. (15) It can be said that a scholarly analysis of the rest of Charleston's Jewish built environment has not appeared until this point, not to mention many other places in North America outside of New York and Toronto.

For purposes of analysis, this study is subdivided into three periods--the time prior to 1838; the period from 1838 to 1880, when most of historic Charleston's surviving peninsula was developed; and then 1880 to the present. The reason for this breakdown is multifold. The first is that these intervals roughly correspond to significant periods in American Jewish demography vis-a-vis immigration, which comprised the early migration before 1830; the Central European Jewish migration from 1830 to 1880, when two hundred and fifty thousand immigrants from German-speaking lands came to North America; and the great Eastern European migration from 1880 to 1924, which witnessed an even larger emigration of 2.5 million Jews from Eastern Europe. (16) The second reason for these time divisions is that they reflect drastic changes in the city's architectural ensemble and urban form due to traumatic events, such as fires and earthquakes. Charleston's fire of 1838 burned approximately a quarter of the city, destroying a district of 150 acres and more than 1,100 buildings, including the first Beth Elohim synagogue, which was erected in 1794. (17) As a consequence, the period after 1840 was a period of substantial building, including that of the second Beth Elohim synagogue, which was completed in 1841. The earthquake of 1886 was the central event of the 1880s, destroying a substantial amount of the urban fabric and leading to subsequent years spent reconstructing the damage. In each instance, Jews took advantage of rebuilding the city to suit their revised needs at that moment. (18)


Geographically, this study focuses on the historic urban core of the city, which is confined to the central peninsula, where Jews have been recorded as residents since the 1690s. The buildings on the central peninsula primarily date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, though twentieth and twenty-first century urban infrastructure has been infilled when vacant land has occurred. As I will...

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