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O My America: My People in Charleston, SC

December 23, 2014

11386112-hymans-seafoodAS I WROTE two days ago, on my way down to South Carolina, two fundamentalist clowns on the radio tried to convert me. Tonight, in Charleston, I experienced how Southern Jews have, at least in some cases, influenced the South to be more inclusive.

The locale was Hyman’s Seafood, a sprawling restaurant and general store on Meeting Street, alongside the city’s historic Market Street. We went there for dinner, shorty after arriving in town, because of its blatantly Jewish name and because it was, in our hotel’s guidebook, the only restaurant presenting a black face among the gallery of local chefs (Chef Edmond Floyd, a 25-year employee).

The founder of Hyman’s, Wolf Maier Karesh, was an Eastern European Jew (with a Sephardic-sounding family name) who started a “Southern Wholesale” business at the site in 1890. The business was expanded by his son-in-law, Herman Hyman, and is now in the hands of the fifth generation — a couple of whom stopped at our table to say hello, for no particular reason but the spirit of Southern hospitality and Jewish shmoozing.

The food was deelish and as treyf as you please (though they offered a kosher meal, too, with all proceeds going to Chabad). The company donates $200,000 a year to charities, including the Jewish Federation, Hadassah, and the United Negro College Fund, as well as various Christian ministries and appeals that apparently, like Chabad, have made a successful pitch at the cash register. To boot, the “About Us” section of the menu included a proposal for Mideast Peace by Eli Hyman, one of the current owners, who described himself as a Zionist and spent most of his airtime talking about damming the Red Sea to restore the Dead Sea and improve the distribution of water. It was lovely, naive, and so very comfortably Jewish-identified...

For the first time in a commercial establishment on this trip, nobody wished us a “Merry Christmas” on the way out, only “Happy Holidays.” Also on the way out, they had a bin of umbrellas for “rent” for $15. Bring them back for a full refund, or keep them for the $15.

Hyman’s was the friendliest, most ecumenical, and most hopping business imaginable, here on a rainy Monday night in Charleston, South Carolina.

hyman-s-seafoodOh, I almost forgot: There were small metal plaques at the tables, testifying to celebrities who had eaten there. Barbra Streisand, Erma Bombeck, Alan Dershowitz, Billy Joel, AC/DC, Dionne Warwick, Frederic Douglass IV, Danny Glover, Neil Young... And at my table, right beneath my plate: James Brown, whose eighth yortsayt arrives this Christmas Day. I was sitting in the King of Soul’s chair!

In 1800, South Carolina had the largest Jewish population, numbering 2,000, of any state in the U.S. They were mostly British Sephardim, who had been coming here, mostly to Charleston, since the charter of the Carolina Colony, drafted by John Locke himself in 1669, granted liberty of conscience to all settlers, including “Jews, heathens, and dissenters.”

It seems that a few “Jews, heathens, and dissenters” can go a long way towards taking the edge off intolerance.

Lawrence Bush edits Jewish Currents and Jewdayo.