Jews of the South have quite a story to tell y’all

When you visit Israel, as I did a few months ago, you bump up against Jewish history at every turn — a mind-boggling 4,000 years’ worth. It’s a lot to take in, but it is also immensely satisfying if your reasons for traveling are like mine: to learn about new places, cultures and people with an open mind and in a way that makes it personally meaningful.

Of course, you don’t need to go back 4,000 years and across the world to discover fascinating nuggets of Jewish history. Last month, I found some a bit closer to home during a road trip with my husband through the American South.

The South isn’t exactly a Jewish mecca. Jews make up less than 1 percent of the population. We’re talking about the reddest of red states. This is a culture that exists in “opposite world,” as far as I’m concerned, and I was interested in experiencing it up close while also visiting a part of the country I’d always wanted to see. Truthfully, Jewish history was one of the last things I expected to come across.

One of our favorite stops was in Savannah, Ga., which happens to be home to the third-oldest Jewish community in the U.S. In a historic downtown that is impossibly gorgeous and lush, Congregation Mickveh Israel faces a public square filled with leafy oak trees, park benches and statues. It was founded the same year as the city, 1733. That’s old. San Francisco is a baby in comparison.

The South takes its history seriously. Public plaques are everywhere, describing architecture, battles, heroes and leaders. The traumas of war are deeply embedded in the Southern psyche and evident in many of their narratives.

Evidence of Jews? Not so much.

I poked my head in the synagogue and was told a tour was just starting, so I joined in as the guide was describing the Jews who first populated Savannah.

A group of 41 intrepid pioneers, largely made up of Sephardic Jews who had fled Inquisition-era Portugal and Spain for England, came to start a congregation in the New World. When the group — the largest single migration of Jews to the colonies — arrived in Georgia after a rough six months at sea, on July 11, 1733, the man in charge of the struggling settlement was James Oglethorpe, who had been sent by King George II to establish the colony as a buffer between South Carolina and Florida.

At the time, Oglethorpe was facing desperate circumstances. He had started with 114 settlers, but two-thirds had contracted yellow fever or died of it by the time the band of 41 Jews arrived. He needed them to fill out his ranks.

Among the group was Dr. Samuel Nunes Ribiero, an infectious diseases physician who was called upon to confront the epidemic. The doctor was able to eradicate the disease from the colony, earning him hero status, and in return he asked only for some land for his community. A grateful Oglethorpe granted his request, and by the time the king back in England got wind of all this and ordered it revoked, it was too late. The Jews had settled in.

In any case, Oglethorpe had broken no laws. The four things forbidden in the colony at the time were slaves, liquor, lawyers and Catholics. Jews flew under the radar.

Among the items the Jews of Savannah brought to start their community were a circumcision kit and a Torah written on deerskin. But life in the colony and wars took their toll, not to mention infighting among congregants — shul politics, colonial style — and a synagogue wasn’t constructed until 1820.

Today the 300-family Reform congregation — whose signature greeting is “Shalom, Y’all” — continues to hold services and even take out the original Torah on special occasions. Otherwise the scroll remains on display in a room full of museum-worthy artifacts, including a bar mitzvah invitation from 1900 “in honor of my religious majority,” 10 letters from U.S. presidents, including one from George Washington, and a diary started by one of the original settlers, whose descendants are members of the congregation today. Now that’s Jewish continuity!

Even though I hadn’t planned to learn the rich story of this 300-year-old Jewish community, it was a happy surprise. Part of the fun of traveling is being exposed to the unfamiliar — but sometimes it’s just nice to visit a place and find yourself at home.

 

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Sue Barnett

Sue Barnett is J.'s senior editor. She can be reached at sueb@jweekly.com.