Commentary Magazine

The Jews of Charleston, by Charles Reznikoff

The Thrice Chosen
The Jews of Charleston.
by Charles Reznikoff. With the collaboration of Uriah Z. Engelman.
Jewish Publication Society of America. 343 pp. $4.00.


Rootlessness was all right in its time, but men who fifteen years ago were fleeing from traditions are now hot in their pursuit. In this connection, Charleston offers a special historical dividend. To be not only Jew and American, but also Chariestonian, would seem to be thrice chosen.

More than any other city, not excepting Richmond, Charleston represents the antebellum South. It was the most influential Southern city during the decades preceding the “war between the states” and the last stronghold of the old planter aristocracy; it cultivated, along with azalea and jessamine, a conscious and deliberate brand of aristocratic thought; it cherished the notion of a ruling class and all the appurtenances thereof, including horsemanship and genealogy. According to an old quip: “Charlestonians are like the Chinese. They eat rice and worship their ancestors.”

But tradition is not really identical with the superstructure of manners and mannerisms a society accumulates. Tradition is a historically matured sense of man’s nature and responsibility. “The tradition of the elders,” Hobhouse said, “is, as it were, the instinct of society.” Allen Tate has said more simply that a traditional man knows what he is. An intuitive sense of honor among men: this was the heart of the old Southern tradition. The graces-good manner, benevolence, and dignity of conduct—were a logical consequence. Self-respect was a further consequence. If it was fiercely jealous of its aristocratic rights, this Old South was also conscious of its aristocratic obligations, and just because these lay outside the written law, they involved a rigid moral imperative.

This is the quality of the Old South that feeds the pastoral nostalgia of the Southern mind. The Faulknerian intellectual feels, with a good deal of reason, that money-morality, improvised ethics, and singing commercials are no less a Yankee invasion than were the armies of General Sherman. On the other hand, the Southern liberal would like to spike the Old South with a shot of even Older Jefferson: the American libertarian tradition, civil equality among men. In practice, the Old South has neither been conserved nor invigorated. Its trappings remain, but its heart and guts have gone out with the landed aristocracy. A disemboweled tradition dies lingeringly, but everywhere in the South it is dying, defeated by that same money-morality, improvised ethics, and singing commercials. The South, for better or worse—or both—becomes more a geographical expression and less a historical tradition, though Southern intellectuals are still asking: Should it be saved? Can it be saved?

American Jewry, and not only in the South, is asking itself similar questions concerning its heritage. What is being lost? What needs to be saved? What is irretrievably past? Community studies, made as they are in a variety of conditions, could provide the laboratory clues for an answer, especially in cities like Charleston, half a dozen generations removed from the ghetto.

Charles Reznikoff’s book, while it provides the historical background for such an examination, skirts the examination itself. It would be rather arbitrary to quibble with the author’s design since the book was written under circumscribed conditions for a circumscribed purpose. This year marks the community’s two-hundredth anniversary, and this volume was prepared, under the aegis of a bicentennial committee, for the specific purpose of celebrating that anniversary. It is perhaps properly the burden of this book, then, to chronicle the Jewish past in Charleston.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Charleston had the largest Jewish community in the United States. In Charleston were made some of the earliest experiments in Jewish ritual reform. There are nationally famous Charlestonian names like Moses Lindo, Francis Salvador, Ludwig Lewisohn, and Bernard Baruch, and there are other Jewish names and family lines that extend estimably through the local history. All this is reported to an extent that should satisfy the bicentennial committee’s purpose, be of particular interest to the Jews of Charleston, and of casual interest to others. But some will look in vain for light on such questions as: Is there a genuine survival of Jewish tradition in Charleston?

Mr. Reznikoff makes it sufficiently clear that so far as religion is concerned, it has followed in Charleston the inexorable American pattern: reform, conservative reaction, and no apostasy to speak of. But however much tradition may be a function of religion (especially for Jews), tradition is more than religion, has an existence of its own if it has an existence at all. The Jews of Charleston do not identify themselves in any “national” way with Israel or with Zionism, nor do they feel the intense single-group identity that pogrom, ghetto, or rabid bigotry imposes. In this situation, then, is there any identity as Jew, aside from more or less voluntary membership in a particular religious denomination?



