Jewish Interest

The Old Jews of Miami

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I recently spent a few days in Miami, en-route from London to Houston (see The Only Four Things You Will Ever Need to Know about Houston), and from where I also made a short detour to the Bahamas (see Welcome to the Bahamas, People’s Republic of China).

I had only ever been to Miami once before, a few years ago, and then just in transit. With a seven hour layover to kill, I had made a beeline from the airport to Miami’s world-famous South Beach, the southernmost part of Miami Beach, which is the slightly confusing name given to what is actually a very large, man-made island, connected to the mainland by various bridges and causeways.

On the way I learned from a gregarious taxi driver that about five million people live in greater Miami, that the city has a Spanish-speaking majority, that Miami is the only major city in the United States founded by a woman (Julia Tuttle, in 1896), that the world’s first suntan lotion was invented in Miami, and that alligators liked to swim in the suburban pools that we were driving past.

As we drove towards Miami Beach I marvelled at the towering apartment blocks, rising up in front of me like a wall, and the elevated roads criss-crossing the bay, that make a city out of otherwise disparate islands and keys. Everything felt oddly familiar, like I had been there before. This might have been due to the watery setting, which is very reminiscent of Sydney. But I think it was mainly because so many films and TV shows have been set in Miami, so the city is burned into my consciousness – from classics like Scarface to not-so-classics like Bad Boys, and television series like Miami Vice (primary influence on my dress sense for most of my teenage years) and more recently CSI, Burn Notice and Dexter.

On that first visit to South Beach I hadn’t done much. I walked around, ate at a beach-side cafe, did some souvenir shopping, and then returned to the airport. All up I spent a bit more than half a day there, but that was enough to fall completely in love with the place, which seemed a perfect mix of tropical setting, fabulous architecture, glamorously gaudy people and “I’m on holiday” vibe.

I immediately added South Beach to my list of favourite spots, and couldn’t wait to return.

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This time around I allowed three nights there, and had booked to stay in an art-deco beachfront hotel. If I was going to “live” the South Beach experience, I was going to do it properly.

I began with a long walk along Ocean Drive, which runs parallel to the sea for about two kilometres, and is the beating heart of South Beach. On one side of the street is a strip of grass fringed with tall palms, then an elevated wooden boardwalk, and then a wide, pristine sand beach that leads down to the blue, blue ocean. And on the other of the street is a permanent party: a non-stop conga line of cafes, restaurants and bars, permanently packed, tables spilling out onto the pavements, the sounds of Latin music and happy people filling the air.

I stepped back across the street and looked up, above the ground floor, to the most gorgeous art-deco buildings imaginable, lined up one after another, in an unbroken row. They have all been lovingly preserved, painted in a rainbow of bold colours, and accented by the occasional brightly coloured vintage car parked out front, tail fins and polished hub caps glinting in the sun. It is a visual feast.

In fact South Beach’s historic art-deco district contains over 800 such buildings, the world’s largest concentration of this type of architecture. They were built in the 1920s – 1940s, in what was back then considered to be an ultra-modern style, and is now considered ultra-retro cool.

A citizen’s crusade in the late 1970s spared the city’s art-deco district from demolition, at a time when the rest of Miami Beach was turned into one big skyscraper. Nowadays these purple, turquoise and pink fantasies, distinctive with their symmetrical lines, cantilevered windows and curved balconies, have become the city’s major draw-card. You’ve probably seen it all on TV, but the reality is so much better, like a magical portal that instantly transports you back to a different, more innocent time.

On the other hand, Ocean Drive’s passing parade of humanity is very much of the here and now. I took a seat on the patio at the News Cafe, facing out onto the sidewalk, under the shade of a tree. This was apparently Versace’s favourite haunt too, a few doors down the road from his palatial home, and where in 1997 he was gunned down on the doorstep. It was time for some people watching, and South Beach did not disappoint.

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Most of those promenading up and down Ocean Drive that day were holidaymakers, young and old, and most were dressed (or perhaps more accurately, undressed) in swimwear. Almost everyone – from the buff beach boys and their Barbie-doll imitation girlfriends, to the wrinkled old men and obese American teenagers – was topless (if men) or in bikinis (if women), and more often than not were showing off an incredible assortment of tattoos.

And then there were the standouts, which only served to highlight what was already an amazing carnival of the weird and wonderful. Like the Rastafarian gent with three-foot long dreadlocks, dyed into alternating yellow and green locks. Or the extremely large African-American lady, with a butt probably three-foot wide. I know this because she was showing it off proudly, as she sashayed down Ocean Drive in a leopard-print g-string.

