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A Stroll Through Jewish Savannah

A visitor takes in the Southern city’s surprising—and enduring—Jewish roots

Alexander Aciman
June 13, 2014
Savannah, GA. (Shutterstock)
Savannah, GA. (Shutterstock)

Walking over cobblestones on streets lined with monuments commemorating the American Revolution, it is easy to forget that Savannah is a profoundly Jewish city. To someone from New York, the billowing Spanish moss and knotted trees belong more to Gone with the Wind than they do a Jewish haven. Not only is it hard to remember that Savannah has a long Jewish history, it’s hard to believe in the first place.

In 1733, shortly after the colony of Georgia was founded, an epidemic (thought to be Yellow Fever) started killing off the settlers. Because Savannah’s only doctor died early on, a ship carrying Sephardic Jews was allowed entry on the condition that a doctor onboard, Samuel Nunis, would treat the sick. Soon after their arrival, the Jews organized what would later become Congregation Mickve Israel, one of America’s oldest Jewish communities. Robert Haas, Mickve Israel’s current rabbi, explained to me that at one point as much as 35 percent of Savannah’s population was Jewish. (Today the number is closer to 2.5 percent.) Savannah has had several Jewish mayors and judges; Jews have been involved in prominent social clubs, and helped found the city’s Rotary Club and Girl Scout troop. Savannah’s Jewish Education Alliance had several competitive athletic squads.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Savannah’s Jewish community is how seamlessly it has been integrated into the history of the city as a whole: Mickve Israel’s synagogue is perched on one side of Bull Street—a major avenue in Savannah’s historic district—where one can also find the Oglethorpe Club (named after Savannah’s founder), and the Mercer House, where Midnight in The Garden of Good and Evil took place; two blocks north of the synagogue is the small park where Forrest Gump sat on a bench. Washington’s response to the letter he received from Mickve Israel congratulating him on his inauguration is the first presidential letter to any American Jewish community.

Along historic Savannah’s main drag, it’s not difficult to see the traces of a Jewish past: Marvin’s men’s shop, Adler’s department store, Byck stationary, Yachum and Yachum clothes, Kantziper Meats, and many more. The ghostly shop names hang over the modern day boutiques as opaquely and yet as indelibly as the federalist typeface on moldering headstones in nearby Bonaventure Cemetery. Down Oglethorpe Street, where the trees form a natural arbor, is a strip of land Oglethorpe himself set aside for Jewish burials—which is to say that at one of historic Savannah’s busiest intersections there is a monument to its Jewish community.

If I am amazed by Savannah it is not only because there isn’t a Jewish ghetto here, or because, according to Rabbi Haas and the congregation’s executive director Ken Chanin, there isn’t any of the latent anti-Semitism one might expect to find in a city so far south, or that when Oglethorpe allowed Jews to enter the colony, it was at a time when alcohol, slavery, Catholicism, and lawyers were forbidden but Jews evidently were not; rather, the most telling part of Savannah’s story is that unlike most cities that once served as thriving centers of Jewish life and commerce, Savannah never forced its Jews to leave.

Alexander Aciman is a writer living in New York. His work has appeared in, among other publications, The New York Times, Vox, The Wall Street Journal, and The New Republic.