Albert Einstein has asserted that the “love of justice verging on fanaticism, and the quest for independence—these are the motivating traditions of the Jewish people which cause me to regard my adherence thereto as a gift of destiny . . . .” If from this point of view the dominant theme of the Jewish historical drama can be said to have been the sheer will to survive, the motif of Jewish tradition might well be called the ferocity of the free human will. As a concept this is in consonance with Jewish religious teachings, in which man is active in God’s world—he “chooses the will of God.” But, as unfolded in history, this “imperative of will” has come to have more than a religious connotation, has accreted to itself secular rhythms and ceremonies, and has embodied itself in secular institutions and personalities.

In the rather mysterious way that tradition operates for those who, by lineage, “stand in it” rather than merely adopt it as one may adopt a religion, the Jews as a historical group, like the citizens of the Old South, have had a special identity. As a historical group, they have had a heritage—and a responsibility. They have been in a position to “know what they are”—the one unbroken stitch through Western man’s history. This continuity by will has had many meanings for mankind, of course, and has posed a continuous challenge for the Jew. (It also gives pertinence to Sartre’s statement that the anti-Semite is one who “fears man’s fate.”)

But perhaps in middle-class America such a tradition of aggressive spirituality, for all its grandeur, no longer has any reason d’être and is dying a natural death, just as is the Southern tradition? That its lines are growing faint, it is impossible to deny, though it is also possible that the tradition survives in ways we are not yet prepared to recognize. If we are to dispel the current confusion about the nature of Jewish identity, we will have to investigate at the various community levels to see what actually is happening, both in fact and thought. The few casual remarks recorded by Mr. Reznikoff, of the order of “I was raised with a deep pride in my origin,” are not enough.

That the atmosphere of the South is, at least rhetorically, kind to tradition in general, does not make the problem of Jewish identity any easier. It is true that anti-Semitism is not so virulent as Northerners expect it to be. In an Old South city like Charleston, as Mr. Reznikoff points out, there is a genuine climate of tolerance for Jews. In part, this is a result of the old and distinguished history of the local Jewish community. In part, it is the result of the fact that Jews are white-skinned and on the right side of at least one of the South’s fences. There are, however, other fences. According to an old saying in the South: “There are two kinds of Charlestonians: those who don’t wear shoes, and those who look at you as though you don’t wear shoes.” There has never been any serious question of the socially barefoot character of the Jews as a group, though many individuals have been “accepted.” The Jews of Charleston, as Mr. Reznikoff points out, have a deep civic pride in their city and in its “antebellum beauty”; they are proud of the contributions the Jewish community has made to the development of the city. But their pride does not really extend to the old Southern tradition because they were always somewhat alien to it. At the same time, the self-definitions offered by European Jewish tradition have become more problematic with the years.

Ironically, it is in this absence of tradition, and in this nostalgia for it, that the Jew in the South is now most typically Southern. The will to self-definition remains—the categories no longer fit. The new South might be changing the picture both for Southern Jews and other Southerners; it is certainly worth investigating.



About the Author

Pin It on Pinterest

Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor to our site, you are allowed 8 free articles this month.
This is your first of 8 free articles.

If you are already a digital subscriber, log in here »

Print subscriber? For free access to the website and iPad, register here »

To subscribe, click here to see our subscription offers »

Please note this is an advertisement skip this ad
Clearly, you have a passion for ideas.
Subscribe today for unlimited digital access to the publication that shapes the minds of the people who shape our world.
Get for just
Welcome to Commentary Magazine.
We hope you enjoy your visit.
As a visitor, you are allowed 8 free articles.
This is your first article.
You have read of 8 free articles this month.
for full access to
Digital subscriber?
Print subscriber? Get free access »
Call to subscribe: 1-800-829-6270
You can also subscribe
on your computer at
Don't have a log in?
Enter you email address and password below. A confirmation email will be sent to the email address that you provide.