A Great Many Jews

Daniel Betts' letter to his daughter Julia, April 7, 1821. Ms 101843

Daniel Betts’ letter to his daughter Julia, April 7, 1821. Ms 101843

I am often struck by how many men from Connecticut moved south to North or South Carolina to seek their fortune. Daniel Betts of Redding was one such man, and we recently acquired a series of letters he wrote home to his daughter Julia while he was in Charleston, South Carolina. One of his letters in particular caught my attention. It was written April 7, 1821.

He wrote: “I will observe that there are a great many Jews in this place it is said there are more than in any other place in the United States.” Daniel commented on their “forms and customs” that he found a bit odd. He insinuated they rarely told the truth, they did not handle money from sunset on Friday to sunset on Saturday, but they will still made contracts during that time, and “they will purchase goods anywhere that they can find a bargain.” Ahh, stereotypes.

Daniel observed that the Jews had “many superstitions respecting their dead.” One was that the corpse was laid face down and remained untouched for a period of time. Men could not be in a room where a woman was being prepared for burial and vice versa; Christians and gentiles were never allowed to see a dead body. Another interesting note Daniel made was that the Jews would not bury their dead within the bounds of a city.

Daniel’s comments tell us as much about him and his family as it does about the Jewish population of Charleston. I sincerely doubt if he had ever met a person who was Jewish. Portions of his letters, and those written by his daughter back to Daniel, are filled with admonitions about leading a spiritual life, about Scripture and prayers, and about religious revivals. He was a very religious (read Protestant) person, and found Jewish traditions totally at odds with anything he had ever experienced. Although he probably did not realize it, Daniel was receiving an education he would never have found in Redding.

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2 thoughts on “A Great Many Jews

  1. People don’t realize that Charleston is home to one of the oldest Jewish populations in the country. Any where shipping was the main form of commerce, “usury” was needed. Jews made this their business because Christians were forbidden to do so. Charleston was probably one of the most diverse cities in America for a very long time.

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