Savannah, Georgia – Kosher Vacation
This is a fun one. Savannah is a little different than the usual places people go and that was why we went. It seems to be a “pass-thru” place for Jews to stop for the shul and then go on to Florida. I was asked that more than once, and in fact, ran into someone from Lakewood that I knew who was doing just that. I’ve been to Florida too many times and there’s plenty of reasons to go there on vacation. For a smaller and much less intense location than Miami, there’s Savannah. The flight is also shorter.
Savannah is place to go for history, nice parks and beaches, and a close knit frum Jewish community of about 200 families. Almost everything about Savannah is beautiful, designed in the 1700s with squares throughout the city as well as larger parks. Everything just seems more calm there – people don’t even honk when the light turns green and no one is rushing down the street. It effects your pace almost immediately. There are many transplants from New York and New Jersey who retire here and even some younger people who move here.
The frum Jewish community is centered around a single large shul which dates back to the 1960s. There’s stadium seating for about 250 people with a large mural in the front and woman’s section on either side. A large banquet hall is on the other side of a center hallway and another side room is used for davening and the kollel. A Judaica store and place to get kosher meat are also in the building and probably more things I don’t even know about. Three are two weekday Shachris minyanim as well as Minchah and Maariv every day.
The shul situated in front of a large residential area with streets named after Confederate generals. Across a two lane highway with traffic lights are a row of many hotels – all within the eruv and some across the road from the shul or within a half mile walk.
There are about 200 families in the community, I’m told. There’s a Jewish day school and 9th grade for girls is just starting up at the time of this writing. Many frum Jews were born in Savannah and lived there their whole lives complete with a southern accent. The community is slowly shrinking, unfortunately, and it seems that many people’s children have moved elsewhere to larger communities. Thus, there’s a kollel to help revitalize the community and I did meet someone who stayed in Savannah after learning there for years, preferring the location to the more high pressure New York area.
You won’t find any kosher restaurants in Savannah though you will find a kosher Cold Stone Creamery in a strip mall almost adjacent to the shul. (It was my first time at one of those – totally overrated. It’s about 600 to 1000 calories for an ice cream / sugar concoction with peanut butter, cotton candy, and other such things.)
There are also two Cinnabon locations which are certified kosher and some “kosher sections” in local supermarkets which seem to me to be a lot of Manischewitz products (gefilte fish in a jar and things like that …). There’s plenty to find kosher in supermarkets in general, as is the case in the United States. There’s even kosher mozzarella cheese thanks to Polly-O (if you eat cholev stam).
Kosher meat can also be bought in the shul. We bought a small camping grill at Target and some fish at the supermarket and didn’t go hungry.
So …. it’s kind of a small place. What surprised me is that once you leave the city … there’s not much civilization. As someone who lives in a megalopolis that stretches from Washington, D.C. to Boston where you can travel a thousand miles with human habitation all around you, this was sort of shocking. We took a drive up to South Carolina just to say we were there … it was miles and miles of bogs (and a nice bridge to get there). Now I understand why Sherman’s March to the Sea followed by a trip up to Charleston was so difficult. (Some Civil War trivia …) If you keep going, it’s about an hour twenty minute drive to Hilton Head island with well known beaches and tourists. Go another hour drive north and you’ll reach Charleston.
Savannah’s claim is really about history. I mean, a main attraction on all the tourist websites is literally a cemetery. I don’t get it. I asked some locals about it … many of them don’t get it either.
You’ve got Fort Polaski which is a well kept and almost entirely original fort from pre-Civil War (part was rebuilt during the Civil War). This was actually quite interesting to see how they lived, where the cannons are, and so forth. It probably looks a lot nicer today than it did in the 1860s. The fort protected the waterway to Savannah and was taken by the Confederates at the beginning of the war and then by the Union in 1863 (when the war was already “over” but for the South refusing to give in anyway, and, well, that led to Sherman’s March to the Sea because the soldiers had enough of fighting in lines dying when they knew they were going to win the war – they ransacked and pillaged instead).
There are also some houses in downtown Savannah which have been restored … the Davenport and Owens-Thomas House (with slave quarters). My kids limited me to one tour and we ended up going to the Davenport. It was interesting … about life of a middle class family in the 1820s in a restored house that should have been torn down and is now famous for being restored and not torn down.
The city is laid out with many squares throughout – it’s been that way since the 1700s. Oak trees with Spanish moss are everywhere – this type of moss hangs on anything and gets it’s nutrients from the air without harming the trees at all (though boil it if you take some because it has parasites). The moss is picturesque on sideways branches of trees creating much shade. We have such a painting in the house which we thought wasn’t of an actual place until driving up to Wormsloe, a reconstructed Revolutionary War museum. (More history stuff.) I got out of the car and … “huh. I guess the painting is of a real place.” That was a nice surprise.
The main park in Savannah is Forsyth park – it’s nice. It’s … what you do in Savannah … walk around in nice parks. There’s a big fountain in the center with some nice flower beds and whatnot … you should take a walk through.
Not too far away is Tybee Island (past Fort Polaski) which has very nice beaches. I think New Jersey beaches are among the nicest in the country – Tybee Islands were very similar and about 13 degrees warmer @ 80 degrees in June! Decent waves, nice sand … and so on greet you. Some of the beaches (like north beach) were packed even on a weekday. We drove around the island for a bit and in the middle we found a not-so-crowded area with a public entrance and plenty of street parking near some hotels. (There are no fires allowed on the beach; there are some local parks with baseball diamonds and the like where we grilled.)
There are three museums which form part of the Telfair museums. One is a modern art museum (it was like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan with less stuff that looked like poop); another normal art museum, and a third: the Owens-Thomas house. One ticket gets you entry into all three for a week. Be warned – by New York standards the museums are tiny.
There’s also a Savannah History museum, a free ferry across the river, and a touristy bar area along the water.
Outside of town is a Costco. Just kidding … they don’t have a Costco. This is Savannah where people don’t all have the same stuff in their house. (I’m told one is being built soon.)
There’s a Gullah community (probably from the word, “Angola”) which is a community of freed blacks who were given land by General Sherman after the Civil War and which is famous for producing Clarence Thomas. There’s one with a tourist thing … I stopped by and asked what the place was. She said, “Hello y’all” and I was immediately not happy. Now, it’s not because she said “y’all” … it’s actually a great word and I try to use it because we need a separate word for a second person plural. No, the problem was that I was the only one standing there. Ugh … you have this beautiful second person plural and you waste on an improper first person plural! It’s like the worst of both north and south word usage combined.
Anyway, she told me it’s the last Gullah community that hasn’t been commercialized. Then she asked for $9 to enter.
I liked it for the slower paced feel, good middos of the area, and polite Jewish community. It almost feels like anti anti-antisemitism (not a mistake). In a flower store late Friday afternoon the lady asked me what I was buying flowers for. I alluded to the flowers being for a family I was going to for Shabbos sort of sheeplishly and the price of a bouquet came down from $35 to $20 without my asking. I tried to offer more for the first time in my life and she wouldn’t take it.
A visit of a few days ought to do it and it’s worth it. Next up … maybe Charleston?