The Chosen People In The Holy City
Part VII: The 1820s: Charleston’s Jewish Population Begins To Decrease/Many Charleston Jews Seek Opportunities Elsewhere/Reform Judaism Makes Its Appearance In Charleston
By Jeffrey Kaplan
As we saw in last month’s article and beginning in approximately 1800, Charleston’s Jews constituted the largest and wealthiest Jewish community in the United States. This fact was known and recognized not only by the members of Charleston’s Jewish community, but also by many non-Jews as well. In 1800 the Jews of Charleston numbered at least 500, and more likely 600 souls. This means that at least one-fifth and probably close to a fourth of all the Jews in the U.S. lived in Charleston. By 1820, the Jews in Charleston numbered 800 people, by far the largest Jewish community in the country. New York had the next-largest number of Jews in 1820 — 550 people, with Philadelphia’s 450 Jews constituting the third-largest Jewish community in the U.S at this time.
These statistics stand in sharp contrast to just 30 years previously, in 1790, when Charleston’s Jews accounted for about 250 souls. New York may have had a few more Jews than Charleston in 1790. It should be noted that as far back as 1790, Charleston’s Jewish community of only 250 people constituted three percent of the white population of Charleston. In 1820, when Charleston’s Jews were 800 strong, they accounted for five percent of those Charlestonians who were white. This was certainly a noticeable group, and explains why a Frenchman accompanying Lafayette when he visited Charleston in 1825 as part of his triumphal visit to the U.S. to mark the 50th anniversary of the American Revolution described Charleston’s Jews as the only significant Jewish community in this country at the time. These statistics have been mentioned in previous articles in this series, but are worth repeating, because the mid-1820s was the high-water mark for the Holy City’s Jews in terms of numbers.
The year 1830 shows a significant change in Jewish statistics in the U.S. New York, which had about 550 Jews in 1820, but could count 1,150 in 1830. Its Jewish population had more than doubled in the ten years from 1820 to 1830. The Jews of Philadelphia, who numbered about 450 in 1820, had increased to 750 by 1830. Charleston, in contrast, saw the number of Jews there decline in 1830 as compared to 1820. The same person who had calculated the number of American Jews in 1790 as only 1,500 (as noted in previous articles in this series), relying on names found in the first census conducted in that year, used the same method (i.e., the U.S. census of 1830) to determine the number of Jews in Charleston in 1830. He concluded that Charleston’s Jewish residents numbered only 650 in 1830, down from 800 in 1820. As was the case with previous attempts to count the number of Jews in the U.S. using figures from the U.S. census, the census-takers missed some Jews that we know from other sources were living in Charleston and other cities in 1830. Given this fact, the actual number of Jews in Charleston in 1830 was probably more like 700 people rather than 650. A figure of 700 Jews in 1830 means that Charleston’s Jewish population declined by about one-eighth in the ten years between 1820 and 1830.
This was not a huge decrease in numbers, but it was noticeable, particularly compared with the large increases in the Jewish populations of New York and Philadelphia during the same period. New York and Philadelphia were not the only cities whose Jewish populations were growing rapidly. New Orleans was booming at this time, and the number of Jews living there reflected this. We have the names of only 15 adult Jews known to be living in New Orleans in 1815, at the time of the Battle of New Orleans (although it is possible there were a couple of others). Within ten years or so, there were several hundred Jews in New Orleans, and Jews could be found in other places in Louisiana, as well.
There were other demographic changes in Charleston’s Jewish population besides a decline in absolute numbers at this time. A significant change was the decrease in the numbers of Jews of Sephardic background. The Sephardic Jews — those with roots in Spain and Portugal — had accounted for the majority of the earliest Jewish settlers in the young colony of Carolina, and they continued to be an important and numerous group in South Carolina through the end of the eighteenth century. Prayers in Charleston’s synagogue followed the customs, melodies and pronunciation of Sephardic Jews. Except for a brief period in Charleston roughly coinciding with the American Revolution, only the Sephardic ritual was used in Charleston, and those Jews who had not grown up with that ritual acclimated themselves to it. People in Charleston were very attached to the Sephardic ritual. Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim (KKBE), Charleston’s synagogue, in its constitution of 1820, stated that services were to be conducted “according to the minhag Sephardim [the Sephardic ritual] as always practiced in this city.”
Previous articles in this series have discussed the differences between the Sephardic and Ashkenazic (i.e., those Jews from western, central, and eastern Europe) rituals. Suffice it to say at this point that the Sephardic ritual is characterized by very decorous services with elaborate ceremony. In the same vein, KKBE’s handsome synagogue of 1794 very much reflected Sephardic customs and traditions, as has been noted in prior articles in this series, However, as the 19th century progressed, Sephardic Jews diminished as a percentage of Charleston’s Jews, even as Sephardic traditions continued. By the mid 1820s if not before, the percentage of Charleston’s Jews with Sephardic surnames probably did not exceed 20 percent. Of course, some Charleston Jews with Ashkenazic surnames were of partly Sephardic descent, as will be presently seen, but the percentage of Charleston Jews with Sephardic surnames continued to decrease as the 19th century progressed.
