Exhibit Highlights 300 Years of Tradition, Assimilation and Conflict
Like much of the southern United States, South Carolina has a long and complex Jewish history -- in fact, at one point, there were more Jewish families in South Carolina than any other state. NPR's Joshua Levs got a first look at a new museum exhibit exploring Southern Jewish life in the state over the last 300 years, and found a still-vibrant Jewish community in the heart of the Bible Belt.
Throughout the state's history, South Carolina Jews have shown fierce pride in their religion and their land -- though Levs also found that their experience has been shaped by the desire to fit in with the Christian establishment, and, at times, fear of anti-Semitic attacks.
Mary Lourie Rittenberg, 74, told Levs her family has always been active in the community, but her parents taught the kids not to talk much about their religion in public. "There was an emptiness, this feeling that we don't put ourselves in the limelight," she says. "We sort of don't make vibes, because we felt this was our adopted country."
Lynn Robertson, executive director of the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, says the Southern Jewish exhibit -- called A Portion of the People -- highlights the duality of being Jewish in the American South. "It's a different take on the American immigration story," she told Levs.
Among the objects in the exhibit is a remarkable document -- a constitution drafted by the founding fathers of the Carolina colony stating that Jews were welcome in this part of the New World. "In that document they stated the most liberal religious provisions for religious tolerance really existing in the world," says exhibit curator Dale Rosengarten, a historian with the College of Charleston.
South Carolina was the first state to grant Jews voting rights, and by 1800 there were about 2,000 Jews in South Carolina -- more than in any other state.
Many became successful tradesmen and merchants. Among them are Revolutionary War heroes and faithful sons of the Confederacy. Some Southern Jews were also slave owners.
For the most part, these Jewish community leaders didn't talk publicly about their Jewish roots -- but at home, many families held onto religious traditions. Each generation had to decide what to hold on to and what to jettison, Robertson says. One example of Jews striking a balance between old religious traditions and their new American culture came in the creation of the nation's first Reform synagogue in Charleston, S.C. Prayer music influenced by Christian hymns was used to dedicate the synagogue. Services were shorter and more English was used -- "all in the interest of hanging onto the younger generation and keeping people tied to Judaism," says curator Dale Rosengarten.
The exhibit also deals with anti-Semitism, using first-person accounts of the prejudice Jews have confronted. And it looks at the Civil Rights era, when many South Carolina Jews weren't sure which side to support.
The Jewish community was vulnerable at that point," said Rabbi Gerald Wolpe, who led a congregation in Charleston during the Civil Rights turmoil. "It was small. You know, on the one side the black community was threatening to boycott Jewish stores if they didn't take this position. Yet on the other hand, white citizen groups were saying, 'Hey wait a minute -- you've been here five generations. How come you don't think the same way as we do?'"
Above all, the exhibit explores the pride Southern Jews have always felt. "We were like a shadow," says Mary Lourie Rittenberg, "and this brought us into the sunshine."
The A Portion of the People exhibit will be at the McKissick Museum through May. It then travels to Charleston and New York City.