A second pass through historic Savannah on our way north left us with a day to cover a small part of the city left unseen from our last visit. Previously, Leah and I had budgeted two days in Savannah–between Thanksgiving and Christmas–as we ever-so-slowly slipped into our winter’s hibernation in Florida. Additionally, our obligation to celebrate Dad’s 93rd birthday in West Palm Beach (Happy Birthday, Dad!) on December 11th didn’t leave us much wriggle room for extra time.
Nevertheless, our first visit was rewarding, with memorable stops to: Bonaventure Cemetery, a fabled 18-century burial ground;
the revival of River Street, along the Savannah River;
neighboring City Market, an 18th-century open-air marketplace;
Forsyth Park, with its famous oak-lined pathway…
leading to legendary Forsyth Park Fountain;
and finishing at the landmark Gothic-Revival Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, the centerpiece of the historic district.
But Savannah’s geo-positioning (part of the I-95 corridor) made it an easy transition point for routing our return home, and a welcoming destination for a second helping of Southern hospitality…and of course, we were not disappointed.
“So, we have another day here,” announced Leah. “How would you like to spend it?”
“You’re probably gonna laugh,” I stated seriously, “but just like Charlotte, there’s lots of Jewish heritage in Savannah, and there’s a historic congregation in the historic district we could check out.”
“But it’s Saturday, so there’s no way we’re getting in during the Sabbath,” she forewarned, so the best you could expect is an outside picture of the building.”
“Unless we attend services.” I added. “C’mon, it’ll be spiritually enlightening, and you can pray we made the right choice by relocating to St. Augustine.”
We arrived at Congregation Mikve Israel, walked past a uniformed police officer, and through the anointed doors…
where we were met by welcoming ushers who immediately apologized for the temple’s appearance, and offered us a program outlining Catherine’s Bat Mitzvah. We were twice surprised.
Ordinarily, we would have taken a seat at the back of the temple making it easy to leave at our earliest convenience, but it seems that God had other plans for us.
We crossed a chuppah of scaffolding shrouding one-half of the sanctuary’s neo-Gothic architecture, and placing the back rows of the pews off-limits.
Instead, we took a seat closer to the altar among other congregants, while feeling somewhat out of place.
We opened our siddurim to the selected text announced by Rabbi Haas, and subsequently followed the service to its conclusion, as it was meticulously led from the bimah by Catherine.
While chanting familiar prayers with familiar melodies, I reflected on the original forty-two Sephardim and Ashkenazim who disembarked from the William and Sarah in 1733–having sailed aboard a London vessel bound for Oglethorpe’s fledgling colony in Georgia with their precious Sefer Torah in tow–
in search of religious freedom and a fresh start.
As we prepared to exit after the last refrain of Adon Olam had echoed through the hall, we were approached by an elder of the congregation who encouraged us to stay behind and enjoy lunch with the other members in celebration of Catherine’s mitzvah.
There was no way of turning down Jack’s invitation. He wasn’t taking “no” for an answer. We feasted on lemon chicken, orzo with roasted vegetables, artisan lettuce with dressing, mixed fruit salad, and challah. The company at our table was as delightful and fulfilling as the meal.
we lamented over a missed opportunity to learn more about Mikve Israel’s storied history, given that tours only occur on weekdays. However, a temple docent–conveniently seated at our table–volunteered to escort us to the second floor for a personal inspection of museum exhibits…
and museum artifacts…
As serendipitous as this adventure was, I knew as I descended the stairs…
that I was meant to tell the story of Mikve Israel’s descendants: about their unwavering regard for their American Revolutionary roots, their continuing crusade for community; and their unconditional code of acceptance and inclusion.
Leah and I were invited to return and sample real Southern Jewish hospitality the next time we pass through Savannah, and I think that’s an invitation that I can easily accept, regardless of the obstacles.