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The Natural

August 7, 2012

The Hamster and I had a fantastic day. It was so disjointed and unexpected and organic and interesting that instead of leading with some sort of overarching theme I’ll just jump into what happened.

Last night when Sam went to sleep I had only a vague idea of what we’d be doing in Savannah. When he woke up this morning I had a clear plan. Upon entering Savannah we headed straight for Congregation Mickve Israel, the third-oldest Jewish congregation in America and the only gothic synagogue (architecturally speaking) on the entire continent.

It started as an Orthodox congregation in 1733, just a few months after the founding of the Georgia colony, but in the late 1800s it gradually shifted left until it officially became Reform in 1903. Today it’s still a very active building that includes a relatively new (2003) educational wing with a mini-museum focused on the history of the congregation in particular and Savannah Judaism in general. Tours are given several times daily by stereotypically delightful southern old ladies, and we had a fascinating one. The building is stunning inside and out and the stories are fascinating.

We learned about the architecture (the columns are not actually marble but cast iron painted with a faux marble finish), the congregation’s founders (they were all from London and were mostly Sephardic of Spanish descent with the exception of two Ashkenazi families, until about 15 years later when England and Spain went to war and Spanish Florida threatened to conquer Georgia, sending the Spanish Jews in Georgia fleeing northward to avoid another Inquisition and leaving only Ashkenazim in Savannah), and historic Jewish influence in the area (the first kosher bakery in Savannah was hired to bake the first batch of Girl Scout Cookies–a batch of 92,364 cookies, according to the order form).

We also saw a deerskin Torah scroll that dates back to the 1400s and is still used by the congregation once a year: on July 11, the anniversary of their founding. And the best part is that the tour and museum kept Sam’s interest the entire time. Actually, the best part was immediately after the tour, when Sam and I stood in the sanctuary and said afternoon prayers knowing all that had transpired over three centuries to make it possible. It’s endlessly uplifting and inspiring to know that, almost 300 years ago, a small band of Jews set off on a dangerous voyage to a new continent to make sure there was a place that they could worship G-d appropriately and then set about preserving it so that countless generations (and the Hamster and I) could follow them.

Our next stop was not as moving but was impressive nonetheless: the antebellum Owens-Thomas mansion.

Built in 1819 for some really rich dude, the house and gardens are beautiful, and Sam and I were equally wowed by the ornate double staircase, the third-story bridge (literally, a bridge to get from the front of the house to the back), and the fact that the house had indoor bathrooms on all three levels years before even the White House had multilevel plumbing. I wish I could include photos of the staircase and bridge but they don’t allow picture-taking inside the house. So here are a few more shots of the exterior and gardens:

Before I move on I should probably mention that Sam was most impressed with a very stately period chaise we saw on the third floor: “Awesome couch. Seriously. For years I’ve been wanting a couch like that.” We go to one nice house and suddenly he’s Nate Freakin’ Berkus. I don’t even know whose kid this is sometimes.

The day was going very well but it was about to get better, thanks to our visit to the flagship store of the Savannah Bee Company. If you haven’t ordered honey from them online, you really need to. I don’t remember how I first heard of them but a couple of years ago I ordered a sampler pack and all I wanted to do was order more. Their honey is sustainably produced, kosher, available in lots of unusual varieties, not terribly expensive, and FREAKING DELICIOUS! When I realized we’d probably be including Savannah on this road trip the first thing I put on the Savannah to-do list was to see if we could take a tour here or something. Turns out there are no factory tours but the “or something” was pretty great: a honey tasting, featuring seven varieties of honey and one large bite of raw honeycomb that was like liquid sugar exploding in my mouth. It was so good that I bought jars of every variety to bring home. Hours (and hundreds of miles) later when I was putting Sam to bed we both agreed that the honey was the best part of a great day.

As we tasted, we also chatted with the counter girls about the character of Savannah. If I can say so without condescension, Savannah is an adorable city. Throughout the downtown area, homes are beautiful houses full of individual and collective character rather than apartment buildings.

Major streets are not only lined with interesting native trees but also intentionally interrupted with public squares full of walkways, flowers, and the occasional statue.

Even commercial areas are attractive, with awnings or understated signs rather than neon. Streets are occasionally paved with cobblestone. Sidewalks are occasionally paved with brick. The city is small enough that getting around is quick and easy and big enough to offer variety. Street parking is metered almost everywhere but is also readily available. There’s little to no traffic (the girl at Savanna Bee Company insisted that Friday afternoons have traffic but I don’t believe her). And there’s history of all kinds, not just of slavery and Confederate warmongering.

Our hunger stoked by artisanal honey, before leaving town we made ourselves lunch and ate it while wandering Forsyth Park, a mini-Central Park in the heart of the historic district whose most famous feature is a pretty impressive fountain.

