We Jews are an adaptive bunch. Put us beyond the Pale, in the dusty Negev or on the streets of San Francisco, and we’ll set up shop and shul and do just fine. Yet a couple years ago when I informed my Bay Area friends that my family and I were moving from the foothills of Mount Tamalpais to Savannah, Ga., I got some pretty freaked reactions.
Some folks were mystified: “They allow Jews in the Deep South?”
Some had watched “Deliverance” too many times: “If you find some people burning a cross on your lawn, don’t panic. Just start speaking in tongues, and they’ll think you’re one of them.”
Some were just clueless: “Georgia? Like, Russia? Dude, the housing prices are gonna be so cheap.”
My husband grew up Jewish in Savannah, so I knew better than to think our neighbors would expect us to have horns. Still, I had reservations about leaving. Where else but the Bay Area can the entire family dress in drag for Purim? Would taschlich ever feel as meaningful as it did under the redwoods? Would I be able to find a corned beef sandwich as good as the one at Saul’s?
The truth is that Savannah’s Jewish community is one of the oldest in the United States — the third, actually. Some Portuguese Sephardis (along with a handful of German Ashkenazis) sailed across the Atlantic from London in 1733, anchored outside the new colony of Georgia and were among Savannah’s first settlers.
The history of the city (famous for being the town that General Sherman did not torch during his Civil War march) is inextricably intertwined with its Jewish history.
Mickve Israel, the congregation begun by those brave settlers, remains an active Reform synagogue and is hosting a lineup of 275th-anniversary festivities this summer. A favorite stop on Savannah’s tourist circuit, Mickve Israel is housed in a magnificent 1878 edifice that is the country’s only Gothic synagogue. Which, if you know anything about architecture, means it looks more than a little like a church. (I always imagine this was a calculated choice: Here’s a place where there was — and still is — a Christian house of worship on practically every corner of every block. We adapt, right?)
While there are plenty of places to daven (there is a Conservative synagogue as well as an Orthodox community with an eruv), Southern Jewish life has taken some getting used to. The prevailing Shabbos greeting is “Shalom, y’all!” followed by reciting Kiddush over tea doctored so sweet it’ll make you plotz — or, in the Savannah dialect, tea that’ll fix ya’ good. And while plenty of Jews here keep strictly kosher, there’s the common wisdom (among those who’d rather spend the Sabbath casting a shrimp net off the back of a boat) that the Torah clearly had a misprint when it comes to shellfish.
But the strangest part of being Jewish in Savannah is witnessing just how much the rest of the community loves us. The annual “Shalom Y’all Jewish Food Festival” takes place in October in the city’s prominent Forsyth Park and is attended by thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish folks hungry for a good nosh. From the lines snaking under the moss-covered oak trees, you’d think no one had ever tasted an egg cream before, and once church gets out, groups of women in huge hats always flock to Rabbi Arnold Belzer’s “Ah Mein Lo Mein” booth. (This would also be the place to find a kick-tush corned beef sandwich.)
Even so, I felt a little nervous as the recent celebration for Israel’s 60th anniversary approached. Coming from Marin County, where I regularly had to peel off “End the Zionist Occupation” stickers from lampposts, I had a little post-traumatic stress. I once bought a plate of falafel there and received a sheet of vitriolic anti-Israel propaganda along with my food. When confronted one day on Haight Street in San Francisco by an overzealous college student flaunting a kaffiyeh as a fashion statement, I had to resist the urge to snatch the offending rag and blow my nose in it.
Jewish life in the Bay Area means always being ready to defend the tribe, and it’s not a habit that’s easy to break.
But when the celebration came, the Savannah Jewish community pulled off an incredible day of activities. Still, with one eye on my children folk dancing on the grass and digging for “artifacts” in the sandbox, I kept looking over my shoulder for protesters, some kind of disruption that would justify my shpilkes. The most malevolent presence was the humidity.
So I’m learning to feel the love, y’all. But that doesn’t mean I don’t push it: For Purim, you know I penciled in my usual Haman handlebar moustache.
Jessica Leigh Lebos is a former j. copy editor living in Savannah, Ga. She blogs at yoyenta.com.