“I was born in Savannah, lived my life in Savannah, and I’ll someday be dead in Savannah,” said Mrs. Levy, in a beautiful Southern drawl, which until recently, I would never have attributed to someone Jewish. If she could have stood up straight, she most assuredly would not have been more than five feet tall. Her oversized wire-rimmed glasses magnified brown eyes and her most notable feature, besides a pencil-like, yet warm smile were her perfectly manicured irridescent red nails. She spoke with quiet authority as she pointed out the wealth of photographs, journal entries, ceremonial objects, letters and other items that chronicled the history of Temple Mikveh, the third oldest Jewish congregation in the U.S., housed in an elaborate neo-Gothic building, more cathedral than synagogue. When she read the shock on my face as she pointed out a picture of Robert E. Lee, who had paid a visit to the Temple, Mrs. Levy quietly confessed, “I do believe that if I were the owner of a grand plantation, I would probably do everything I could to protect my home too.” I could feel my own sense of discomfort with her words, which had been preceded by her admitted uneasiness with the idea that Jews had supported the confederacy.
Two previous encounters with Jewish tourist sites on this trip have focused on Jews as victims. While through Francis Marion (a.k.a. Swamp Fox) Park in Charleston a couple of weeks ago, I noticed a large circle of wrought iron posts. Wandering over to the site, I discovered this was Charleston’s Holocaust memorial. What appeared to be a stray, crumpled black garbage bag lying in the middle of the site,
turned out to be a huge, bronze tallit, its fringes twisted in three corners—-a silent, yet deafening shroud. Several days later, on a warm, amazingly sunny Saturday morning in Miami Beach, we walked through two rows of palm trees standing at attention, their roots encased in a beige cement walk-way that opened onto to a huge forearm emerging from a pond of water, its hand outstretched. As I approached this surrealistic object, I was engulfed with horrific sculpted images of men, women, and children covering the forearm’s surface; reaching for each other in a death grip, their faces etched in fear and horror. On the ground below were more victims, their expressions and postures frighteningly real. It was as if I had come face to face with the unimaginable and was paralyzed to help, my camera lense affording the only shield of protection from this almost unbearable scene.
As a child of Holocaust survivors, I am compelled to remember. As part of remembering, my legacy orders me to bear witness to human suffering. My unease with Mrs. Levy’s confession came from the questions it forced me to ask myself, “What would I do if my Savannah home were threatened? What would I do if I had been raised by house slaves, who cared for me like their own children? What would I do if Union soldiers threatened to take it all away?”
We left Mrs. Levy as the cloudy Savannah morning gave way to a drizzly, chilled afternoon. An artist in City Market, who captured my imagination with her paintings of Gulla women, who inhabit the barrier islands off the coast of South Carolina, responded to my curiosity with a brochure advertising an African-American Heritage tour of Savannah, led by what turned out to be an occasionally arrogant, but nonetheless brilliant Dr. Jamal, who reframed victimization into strength by unearthing a gold-mine of information about slavery, as well as the wealth of African culture that seems to have been kept a secret from most of us, black or white, who walk the streets of Savannah or anywhere else in this country. I left his van three hours later, wondering what to do with the realization I couldn’t turn away from; that this beautiful town I had been smitten by less than 24 hours ago, was built on the backs of tortured laborers, who filled their mouths with African sand, all they could take with them, as they were yanked away from their homes, to become a commodity, like cattle or cotton, in an alien world.
Black and Jew; so much shared, yet we are separated by a gulf of misunderstanding
as wide as the ocean that holds our journeys. Jamal showed me the hand-made bricks built by black hands that became the cobblestone streets I strolled on today. I want to take him to Egypt and show him the pyramids made by a mortar mixed with Jewish blood and sweat. I have learned how slave ships stole children from their mother’s arms, who emerged half-dead from the Middle Passage. Can I show him the outstretched hand in Miami Beach that holds shaved-headed, starving almost- corpses? He highlighted survival through underground schools and songs and a culture that revealed itself in secret. I want to take him to the Savannah temple and show him the menorah sitting in its glass case, with its eight small trays for oil that could be dumped out and hidden when the Marranos heard the sounds of Spanish soldiers bursting through the doors. We could talk of lost countries and survival and freedom, bearing witness to adversity and triumph, bearing witness, bearing sorrow, bearing pride, bearing hope.