There was a woman who I guess was over eighty years old. She too was in leopard print swimwear, with massive silicon boobs, Botox puffed lips and a face so tight from multiple cosmetic surgeries it looked like it might crack. There was the “gang” of American college grads, in oversized basketball shorts and backward facing baseball caps, and large gold chains dangling from their necks. They pimp-rolled their way along the street, under the watchful gaze of a real street gang, similarly attired to the college poseurs, but looking genuinely tough. The real gang eyed the passing preppies with a mixture of amusement and disdain, in much the same way a Great Dane might look at a Chihuahua.

And there were also the policemen and policewomen charged with supervising this whole fiesta. Tanned, ridiculously fit and healthy looking in tight-fitting muscle T-shirts, they patrolled the beachfront on bicycles. Although this being America, they still had big “we’ll smoke your arse” guns holstered to their snug bike-shorts.

The air was filled with the sounds of Spanish and English and a hundred other languages, against a backdrop of salsa music and drum beats. It was a complete riot of colours and sounds, as overwhelming as any street carnival, anywhere in the world. Only this was just another random day in June 2013, on Ocean Drive, South Beach, Miami.

I loved it.

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I continued my walk, and a little beyond the far northern end of Ocean Drive, I was surprised to see a sign pointing the way to the Miami Holocaust Memorial.

I guess I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Florida has a sizeable Jewish population, with around 700,000 Jews living there. It is the state with the third largest Jewish population, after New York and California. If Florida was an independent country it would have more Jews living in it than anywhere other than Israel and the United Sates.

But the Jews who live in Florida tend to be older, often retirees from the north attracted to the warm weather and lower taxes. They live mainly in the urban sprawl the spreads north of Miami, a unique cultural sub-set memorialised forever in shows like The Golden Girls and Seinfeld. Once every four years, during presidential election time, these elderly Jews are propelled to global prominence, when candidates intent on securing “the Jewish Vote” make pilgrimages to retirement homes and nursing facilities all across southern Florida.

So whilst I knew there were plenty of Jews in Florida, I was not exactly expecting a Holocaust Memorial to be found a stone’s throw away from the bikinis and beach bars of Ocean Drive. And then, when I noticed the address of the memorial, being “1933-1945 Meridian Avenue” I was filled with a sense of dread, expecting the worst of American schmaltz. Still, like a bee drawn uncontrollably to a honey pot, I headed over to see what was there.

I am glad I did.

The Miami Holocaust Memorial was conceived in the 1980s, and officially inaugurated in 1990 by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. Any misgiving I may have had were quickly forgotten when I got there and found myself alone with what is a captivating, surprisingly moving memorial to all those murdered in World War II.

The first thing you see as you approach the Memorial is a large pool of still, reflective water, surrounded by trellises of Bougainvillea. In the middle of the pool there is a circular platform, and from the middle of this a human arm rises, pointing to the sky, called the Sculpture of Love and Anguish. From a distance it looks quite small, but as I got closer I realised how big this arm is – about thirty metres tall.

I walked round the pool and at the far side entered a tunnel made of sandstone blocks, dramatically lit by shards of light, the names of various Nazi concentration camps carved into the walls. I emerged from the tunnel onto the platform in the centre of the pool, but shielded from the outside world by a high-wall that runs all the way around, thus creating an enclosed courtyard space of sorts. The base of the arm was right from the centre. It was very quiet, and the sun was shining.

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All of which would have made for a quite lovely, contemplative experience, were it not for the fairly gruesome metal sculptures everywhere, life-size renditions of starving children and emaciated concentration camp inmates. You can’t avoid walking and amongst them, and when you finally get to the arm you see the “skin” of this massive sculpture is made up of thousands of these human figures. They are pile one on top of the other, their bodies contorted and their faces a mix of pain and terror, captured forever in immutable bronze.

It is thoroughly disconcerting and confronting, not to mention mildly uncomfortable, but I guess that’s the point. I later read that this is all meant to be “vignettes of family members trying to help each other in a final act of love”, but honestly, I didn’t see the love. I saw hurt and suffering and horror, and I felt sad and angry, all at once.

Like I said, this was not what I had been expecting as part of my South Beach fiesta, and I wanted to know why. Why was there a Holocaust Memorial here, of all places?

A quick search on the internet and I learned that at the opposite end of South Beach is the Florida Jewish Museum, so the next morning I headed there, hoping to find an answer in the wonderful collection of photographs, documents and objects that “… preserve and interpret the Jewish experience in Florida”.