Up next was Stone Mountain, a town half an hour outside of Atlanta known for its namesake mountain, which features a massive, Rushmore-esque 3D carving of three Confederate “heroes” on horseback. But to get there we had to drive 250 miles first.

Now’s probably a good time to bring up the frequent, brief bursts of rain. For the past three days, the weather’s been mostly sunny and hot, except for brief periods when, completely out of nowhere, it gets very dark, rains very hard, and then quickly goes back to being sunny and dry. The first time it happened was in Myrtle Beach while Sam was taking a shower. When he went into the bathroom, it was sunny and the beach was teeming with tourists. When he got out, it was sunny and the beach was teeming with tourists. In between it poured and beachgoers scurried for shelter. He didn’t believe us when we told him what had happened. Now he does. All day Sunday in Charleston the weather fluctuated like this, raining terribly for a few minutes every hour or so. The same thing happened today but was timed a bit better so that we never actually got wet. That is, until we were about halfway to Stone Mountain, and the skies opened up and didn’t close. I’ve never driven through worse rain. Even with the windshield wipers on top speed, visibility was near zero.

Sam had been watching “The Natural” on our portable DVD player to pass the time, and he had to shut it off because the rain was so loud that he couldn’t hear the movie, even on full volume. We slowed from 75 mph to about 10, and I was nervous going even that fast. And the rain didn’t let up at all for over half an hour. Soon I was less worried about visibility than I was about getting stuck in a newly formed lake on the Interstate.

Eventually the rain did subside, the sun came back out, and by the time we arrived at Stone Mountain Park there was no trace of the storm. Before we headed to see the mountain carving we decided to take advantage of the newly beautiful weather and have dinner. On the recommendation of the parking attendant at the entrance, we found a quiet picnic area next to a grist mill and waterfall that provided both a place to grill and a great view while we ate.

After dinner we drove around looking for a good vantage point for the carving. Every night during the summer there’s a laser light show on the mountain at dusk. It took us a while but we found the main viewing deck, which turned out to be an area called Memorial Park. I was impressed until I realized what was being memorialized: the Confederacy. OK, I guess in hindsight the 50-foot-high carving of Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and Robert E. Lee was a pretty big clue.

Still, even after all I’ve seen in the past couple of days I couldn’t have imagined the pro-Confederacy spectacle we saw. On the observation deck was an engraved quote about how brave and honorable the Confederate soldiers were to die protecting their rights. Never mind that they died protecting their right to take away other people’s rights. On both sides of the lawn in the photo above are several smaller decks, each dedicated to the Civil War efforts of a different Confederate state, with a plaque describing the great valor shown by that state’s residents in fighting this wonderful war. We tried to focus on the engineering and craftsmanship of the carving rather than its meaning, but the shameless celebration of America’s biggest mistake was impossible to ignore. The Confederate soldiers (and civilians) who died trying to protect the despicable institution of slavery still deserve to be mourned and certainly deserve to be remembered. But the display at Stone Mountain Park does not merely memorialize them–it honors them. It a stomach-turning end to an otherwise pretty fantastic day.

To make matters worse, we thought we found a place to spend the night, only to find out that United Suites does not have any nonsmoking rooms. I don’t mean they don’t have any available tonight, I mean they allow smoking in every single one of their rooms. I didn’t even know such a motel existed but I would bet that Mayor Bloomberg has never stayed there. Actually, considering how run down the place was, even if they banned smoking completely he’d be pretty unlikely to stay there.

By the time we checked into a nonsmoking room in a motel a few miles down the highway, it was late, our spirits were getting low, and we were in need of a happy ending. Luckily we had one with us: Sam plopped down on his bed, took out the DVD player, and we watched the rest of “The Natural.” Roy Hobbs knocked out the lights, the Knights won the pennant, Sam drifted off to sleep, and they lived happily ever after.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. gondarks permalink
    August 7, 2012 8:26 am

    Another great entry, Adam, and some great photos too. Stone Mountain actually has a pretty infamous place in 20th Century US history – it was the city where the second incarnation of the second Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915. It was inspired by the horribly racist 1914 film by DW Griffith called “Birth of a Nation”. I doubt you saw any monuments or references to the Klan or that movie in Stone Mountain. At least I hope so.

    Great Nate Berkus reference also. LOL.

  2. Mitchell Pak permalink
    August 7, 2012 8:29 am

    Another great entry, Adam, and some great photos too. Stone Mountain actually has a pretty infamous place in 20th Century US history – it was the city where the second incarnation of the second Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1915. It was inspired by the horribly racist 1914 film by DW Griffith called “Birth of a Nation”. I doubt you saw any monuments or references to the Klan or that movie in Stone Mountain. At least I hope so.

    Great Nate Berkus reference also. LOL.

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