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Jewish Heritage Collection > home “...A Portion of the People”:
Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life 

Silver basket presented
to Congregation Beth Elohim in 1840.
Private collection. 
silver basket
Our nationally traveling exhibition, “...A Portion of the People”: Three Hundred Years of Southern Jewish Life, will change popular conceptions about the South’s significance in American Jewish history. How many people know that South Carolina was the first place in the western world to elect a Jew to public office; that in 1800 Charleston was home to more Jews than any other town or city in North America; or that it was the birthplace of Reform Judaism on this side of the Atlantic. Our show tells a story that both in its grand sweep and in its subtle dimensions is unique in American Jewish history and rare among groups anywhere. The product of a six-year collaboration by the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina, McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina, and the College of Charleston, “...A Portion of the People” presents a remarkable group of objects and a new view of a neglected subject.
     The tale’s dynamic is found in the tension between the ways in which Jews have worked to become a part of southern society and the efforts they have made to sustain a separate Jewish identity. The exhibition gives equal weight to two levels of interpretation. First there is the historical narrative, organized by chronology and theme. Here we stress the importance of Jews in the public sphere and try to convey the substance of a southern Jewish culture—its physical texture, look, color, pace, smell, and sound. Second, embedded in the historical narrative is a philosophical concern with the power of the past and the role of memory in shaping patterns of everyday life. Visitors are asked to consider: Where do we find history? How do we lay claim to our culture? How do we change or conserve it?
Minature portrait of
Colonel Chapman Levy, c. 1835.
Private collection. 
Colonel Levy cameo
     In its inquiry into the nature of memory and identity, “...A Portion of the People” comes alive for audiences both Jewish and non-Jewish, southern and non-southern. The show addresses the implications of the Carolina Jewish experience for people of different ethnic and religious backgrounds who made a place for themselves in a pluralistic society. By analyzing the relationships among setting, dominant local culture, and economic change, we look at how tradition adapts to new conditions. Does successful adaptation mean assimilation? Ethnic separation? A new identity? The exhibit invites visitors to consider how they know who they are - what stories, objects, places, and experiences are integral to their own identities. In doing so “...A Portion of the People” nurtures self-awareness, the first step toward embracing the “other.”
     Starting with the earliest documented presence of a Jew in Charles Town in 1694, we follow the history of Jewish arrivals through decades when the majority of immigrants were Sephardim, exiles from the Iberian Peninsula, who came via England, Germany, and the West Indies; then Ashkenazim from central Europe; and then eastern Ashkenazim from Poland and Russia. We have intentionally taken a long view. To appreciate the drift toward acculturation and Reform that characterized the first 150 years of southern Jewish life, followed by the resurgence of Orthodoxy that has distinguished the past hundred years, one must examine all three centuries.
     South Carolina’s early Jews did not enter into an established culture; they were among the pioneers who created a new society. Subsequent generations of immigrants came into a situation where Jews already were a part of the social order, in an environment where both Jews and gentiles saw one another as less “different” than they did elsewhere. “...A Portion of the People” challenges familiar notions about southern culture by demonstrating that, from its very beginnings in the 17th century, Carolina was a mix of national, ethnic, religious, and racial groups. Of special interest is the relationship between Jews and African Americans. In a colony and state with an enslaved black majority, Jews found themselves on the privileged side of the racial divide.
Carolee Rosen’s first birthday party, 1931. Private collection.

Carolee Rosen's party photo
     The exhibition turns on events that compelled southern Jews to ask what it means to be a Jew, a southerner, an American. The War for Independence, the birth of Reform Judaism, the Civil War, the arrival of Russian and other eastern European Jews, the Holocaust, the creation of the State of Israel, the Civil Rights Movement—all were moments when public issues and private lives intersected and people had to choose among competing allegiances.
     The final gallery of “...A Portion of the People” leaps into the present. It features a portfolio of new work by acclaimed photographer Bill Aron, who has made his life’s mission documenting Jewish communities around the world. Aron recently spent several weeks in South Carolina making large-format, black and white images of contemporary Jewish life. The strength of his work is not only in creating a true likeness of his subjects, but in communicating through his art a feeling of values recognized and affirmed, an atmosphere of wonder and surprise, of humor and warmth. His South Carolina photographs reflect on major developments of the past 50 years, including material gains in the era of post-war prosperity, the trend toward more traditional religious observance, and a heightened sense of service and community.

Photos by Bill Aron. October 2000. Jewish Heritage Collection. 
Avram Aizenman photo
Avram Aizenman, Myrtle Beach
Reuben Greenberg photo
Reuben Greenberg, Charleston
     The exhibit is planned for a 2,600 square-foot space and includes over 200 paintings and artifacts drawn from South Carolina and across the United States. Many of these objects will be shown publicly for the first time. Our interpretation and design will stir the imagination, alter perceptions, and break down barriers between audience and object. Text panels will set objects in historical context while boldly presenting major ideas and defining moments. Audio segments, selected from the Jewish Heritage Collection’s archives of more than 300 interviews, will bring the first-person singular into play. Visitors will hear short stories revealing the creative and sometimes painful compromises southern Jews have made. Punctuated by humor and regret, gaiety and sorrow, these voices deepen the emotional impact of the exhibition.
Portrait of Caroline Agnes Moïse Lopez, c. 1875. Private collection.
Caroline Lopez portrait
     Several publications will accompany the show. A free gallery guide will pilot visitors through the exhibit and provide a glossary of Yiddish words and Jewish rituals. We will distribute through hotels and visitor centers a pamphlet outlining self-guided Jewish Heritage Tours through South Carolina’s lowcountry, midlands, and upcountry. In addition, an hour-length video documentary currently in production will be offered for broadcast on educational television stations in host cities, and a 20-minute version of the film will be available for classroom viewing.
     A full-color catalogue, to be published by the University of South Carolina Press, will showcase objects, explore core themes, and become a permanent trace of the exhibition. Edited by Theodore Rosengarten, with essays by Eli N. Evans, Jenna Weissman Joselit, Deborah Dash Moore, Jack Bass, and curator Dale Rosengarten, the catalogue promises to be an important addition to southern arts and letters.
     We have designed a rich array of public programs to accompany the show in South Carolina and we will assist traveling venues in planning similar events:
  • a concert of George Gershwin’s music at the opening reception at McKissick and a performance of Sephardic songs for the Charleston opening

  • McKissick Museum’s annual Folklife Festival featuring traditional Jewish foods, music, arts, and crafts

  • public forums, organized by the Jewish Historical Society of South Carolina and the College of Charleston’s Jewish Studies Program and Avery Research Center

     Museum staff, in collaboration with professional educators, are producing a curriculum for middle and high school students. Lesson plans and activities will convey information about migration, customs and rituals, and Jewish contributions to civic and cultural life. Like the exhibit itself, the lessons ask students to do more than absorb facts. The curriculum will encourage young people of every ethnic background to put themselves into the picture. How did their families get to this country? Why did they come? What customs or religious beliefs did they bring? How does it feel to find oneself in a strange land?
     Workshop guidelines, developed to train South Carolina public and religious school teachers, will be distributed to traveling venues outside the state, to encourage host museums to organize their own teacher institutes. Slides, background materials, and a copy of the short videotape contained in the educators’ kit will help make the curriculum useful to instructors who do not have access to the exhibition. Additional resources, including documents and treasures from our oral history archives, will be available to students on the Jewish Heritage Collection’s web site at the College of Charleston.
     To date “...A Portion of the People” has received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Bank of America, the Jesselson Foundation, the Maurice Amado Foundation, the John and Frances Loeb Foundation, the Helena Rubinstein Foundation, the Brand Foundation, the Lucius N. Littauer Foundation, the Joseph J. Miller Foundation, the Jerry and Anita Zucker Family Foundation, the William Price Fund of the Spartanburg County Foundation, the Barnet Foundation Trust, the South Carolina Humanities Council, the Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, Herbert and Harriet Keyserling, Jerry and Sue Kline, Benedict Rosen, Ron and Anne Krancer, and Robert and Nancy Lyon. Scheduled to open at McKissick Museum in Columbia in January 2002, the exhibit will then travel to four sites across the nation, including the Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston and the Center for Jewish History in New York City.

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