I learned that Jews were first allowed to legally settle in Florida in 1763, and I was most excited to learn that one of the state’s early Jewish kingpins was a Moroccan timber merchant who built a little Jewish colony on the site of what is today the University of Florida.

Through the 1800s and 1900s the Jewish community of Florida grew slowly, and mainly in northern cities that are today as red-neck as they come, like Jacksonville. After Florida became a state, its first US Senator was a Jew, David Yulee (a surname that, it struck me, may have similar origins to mine?). In 1903, Miami was ravaged by fire and yellow fever, and the official Jewish population of the city reduced to exactly one. In 1915 that had increased to the grand total of 55.

It was not until the 1920 that Jews began moving south to Miami in larger numbers, drawn by the economic prospects of the booming tourism and real estate sectors. From the late 1940s, they were joined by northern Jews on vacation. Apparently, prior to then, Miami was a segregation-era paradise, and many hotels in Miami had policies that forbade “Jews or Blacks” from staying (in the Museum, an ad from a real estate development of that time promised would-be buyers: “always a view, never a Jew”). This changed during the war years, as segregationist policies were done away with informally, and then eventually banned.

Still, by the late 1950s there were only about 175,000 Jews living in Florida. But then followed waves of retiring baby-boomers, and an influx of Jews from Caribbean and Latin American countries (including about 10,000 Cuban Jews who fled the communist revolution there). As a result, the Jewish population of Florida increased fivefold in a little over twenty years.

And in this potted history of Jewish migration, I found the answer to my question. The massive influx of Jews to Miami Beach through the 60s and 70s meant that by 1980, the island’s population was around 80% Jewish. That would have made it a bona-fide American shtetl. Indeed, Miami Beach had three popular nicknames back then – “The Promised Land”, “Little Jerusalem”, and “The Shtetl by the Sea”.

Around 90% of holiday-makers in Miami Beach in those days were also Jewish. For example, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Yiddish author and Nobel Prize winner for literature, wrote of spending every winter there: “For me, a vacation in Miami Beach was a chance to be among my own people. In those days Miami Beach was a magnet for Jewish people – a place where they flocked like geese to rest and warm themselves in the sun”.

As you’d expect, this brought with it the full complement of organisations that define any thriving Jewish community – synagogues, old-aged homes, kosher butchers, delicatessens, Jewish schools and libraries, and even a Yiddish theatre. Fifteen of Miami Beach mayors have been Jewish; Jews were instrumental in development of the Miami tourism industry; most of the local museums and art organisations were founded by Jews.

But, Miami Beach’s Jewish hey-day was remarkably short-lived, and by 1990, the community was already in decline, as older Jews died and the next generation moved north, to suburbs like Palm Beach and Broward.

Today, the Jewish community of Miami Beach is less than half of what it once was – still sizeable, but mainly made up of elderly and retired folks. There are very few visible remnants of the Jewish past. You can still see some Hebrew-inscribed doors of an old Orthodox school, now part of a condo block. The Cinema Theatre, once home to the world’s longest running Yiddish vaudeville show, is now a nightclub. Miami Beach used to have many kosher resort hotels, but the last of these closed in 2005. As did the oldest of Miami Beach’s synagogues – its membership declined from 1,500 in the 1950s, to 22 at the turn of the millennium.

All in all, as I continued my walks around South Beach and Miami Beach, it struck me as amazing how little of the area’s Jewish heritage remains. It has faded away almost entirely, and is now largely forgotten, apart from at those places that are dedicated to memory, like the Holocaust Memorial and the Jewish Museum.

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The next day I decided to venture away from Miami Beach, to Little Havana. This area of town, centred on Calle Ocho (Eighth Street) became famous in the 1960s as the place where tens of thousands of refugees fleeing Cuba took up residence, both in the lead up to the Communists coming to power, and then after. They transformed the area into a small slice of home, which also became the de-facto capital of the anti-Castro Cuban government in exile.

Although today the name “Little Havana” is a bit misleading – now well into a second generation, most of Cubans have moved on, replaced over the years by newer, poorer migrants, from the Spanish-speaking countries of Central and South America.

The Latino vibe is unmistakable though. I walked the length of Calle Ocho, and could just as well have been walking in downtown Guatemala City, or Bogota. I munched my way down the street, sampling Cuban sandwiches, Nicaraguan fritangos, pressed-to-order sugar cane juice and super-strong coffee, sweet and thick as mud. Samba music poured out of open shop windows. Old men – viejos – sat chatting on street benches, and had gathered in a central park to play dominos and cards and chess, as they do every day of the year. Everyone spoke to me in Spanish. Street signs were all in Spanish. Even the recorded voice at the Bank of America ATM said “hola” to me.

