Beyond Synagogues and Cemeteries: The Built Environment as an Aspect of Vernacular Jewish Material Culture in Charleston, South Carolina
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Beyond Synagogues and Cemeteries:
The Built Environment as an Aspect of Vernacular Jewish Material Culture in Charleston, South Carolina

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 [End Page 197] 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 [End Page 198] keeps a bibliography on South Carolina's Jewish history...