On South Beach Florida's Jewish Past Is Present
Tue, 12/16/2008
Managing Editor

The elderly Jews are gone now, the ones who carried their  Yiddish cadences and stories of the rag trade and the Old Country with them down to the tip of Miami Beach. Throughout the ’50s and ’60s and ’70s and even into the ‘80s, they sat in rickety, rainbow-striped folding chairs on the warm sand, sweet Atlantic breezes tousling their white hair. Or they sat on the front porches of the many small Art Deco-style hotels and apartment buildings they called home in their autumn years, whiling away the hours in their Southern shtetl.

Those bubbes and zeydes who moved from Astoria and Flatbush and Newark and Philly and Baltimore were part of a great Jewish migration of retirees to the Sun Belt. But they’re gone now, replaced by leggy models posing seductively on Ocean Drive and other signs of runaway chic: pricey sidewalk cafés, hotels whose names rhyme with glitz, Kenneth Cole, Armani, Nicole Miller.

But on a palm-tree-lined stretch of Washington Avenue at Third Street, the story of those elderly Jews — and the wider story of Florida Jewry from Live Oak to Ft. Lauderdale — is being preserved at the Jewish Museum of Florida. Housed in two, graceful, pastel-hued Art Deco synagogues turned into exhibition and gallery spaces, the museum’s collection provides a sense of history in a state that, from its beginnings, has been a symbol of youth and reinvention in a sun-drenched paradise.

“In order to have a sense of Jewish continuity, you need to know your history,” says Marcia Jo Zerivitz, the museum’s founding executive director and chief curator and a feisty ball of energy. “You need to have a past. Our Jewish population in Florida didn’t have a Jewish past.” For Zerivitz, who spent eight years traveling the state, logging thousands of miles from Pensacola to Key West collecting artifacts and piecing together the Florida Jewish story, the museum is about “giving people a Jewish memory.”

The newness of Florida, its promise of redemption, seems to work against memory. In the final frames of the classic film “Midnight Cowboy,” Joe Buck, the Texas gigolo played by Jon Voight, stuffs his old Western get-up into a trash can on the side of a Florida highway. His friend and sidekick, the streetwise Ratso Rizzo, played by Dustin Hoffman, has died, and the cowboy is in a loose-fitting flowered shirt. His old life, a thousand miles back up I-95 in the gray North, is behind him now, and he’s “backing off of the Northeast wind,” starting over in a place where “the sun keeps shining through the pouring rain.”

The sense that Florida lacks a deep sense of history is something Zerivitz understands. “Northeast scholars,” she says somewhat derisively, treat the Jewish experience in Florida only as if it is “a post-World War II phenomenon.” This is the Florida Jewish history most people know: retirees, mostly from the New York area, heading down to Miami Beach in huge numbers in the decades after the war, playing shuffleboard or picking up golf, eating in New York-style delis like Wolfie’s and Pumpernick’s, hitting the “early bird” dinner specials at any number of restaurants catering to their needs in an emerging haven for seniors. They first came for the winter months, leaving the New York chill behind, hence the “snowbird” nickname. Eventually they made the move permanent, and South Beach would become the Lower East Side of Miami Beach; thirty-six kosher butchers once did business around Collins and Washington avenues  The snowbirds’ children would come and visit, staying sometimes at the ritzy Fontainebleau or the Eden Roc or further downtown at the more modest Shelbourne or the Delano. That was Jewish history, Florida style.

The museum, which opened in 1995 and is on the National Register of Historic Places, has extended and deepened that history with more than 600 photographs and artifacts. “Our story is more than one of ‘condo commandos,’” Zerivitz says, using the phrase often given to the retirees who took up residence in the condominiums in and around Miami Beach.

That story stretches back, perhaps, to the mid-16th century, when conversos from Spain may have been among the early settlers of St. Augustine. In 1763, after the British assumed sovereignty of Florida after hundreds of years of Spanish rule when only Catholics could live in the colony, three Sephardic Jews from New Orleans acquired land in Pensacola and became shopkeepers. By 1822 there was a Jewish settlement in Micanopy, in north-central Florida near Ocala, and a Jew, David Levy Yulee was Florida’s territorial governor at the time and later became the first Jew to serve in Congress.

Then there were Max Marx’s Cigar Factory in Key West and the Albertson family, one of Florida’s largest citrus growers, and the Dannheisers of Pensacola, who ran a successful liquor and tobacco shop, which opened in 1869. And there was the 1968 “Cracker Day Program and Barbecue” of the St. John’s County Livestock Association, which was dedicated to a top cattle rancher named Saul Snyder, who began life as Solomon Schneiderman.

There was anti-Semitism, too – a wall panel tells of several Jewish country clubs that opened throughout the state because Jews were prevented from joining gentile clubs. Jews couldn’t live north of Fifth Street on Miami Beach in the ’20s and ’30s because of the restrictive covenants of developer Carl Fisher, who owned much of Miami Beach, according to Zerivitz. And in the most blatant example of such anti-Semitism, the museum has a sign from the Gulf Hotel on Miami Beach, dating from 1946, that reads, in a cruel rhyme: “Always a view, never a Jew.”

