Charlestonians say that the 1896 statue of John C. Calhoun was raised up so high over the square that protestors couldn’t pelt his image with rotten food, stones, or other signs of displeasure as they had in its initial incarnation which had Calhoun much closer to the ground in 1872. Our host David Slucki regaled us with this story when my collaborator, Jewlia Eisenberg, and I were in Charleston, South Carolina, home of Ft. Sumter, the main Slave Mart in the south, and not far from the Sea Islands—home to the Gullah or Geechee, African Americans who maintained deeper cultural relations to Africa—to perform at the College of Charleston (COC) in honor of Kristallnacht.
Jewlia’s music is informed by Gullah music, but she had never heard it performed live, so she was very excited for our visit to Charleston. We arrived on Thursday, November 8 and gave a performance of our show Art is My Weapon: The Radical Musical Life of Lin Jaldati to a packed house of mostly undergraduate students who were taking courses offered by our hosts, COC professors associated with the Jewish Studies program. After the performance, David, Jewlia, and I wandered the relatively quiet streets of central Charleston looking for food. We ended up sidling up to the bar at The Fig, apparently one of the city’s hottest dining spots.
I had rented a car for the weekend even though Charleston is small enough to be a walking city, because Jewlia and I wanted to go to the annual Penn Center Heritage Festival, in honor of Gullah culture, about 90 miles from Charleston on the Sea Island. With car in hand, on Friday morning, we ventured off to find Denmark Vesey’s memorial.
In the midst of a park named in honor of Confederate General Wade Hampton stands the monument in honor of Vesey, a former enslaved person who was executed in 1822 for his role in planning an attempted insurrection against slave holders. The monument, which was not unveiled until 2014, tells of Vesey’s enslavement and self-emancipation, his role in establishing Hampstead (now Emanuel) AME Church, his role as an educator, and his efforts to end slavery. Vesey was one of thirty-five African Americans who were executed following a series of trials that revealed the scope of the planned rebellion against the institution of slavery in South Carolina. In addition to creating slave patrols and a military barracks to protect the city from possible slave rebellions in the future, the city of Charleston destroyed Vesey’s church, and then it took nearly 200 years to erect a statue in his honor.
Only recently, especially after the 2015 massacre at Emanuel AME Church did South Carolina’s state house take down the confederate flag and did countermemorials start to be established across the city.
After Vesey’s memorial, we stopped by The Citadel, the military college located right next door to Hampton Park and the Vesey Memorial. In fact, the location was not a coincidence as the Citadel was established in 1842 as a force to stop the insurrection of enslaved peoples and to reassert white supremacy. Unlike the teeming streets in downtown Charleston, especially those near the College of Charleston, which felt like swarms of humanity as people leapt out into the street without warning, the Citadel was like a smooth running machine.
Cadets in uniform walked on the right (always on the right) as they knew exactly where imaginary pathways traversed the large grounds. After driving downtown, walking on the water front, and seeing an exhibition dedicated to contemporary photographers documenting the New South, we had lunch with some COC faculty, and then I spent some time working in the afternoon in Slucki’s favorite cafe.
We had dinner reservations at Slucki’s favorite restaurant at 9pm, so Jewlia and I had time to check out “Veteran’s Shabbat” at Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE for short). It is the fourth oldest synagogue in the country and the oldest continually operating Reform synagogue in the world. (Although there are olders one in Germany, they stopped functioning after Kristallnacht and during the War.) Intrigued by the idea of a Kabbalat Shabbat service , the weekly ritual bringing in the Jewish Sabbath, dedicated to US veterans, we entered the grounds of the grand old colonial building with white columns and a domed roof over the sanctuary.
As we entered the sanctuary, we noticed an honor guard of cadets, presumably from the Citadel, whose origins we learned about earlier in the day, lined up in formation at the back of the sanctuary. I’m used to Kabbalat Shabbat services opening with songs from the Psalms, but never had I seen an armed honor guard lined up in formation. The front two cadets held the American and Israeli flags. As they entered the sanctuary, after their commanding officer said, “Forward, march,” the two flag bearers marched up to the bimah and planted the two flags on either side. Their 19th-century-style uniforms, including sabers and shakos, couldn’t help but remind me and Jewlia that the purpose of the Citadel, and by proxy of the cadets who go there, was the violent enforcement of white supremacy. Most disturbingly, southern Jews invited the cadets from an institution founded to enforce white supremacy to celebrate the veterans.
As the congregation and choir sang the anthem of the respective branch, veterans of the branch were invited to stand up and be honored. On the one hand, it was a lovely show of patriotism in honoring vets. On the other hand, I couldn’t imagine something like this taking place at my synagogue back home. Perhaps this is what a southern Reform synagogue, the oldest one in the country, does to maintain good relations with its neighbors and assert itself in the South’s racial hierachy. It was hard to tell.
Nonetheless, I felt out of place and couldn’t pin point the reason: was it because it was a high Reform service, led by a choir, rather than the congregation, and mostly in English, rather than in Hebrew, or because of the odd spectacle of watching armed cadets come up to the bimah, getting too close for my comfort to the ark with weapons, and planting the American and Israeli flags. (I was also wondering what the presumably non-Jewish cadets were thinking when they were told to report to KKBE at 20.00 sharp for Veterans’ Shabbat.) We slipped out during the amidah to make our 9pm dinner reservation.
The next morning, we ate a traditional southern breakfast, then headed to Patriots Point to take pictures of the USS Yorktown. After that, we took off for the Sea Islands. Our final destination was the Penn Center where the Heritage Festival took place. The Center was founded in 1862 as a school for freed slaves. It was located on a plantation that had been abandoned by white plantation owners after the Union Army liberated the Sea Islands in July 1861, making it one of the first places the Army liberated from the Confederacy after the Civil War began in April 1861. We were two white Jews in a sea of African American faces enjoying catfish (I know, not kosher, but when in Rome…), Gullah music, poetry, and dancing. The lead male dancer beckoned me to the stage as I ended up participating in a traditional warrior dance.
It felt weird to be up there, a white man performing a traditional African dance, but I was invited up by the dancer, otherwise I’d have been too nervous. But he insisted, and I obliged.
We then listened to a poet reciting her work in a mixture of standard English and Geechee, the language of the Gullah, which is a mixture of English and African languages. We took off as the sun set and headed back to Charleston for our final evening dinner with Deborah Lipstadt, who was in town for a literary festival talking about her book related to her David Irving Trial.
On Sunday, our final day, Jewlia left at the crack of dawn, and I gave a second talk to commemorate Kristallnacht, this one about the Nazi persecution of LGBTQ people. I was told that the Jewish community needed to hear this talk, because although I argued that LGBTQ people should not be considered victims of the Holocaust, nonetheless their memorialization should be seen as part of the Holocaust. I was surprised that I got little push back.
As I flew home, I pondered about the weird and wonderful experience I had commemorating Kristallnacht with a musical performance about a radical Yiddish singer and a talk about LGBTQ people in Nazi Germany in a city in which I felt like a white (Jewish) tourist participating in an African American pilgrimage tour to sites of African American genocidal slavery.
I forgot to mention that on Friday, we did a memorial walking touring, which started at the Emanuel AME Church, the site of the 2015 massacre.
That church is two blocks from a square that houses the Calhoun Memorial and the Holocaust Memorial with an eerie black tallit draped on the ground and a Vietnam War Memorial-like wall descending into the ground with the names of the camps. And then I noticed the list of other victim groups. It included “homosexuals.”