The Augusta Philomathic Club, of which I am a member, has a Christmas tea each December. This year, an e-mail reminder referred to it as a Holiday tea. So at the next meeting when the subject of the Holiday tea came up, I blurted out, “Is it a Holiday tea or is it a Christmas tea?” After a sudden short silence, the lady who’d sent the e-mail said, “I thought ‘holiday’ was more inclusive.” Then one of the Jewish members said, “It’s a Holiday tea!”
I wanted to explain I have nothing against Hanukkah or any other religious celebration, but Christmas is Christmas, and I’m drawing the line on all of this holiday commercialism. I can say this because I am, after all, a direct descendent (Is there any other kind?) of Levi Sheftall, the son of Benjamin Sheftall, one of the first Jews to set foot in Georgia in 1733. But the moment to say that passed, and the conversation moved on, so I didn’t get a chance to brag about my ancestor, “the first Jewish leader to contact a president of the United States and to get an official statement of religious toleration,” according to Jewish scholar Philip Ernest Schoenberg.
Levi Sheftall was the president of the Jewish congregation of Savannah, Ga., and the author of the Sheftall Diaries. In 1789, he wrote George Washington and congratulated him on his election and thanked him for treating all people regardless of religion equally, including the Jews, and asked Washington whether it was official government policy.
“George Washington, who knew a dramatic moment, paraphrased Sheftall’s letter in his reply. He sent it to all the then six Jewish congregations in the United States: New York, Newport, Norfolk, Philadelphia, Savannah and Charleston,” Schoenberg states in the Jewish Maven.
“ ‘Of course, it is my policy of the government to treat all its citizens equally without regard to the religious adherence,’ ” Washington replied.
“Thus, Sheftall made sure that religious liberty was official government policy and the Jews were considered part of the American mosaic.”
Nobody still alive in my family knows how our grandfather John Armand Sheftall’s father happened to marry a full-blooded Italian and become a Catholic and exactly how John Armand met our full-blooded Irish grandmother. We just know he worked for the railroad and came through Chula, Ga., where she lived. Anyway, she converted to Catholicism and raised their children in the Holy Church in Miami. Then my mother met my Daddy who came from a long line of south Georgia hard-shell Baptists who had grievous suspicions about the Holy Church and the pope, as well as Jews.
So our connection to Levi Sheftall was unknown until Mama decided she wanted to be a member of the Daughters of The American Revolution and had her ancestry researched. That’s when she learned of her connection to Levi Sheftall, which gave her entrée to the DAR.
When she told Daddy what she’d found out, he was unimpressed and said, “She’s happy now. She’s traced them all the way back to Palestine.”
Anyway, after that, Mama couldn’t find out enough about her ancestors, and in the early 1980s we went to the Jewish cemetery in Savannah where Levi Sheftall is buried. It was in a bad section of town, as I recall, and had been neglected and vandalized.
Since then it’s been improved and a plaque states “Family burial ground of Levi Sheftall commonly known as the De Lyon – De La Motta Cemetery. Dedicated 1773. Used about 80 years.”
I’m telling you this because I want you to know I am a Jew of sorts, but I still say Merry Christmas.
HOW DO YOU SPELL HANUKKAH? When Dena Levitz was a reporter for The Augusta Chronicle in the early 2000s, her father e-mailed some information he thought might be helpful.
“Now, if anyone asks you what the difference is between Christmas and Chanukah, you will know what and how to answer!” he stated.
1. Christmas is one day, same day every year, Dec. 25. Jews also love Dec. 25. It’s another paid day off work. We go to movies and out for Chinese food and Israeli dancing. Chanukah is eight days. It starts the evening of the 24th of Kislev, whenever that falls. No one is ever sure. Jews never know until a non-Jewish friend asks when Chanukah starts, forcing us to consult a calendar so we don’t look like idiots.
2. Christmas is a major holiday. Chanukah is a minor holiday with the same theme as most Jewish holidays. They tried to kill us, we survived, let’s eat.
3. There is only one way to spell Christmas. No one can decide how to spell Chanukah, Chanukkah, Chanukka, Channukah, Hanukah, Hannukah, etc.
TURN HERE: Saturday a week ago, Ernie and I left Jane and Jerry Howington’s lovely 50th wedding anniversary party to go to J.R. Riles’ Christmas party at his home in Bel Air Estates.
I was driving because Ernie is still recuperating from open-heart surgery and can’t sit near an air bag.
I got lost because I was looking for Bel Air Estates, and the entrance sign said “Bel Air Hills, with estates in small letters, so I kept driving around in the dark looking for Bel Air Estates.
When we finally got there, the house was jam-packed with people, including former Augusta Commissioners Betty Beard and Marion Williams and his special friend, Barbara; City Administrator Fred Russell and his wife, Teresa; Sen. Hardie Davis; Booker T. Roberson; Augusta State University professor emeritus Dr. Ralph Walker. Augusta Judicial Circuit Chief Judge Carlisle Overstreet; District Attorney Ashley Wright and Richmond County Civil and Magistrate Court Chief Judge William M. Jennings III had just left.
The buffet was lavish with prime rib; roasted pork; three kinds of chicken wings, including wings wrapped in thick sliced bacon; pickled shrimp; crab salad; smoked oysters; fruit; vegetables and dips.
J.R. spared no expense.
A DOGGONE SHAME: A 61-year-old Augusta woman who told police she “kidnapped” her neighbor’s dog because she believed it was being abused and got thrown in jail for her efforts says she didn’t really kidnap the dog. She rescued it.
Karen Whitaker, of Tubman Street, said the dog was whining at her door, and she let it in and fed it because it was starving, and the next thing she knew an officer came and handcuffed her and took her to jail in her pajamas.
According to Whitaker, the black-and-white mixed-breed dog named Lucky is kept on a choke chain in the yard and “cries 24/7.”
“Now it’s in heat and will have puppies, and they will freeze to death,” she said.
And Whitaker, who lives on Social Security with her 83-year-old father, is scheduled to go to court to answer to a theft charge and needs a lawyer but can’t afford one.
“I could get five years for this,” she said.
“Honey,” I said, “there are murderers around here that don’t get five years.”
Do you know who I think deserves five years? Anybody who would chain a dog in the yard. That’s who.