Still, for a place that is billed as one of Miami’s top attractions, there were hardly any tourists, and it was certainly not refined in the way I expected it would be. Away from the main pedestrian strip of Calle Ocho, there were abandoned lots, boarded up store fronts, and lots of graffiti. Pawn shops advertised “dinero por sus Joyes” (cash for your jewellery), and most grocery stores had signs saying “Acceptamos Food Stamps”. There were homeless people sleeping in doorways; off the main road was a trailer park composed of beat up old cars and corrugated iron, just like in any third world shanty town. For their part the police had traded in the friendly South Beach muscle-Ts and bicycles, and were now kitted out in riot gear and riding menacing-looking horses. Everything was run-down, poor and dirty. A bit of a shit-hole, really.

I had read about Versailles, “the most famous Cuban restaurant in the world”, and headed over there for a lunch feast of shredded beef, tamales, fried sweet plantains, yellow rice, black beans and cassava. Versailles was a long way down Calle Ocho, however, and on the way I walked passed by the Woodland Park Cemetery, a vast walled off enclosure that occupies several blocks.

I paused to read the signboard map at the entry to the cemetery, as much to catch my breath as anything else. What immediately caught my eye was that this cemetery had a designated Jewish section, towards the back. Which seemed weird: the only sign of anything Jewish I had seen anywhere on Calle Ocho was at the bus-stops, where large billboards advertised the legal services of Saban & Solomon, a firm of obviously Jewish attorneys who specialised in workplace litigation: “let us fight for you” is their slogan. So like the Holocaust Memorial in South Beach, a Jewish cemetery in Little Havana was not anything I had been expecting.

I walked through the cemetery, and the names were predominantly Spanish – Gonzalez, Lorenzo, Rodriguez. But then I came to the Jewish section, which was fenced off from the rest of the cemetery, and looked very old. Certainly, there was no sign that anyone besides me had been there for a very long time.

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I walked around, and saw many familiar names: Rabinovich, Ginsberg, Jacobs, even one Rachael Leibovitz, who lived from 1863 to 1947. Most of the graves were inscribed in English, a few with Hebrew as well. But the most obvious thing was that none of the graves were new  – most were the final resting place of people who passed away in the 1930s and 1940s, and a few in the 1950s. But after that, nada, and I thought to myself it was like whichever Jewish community had used this particular cemetery had woken up one sunny morning in the 1950s, packed their suitcases en-masse, and buggered off.

Which, if I may say so myself, turned out to be a remarkably accurate observation on my part. Later that day, doing a bit of research, I discovered that the area now known as Little Havana was not always the Cubano-Latino hood it is today.

You see, in the 1930s, and right up until the 1950s, the whole area was known as Shenandoah, and was the centre of Miami’s then (smaller) Jewish community. These then were the Jews who, as they became wealthier and more assimilated into American society, first moved out to the beach, and started the “Shtetl by the Sea” I had learned about the day before. And, as these Jews moved out, the Cubans moved in, in turn kicking off the next phase in Little Havana’s history.

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Without really planning it, I had followed the flow of Jewish movement through time, across the city of Miami. From the suburbs of the north where most of Florida’s Jews now live, to Miami Beach, which was Jew-central for much of the latter half of last century, and then even further back, to Little Havana, where the first Jews of Miami had established their community in the 1930s, and buried their dead up until the 1950s.

It occurred to me that the same things that had attracted those first Jews to the area of Little Havana – cheap real estate, a central location, proximity to public transport, and most importantly the promise of “The American Dream” – were the very same things that appealed to the Cuban refugees that came after them, and the Latin American migrants after them.

And the same things that emptied Little Havana and then later Miami Beach of Jews – rising incomes, greater education levels of the next generation, assimilation into main stream society – are what emptied Little Havana of Cubans, and no doubt will also empty it of the newer arrivals, in due course. Indeed, the smattering of sushi bars and Chinese restaurants I had noticed on Calle Ocho hinted at this never-ending process of urban shift, as the next wave of migrants, this time from Asia, find their way to the formerly Jewish and then Cuban and now Latin American area of Little Havana.

It was like I had inadvertently stumbled onto something quite profound in the cemetery that day – a realisation that so much of the Jewish experience, whilst deeply personal to me, is not unique to the Jews. It is the story of migrants everywhere, of people who leave their homes – by choice or at the barrel of a gun – in pursuit of food, a roof over their head, a job, and a better life for their children.

I left reinforced in my view that Miami really is a fabulous place. I can’t wait to get back there.

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