Charleston’s decline in the number of its Jewish residents was in large measure a reflection of the fact that other places were seen as offering better opportunities beginning in the 1820s and 1830s. A number of individuals who became well-known left Charleston during this period. Some moved farther away than others. Isaac and Jacob Moise, for example, settled in Augusta, Georgia in the 1820s. They became prominent in business and also were active in the beginnings of Jewish communal life in Augusta.
The celebrated Judah P. Benjamin left Charleston in the 1820s and came to New Orleans with his cousin Henry Hyams. Benjamin, of course, became the foremost international commercial lawyer in the South before the War Between the States. He served as attorney general, then secretary of war and finally secretary of state in the Confederate cabinet. After the end of that war, he escaped to England and began yet another career as a leading lawyer and Queen’s Counsel at a time in his life when many would have considered retirement. His cousin Henry Hyams eventually became lieutenant governor of Louisiana.
Edwin Warren Moise was trained as a physician in Charleston. He moved to Woodville, Mississippi when he was young and practiced medicine. Later he entered the legal profession and moved to New Orleans. He became a member of the Louisiana legislature and rose to become speaker of the Louisiana House of Representatives. When Louisiana seceded, he became a Confederate judge, and concluded his career as Louisiana’s attorney general.
Solomon Heydenfeldt is an interesting individual whose journey took him all the way to California. Born in Charleston, his father’s family was Ashkenazic. However, his mother’s maiden name was De Pass, an old Sephardic family. The name De Pass first appeared in South Carolina in the 1730s. Heydenfeldt first moved to Alabama, as did many South Carolinians during this period. He became a judge in Alabama in his mid-twenties. Elcan Heydenfeldt, Solomon’s brother, settled in California and became a prominent and colorful member of the California legislature. Solomon Heydenfeldt also ended up in California. With California’s admission to the Union in 1850, the state established a high court, and Heydenfeldt was elected to the California Supreme Court. He was very highly regarded as a jurist and a political thinker.
Philip Phillips is an outstanding example of someone with deep roots in Charleston who had a very distinguished career both before and after leaving South Carolina. Phillips’ father was an immigrant from Bavaria who settled in Charleston. His mother Caroline was the daughter of Marks Lazarus, a veteran of the Revolutionary War who served at Fort Sullivan, as well as Savannah and the siege of Charleston. The Lazarus family was a prominent family in Charleston. Philip Phillips became a lawyer and served in the South Carolina legislature. He subsequently moved to the Mobile area in Alabama. He served in the Alabama legislature, attended the 1852 Democratic national convention in Baltimore, where he gave a speech in support of the candidacy of Franklin Pierce, and served a term in the U.S. Congress representing the First Congressional District of Alabama.
His wife was Eugenia Levy of the well-known Levy family of Charleston, and a fiery partisan of the Confederate cause. His wife’s sister was Phoebe Levy Pember, the famous matron of Chimborazo Hospital in Richmond during the War Between the States. After the War, Phillips and his family lived in Washington, D.C., where he was a lawyer’s lawyer who specialized in arguing before the Supreme Court. These are just some of the Charleston Jews who achieved prominence in other locations, but many others also established new lives after moving away during this period.
The doctrines of Reform Judaism appeared in Charleston during this period. As was noted in last month’s article in this series, Charleston’s synagogue was very much an exemplar of traditional Orthodox Judaism according to Sephardic traditions as the 19th century began. However, just as a call for innovations in Jewish practice took place in Germany in the early 19th century, some Charlestonians expressed similar desires not long afterwards. The beginnings of Reform Judaism in Charleston, which was also the beginnings of Reform Judaism in the U.S., have long been identified with Isaac Harby, a well-known literary figure and educator in Charleston at this time.
However, there were other figures in Charleston at least as important as Isaac Harby in the development of what became known as the Reformed Society of Israelites. Harby’s name has come down to us because he was the best known of the individuals involved in the Reformed Society of Israelites. However, the others involved were also people of accomplishment. The next issue will examine the circumstances of the formation of the Reformed Society of Israelites and their practices and activities.
Jeffrey Kaplan is a retired attorney who worked in Washington, D.C. before returning to Charleston. He has served as the archivist of Philadelphia’s oldest synagogue, Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel (founded in 1740) and is the historian of BSBI Congregation here in Charleston, the South’s oldest Orthodox synagogue. He teaches and lectures regularly and is also a storyteller. He may be reached by email at email@example.com.