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Jewish World Review Sept. 2, 2003/ 5 Elul, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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A different kind of party in Savannah | SAVANNAH, Ga. — The Ten Commandments dominate the religious news in Savannah and a lot of other places in the South and elsewhere, but Savannah revels in "wickedness." This is the home, after all, of "hard-hearted Hannah," the vamp who poured water on a drowning man. The early settlers of Savannah banned slavery, rum, and lawyers, but it wasn't long before they realized that their Garden of Good and Evil was home to more than one kind of snake in the tall grass. (The lawyers survived, too.)

Summer in Savannah means tourists, and most of them arrive looking for the garden, or the evidence of it as outlined in the famous (or infamous) book by John Berendt. Sex sells in Savannah (unlike other places) and "Lady Chablis," the drag queen featured in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil" continues to play to sell-out audiences in a Savannah club.

There's more than one Savannah, to be sure. This is where John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, and his hymn-writing brother Charles landed on their mission to bring G-d to the wilderness, and churches abound. There's even a bronze statue of John Wesley in the center of Reynold's Square.

Nevertheless, there's more than one kind of party, often more important than politics, policy or nearly anything else. "If you go to Atlanta," says John Berendt, "the first question people ask you is, 'What's your business?' If you go to Macon they ask, 'Where do you go to church?' In Augusta they ask your grandmother's maiden name. But in the Savannah the first question people ask you is, 'What would you like to drink?"

This generosity of 'spirits' cuts across class and ethnic lines. A Greek tavern keeper on River Street pours licorice-flavored ouzo into two enormous plastic cups, "on the house," for two diners to take with them on their moonlit walk along the quay facing the river. "You can drink while you stroll," he said. "It's legal in Savannah."

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Billy Sunday brought his sawdust trail to Savannah, warning that the man in the saloon pulls the same rope as the devil. He drew the enormous crowds that he did everywhere else, but didn't come close to cooling down the town. Savannah was wet when the rest of Georgia was dry and during the Prohibition years a certain filling station on Abercorn Street pumped whiskey as well as gasoline.

Parties remain a big part of Savannah's social life. Conrad Aiken, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet was born in Savannah and lived there until he was 11 years old. In "Strange Moonlight," an autobiographical short story, he suggests his father, who killed his mother before he killed himself, did it because she did nothing but party. "It's two parties every week, and sometimes three or four, that's excessive," he told her just before pulling the trigger. "You know it is." She replied: "Darling, I must have some recreation!" Bang. Bang.

But for all of the perverse pride in decadence, residents of Savannah are immensely proud of their religious heritage. It's rare to pass a public park in the historic district that doesn't call attention to faith and tolerance.

Christ Church, "the mother church of Georgia" where John Wesley, who never abandoned his Anglican faith, preached nearly three centuries ago, continues to link religious and social life. When a young woman deduced from an overheard luncheon conversation that I was from Washington, she stopped to talk. She would visit Washington soon and wondered if there was still an Episcopal church that still uses the 1928 Book of Common Prayer.

Plaques throughout the city celebrate Christians of different denominations. Two Baptist churches are descended from the oldest black congregation in the United States. Although the early settlers tried to keep "the papists" out of Savannah, the Catholic Church flourishes. A large Jewish community boasts of a lineage that goes back to 1533, when Sephardic Jews of Spanish and Portuguese descent, victims of the Inquisition, arrived by boat five months after James Oglethorpe, Savannah's founder arrived.

They brought with them a Torah that was handwritten before 1492 and established the oldest Jewish congregation in the state. After the Jews congratulated George Washington on his inauguration, the first president wrote to the congregation. "May the same wonder-working Deity, who long since delivering the Hebrews from their Egyptian oppressors planted them in the promise, whose providential agency has lately been conspicuous in establishing these United States as an independent nation, still continue to water them with the dews of Heaven. And to make the inhabitants of every denomination participate in the temporal and spiritual blessing of that people whose G-d is Jeh-vah."

So the Ten Commandments, without a monument, command respect, too. It was the garden of good, after all, as well as evil.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS