Charleston has a rich Jewish cultural history. One of the first American synagogues was established in Charleston in 1750. For the past 17 years, it has been celebrating Jewish culture with an exciting string of events during the Piccolo Spoleto Festival.
The College of Charleston's Jewish Studies Program produces "A World of Jewish Culture," an event series that was originally created in honor of Israel's 50th birthday in 1998. It has since become a staple of Piccolo. Starting today, seven events in three days include several musical performances, films and coffeehouse events.
Martin Perlmutter, director of the Jewish Studies Program, has been there since this program's inception. "We're called the 'Holy City' because of all the church steeples," said Perlmutter. "But there is a long Jewish history here. I wanted to highlight that as well."
This year "A World of Jewish Culture," whose seven events begin tonight, includes a coffeehouse featuring professional musicians such as Susana Behar, a screening of "Tevye," the nonmusical film version of "Fiddler on the Roof" based on Sholem Aleichem's book (in honor of the book's 75th year), musical performances by The Jewish Choral Society (featuring Ayala Asherov-Kalus), Yuriy Bekker and Friends and a program called Viva Klezmer.
Jewish culture has existed in Charleston since the early days of the colony in the 17th century. Charleston became a sanctuary of religious freedom and by 1800, South Carolina had more Jewish people than any other state. The first synagogue in Charleston, Kahal Kadosh Beth Elohim was established in 1750, and South Carolina is considered the birthplace of Reform Judaism in the Americas.
Yuriy Bekker, concertmaster of the Charleston Symphony Orchestra, sees "A World of Jewish Culture" as an opportunity to raise awareness of Jewish history in Charleston and feature Jewish composers. He performs every year, usually in the form of a recital, but this year Bekker has invited more musicians to try music he's never played before.
"I find it to be my mission to find more and more Jewish composers and works that are not heard very often," Bekker said. "I want to bring them to the stage to perform because nothing could make me happier than for folks to hear this music."
One of the pieces that Yuriy Bekker and Friends will be performing has its roots in Charleston. Golijov's "Tenebrae for String Quartet," premiered at the Dock Street Theatre at the 2002 Spoleto Festival.
"It's a little amusing," Bekker said. "I saw this piece performed in Moscow. It's making a trip around the world to come back to Charleston."
Melanie Lustig is a Goldring Arts Journalist from Syracuse University.