Yet for the most part, the Jews of Florida thrived. From agriculture and cattle ranching to retail and of course food (Joe and Jenny Weiss settled in Miami in 1913 and eventually opened the legendary Joe’s Stone Crabs on South Beach), the contributions of Jews, as the museum tells it, were crucial to the development of Florida. Soon after Henry Flagler’s railroad finally reached Miami in 1896, the date generally accepted as the birth of the city, there were 16 businesses in downtown. Twelve of them — various retail outlets, a women’s shop and dry good stores — were owned by Jewish merchants. “Florida would be mostly a swamp without the contributions of Jews,” Zerivitz says. Today, there are some 650,000 Jews in Florida; 600,000 reside in the South Florida counties of Dade, Broward and Palm Beach, representing about 10 percent of U.S. Jewry.

Florida’s Jewish story unfolds within a beautifully restored former Orthodox synagogue, Beth Jacob, the first synagogue on Miami Beach, which dates from 1929. With its light yellow hue, pastel-colored Art Deco friezes, gracefully arched entrance and copper dome, the main Beth Jacob building (built in 1936) is synonymous with early Miami architecture. The congregation dwindled throughout the ’70s and ’80s, as sweeping changes — most notably the Mariel boat lift from Castro’s Cuba — transformed South Beach. Many Jews fled. Others were pushed out by rising real estate values fueled by the restoration of South Beach’s Art Deco district. By 1986 Beth Jacob had closed and its main building and a smaller one next door that once housed the congregation’s banquet hall (it was actually the original synagogue building) began to fall into disrepair.

Enter Marcia Zerivitz. A former federation leader in Orlando, she helped put together a traveling exhibit that told the Florida Jewish story. After eight years on the road, Zerivitz amassed an impressive collection of family photos, heirlooms and other artifacts. The show, “Mosaic: Jewish Life in Florida,” opened in 1990. Five years later, as Beth Jacob was slated for the wrecking ball, the collection had grown and needed a permanent home. The two Beth Jacob buildings seemed like a perfect match. The main Beth Jacob building, which houses the permanent “Mosaic” exhibit in what was the sanctuary (administrative offices are in the old women’s balcony), underwent a $1.5 million renovation. The smaller building was eventually purchased by the museum, underwent a $1 million renovation and opened in April 2007 as a gallery space that is used for exhibitions, concerts, lectures and other events. The space between the two building was recently enclosed and is now a light-filled atrium that houses a kosher café, Bessie’s Bistro; it’s named after the first-ever Jewish Miss America, Bess Myerson, whose parents lived on South Beach near the museum and who helped fund the project in their memory.

“The reality is that the museum has served some really good purposes,” says Ira Sheskin, a professor of geography at the University of Miami and a leading demographer of South Florida Jewry. “The number of school kids who come through the museum is impressive. They come away with positive views about the contributions Jews have made in Florida.” (January, in fact, is Florida Jewish History Month, and Zerivitz and her staff have created a curriculum on the state’s Jewish story that is taught in Florida classrooms.)

“The other thing it has done well is the research part,” Sheskin continues. “They’ve done their homework with that, traveling all over the state. Everyone’s a transplant here, so I think preserving that history is good for the Jewish community.”

For Lisa Sloat, the museum is not just historical but personal. She was touring the museum in late November to see the new “Florida Jews in Sports” exhibit, which features her father, a former all-state high school football player. Sloat, who lives in Coconut Grove and formerly worked in marketing, grew up in Jacksonville, where her parents moved in 1947 (her mother is a transplant from Astoria, Queens). “When I walk through the museum, I see people I know and my family members. But when I take non-Jews through it I realize what a good job they do teaching about Jewish culture and heritage. But it’s the depth of what’s shown that is really impressive. I noticed a photo recently of a family member from the nineteen-teens. He was a fish peddler, actually selling fish on the street in Jacksonville. Most people just don’t think about that kind of Jewish history.”

When the Kanner family left Romania and landed in Key West, Fla., in 1860, America itself was less than a century old, still a work in progress. The elder Kanner would become a peddler in the outpost at the southernmost tip of the United States. One of the museum’s most poignant artifacts is the elder Kanner’s small notebook. On two of its pages, in the shaky hand of an immigrant learning to write in a new language, Mr. Kanner wrote in block capital letters the words “Florida” and “America.” They were home now, these foreign sounding places.

And a century later, the elderly Jews sitting in their aluminum folding chairs in South Beach, their accents probably not all that different from Mr. Kanner’s, had found a new home in Florida, too. Theirs was a different kind of migration, this one from the somber big cities of the Northeast to the sun and warmth of Miami. But it was Florida Jewish history, just the same.