South Carolina Sojourn

bethisraelMy new job’s editorial territory extends past the state line, so last week I found myself touring the tiny coastal town of Beaufort, SC with local writer/arts maven/breadmaker’s wife Lisa Rentz. She was walking me through the halcyon streets past the arsenal when we came face-to-face with a small, white clapboard house with a mogen david plaque out front. Even with the South’s established Jewish history, it was still a surprise to find a synagogue among the Baptist churches, and I had to take a peek, even if it wasn’t official skirt! business.

Congregation Beth Israel has a sweet little ruby-carpeted sanctuary and knotty pine social hall and looks like it can accomodate a couple hundred worshippers. The core can’t be more than 100 or so families, though the lone volunteer unloading Chanukah chozzerai (in July?) says the numbers vary depending on recruits from the nearby Marine training center on Parris Island, who have been attending Beth Israel since 1918. (I know! Jewish Marines! It was an afternoon of anomalies, what can I say?)

The most interesting tidbit gleaned from my six-minute detour in to Beaufort’s Jewish nexus is that the Torah housed in Beth Israel’s ark is the very one carried over from Lithuania by the Lipsitz family. “Is that the same Lipsitz of Lipsitz Shoes?” I ask Lisa, looking over my contact list for the day (part of my job is scouting products from local businesses for the magazine; yes, I’m getting paid to shop, don’t be jealous.)

“That’s the younger Lipsitz,” Lisa informs me. “His dad still runs the department store across the street.” So she takes me back down Bay Street to Lipsitz’s Department Store, Beaufort’s oldest mercantile establishment, where the son of Max and Bertha Lipsitz, the first couple to be married inside Beth Israel, has spent almost all of his 87 years selling anything you could possibly need.

It’s Mrs. Lucille Lipsitz who greets us when we walk in; even though she’s probably said the same “Hello, y’all, may I help you?” greeting a million times in her life, her voice still rings with sincere Southern charm. Business appears to be rather slow, the store is sparsely stocked with the pink pastel beachwear, straw hats and vinyl suitcases. There’s a circular rack of vintage dresses, and I can’t decide whether they’re there to fulfill Beaufort’s demand for retro polyester or if they’ve actually been there since 1967.

There’s the tinny drone of a daytime game show in the background, and I ask if Mr. Lipsitz might be able to speak with me. From a recliner in the back of the store a crackly drawl pipes up. “I’m him, whatcha y’all need?” Joseph Lipsitz is simply the most adorable old man I’ve ever seen, with thick plastic glasses and pants up to his armpits, and is delighted to tell me all about his family’s role in Beaufort since the 1870’s. Much like the Jews of Savannah, these folks assimilated into Southern life by becoming outstanding citizens and opening successful businesses. Joe grew up in an apartment above the store, and a walk across two lanes introduced me to two more generations of Lipsitz, Joe’s son Neil and Neil’s bar-mitzvahed age son Adam, training for the family business during his summer vacation.

Thankfully, Lipsitz’s Shoes had a much more modern inventory than its parent store, and I was able to find a fabulous pair of moss green Clarks for September’s sneaker layout. So I got what I came for in Beaufort — as well an an unexpected addition to my never-ending historical education of Southern Jewish life.

For more morsels, check out this online museum of Southern Jewish artifacts
and A Jewish Tour of the Carolinas.

4 thoughts on “South Carolina Sojourn

  1. Wow! I loved this blog post so much. You did your very own investigative journalism and now that its blogged and possible Google indexed, someone somewhere is going to have access to this nugget of Jewish history that you just shared with us. Your blog might just get referenced on wikipedia. It’s days like those where life throws an awesome opportunity at you and it becomes something bigger. With blogs and the internet we’re now able to collect this knowledge and paint a clearer picture of our past and our heritage. Keep kicking ass!

  2. I lOVED this! Very cool reporting! I’m so interested in southern Jewish history. It’s always been amazing how they managed to survive with the Klan and prejudices (I went to school in the Deep South) and they kept their identity and were proud of it! I knew the Seigal family from Charleston who opened the first hardware store and their son became the first ordained rabbi in South Carolina.

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