Shtetl by the Sea

Prior to the 1960s, Miami was home to a prominent Jewish community. Since then, numbers have significantly dwindled, but that’s not to say they are insignificant. Forward, one of the nation’s top Jewish media outlets, noted in an article from February 2014 that “more than half a million Jews live in three counties – Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach – making the region America’s third-largest Jewish metro area.”

But how did the Jewish community make their way to Miami in the first place?

Evidence of Jewish individuals was recorded as early as 1565 in St. Augustine. Over the centuries, due to global migrations and societal persecution, Jewish communities from all over the world – Romania and Eastern Europe in the 1880s, Russians and Spaniards in the early 1900s – immigrated to Florida. The route was from St. Augustine to Tampa and Key West to Miami. However, the population group was not allowed to settle until 1763, and because of that, Florida was one of the last to develop a substantial Jewish population.

Of the residents who signed for the incorporation of Miami, 25 were Jewish. Among them was Isidor Cohen, also the first documented Jewish resident of Miami. He lived in the Miami’s first prominent Jewish community, Shenandoah, near today’s Little Havana.

The first congregation was B’nai Zion in 1912, today known as Beth David Congregation. Temple Israel eventually broke off from Beth David to form Miami’s first Reform congregation in 1922. It’s operated out of the same location since 1928. Not only is it historically significant, but it is also a an excellent keeper of the local Jewish community’s developments, accomplishments, and tribulations.

Those early Miami days were not always happy ones, as anti-Semitic attitudes were prevalent, especially among Miami’s prominent developers. As Marcia Jo Zerivitz wrote in Jews of Greater Miami, “Developers placed restrictive covenants in their land deeds that prohibited the sale of Miami Beach lots to Jews north of Fifth Street. Several modest Jewish-owned hotels and apartments arose on property sold to Jews south of Fifth Street.”

It didn’t stop there, as many police shared those anti-Semitic values, and it was common to see signs that read “Gentiles Only.” But that didn’t stop the community from making significant strides. Architect Henry Hohauser was one of the most important transplants to Miami Beach, notes Zerivitz. His Art Deco style, along with those of many similar architects, would eventually be preserved by the efforts of Barbara Baer Capitman, another prominent Jewish resident.

The discriminatory laws began easing up in the 1930s, and officially ended in 1949. Development of the community bloomed and Miami Beach quickly became a Jewish winter vacation spot, earning it nicknames like Little Jerusalem and Shtetl by the Sea.

But in 1980, Miami Beach as a whole changed, with rising prices and crippling drug violence. Meanwhile, in Little Havana, Cubans began settling into what been a historically Jewish neighborhood, coinciding with the migration of Jews to Broward and Palm Beach counties, and especially to Boca Raton, due in part to rising prices and changing demographics.

Today, in addition to Broward and Palm Beach counties, Aventura, Miami Beach’s Mid-Beach section, Surfside, and North Miami Beach maintain prominent Jewish populations.

Disappearing Food

One of the most significant points of Jewish culture is its food. More than any most other cultures, food goes beyond sustenance. Every item and every ingredient have a symbol and a reason. They have not always had food to eat.

Miami’s first recorded deli was the Saul Cohen Deli. Opened in the 1920s on Flagler Street, with owner Saul Cohen seeking to fill a local need and personal craving. He loved having kosher corned beef sandwiches on his fishing trips, but most of the kosher meat had to be brought in from Jacksonville in those days.

There’s a larger conversation to be had about Jewish cuisine, from its origins and variety to the significance of its ingredients. And Jewish delis aren’t the only signifier of Jewish cuisine — they’re only one part of the bigger puzzle. Because of diaspora, Jews come from all parts of the globe. Jewish delis came from the Eastern European tradition and became most popular on the Lower East Side of New York City. In those early days, delis, spots for meat, were kept separate from appetizing stores, which sold fish and cheese. These days, most places combine it all under one roof. One of the things we wish would have really caught on are knishes, almost like a kind of Jewish empanada, which used to be sold specifically at knisheries.

We have said farewell to some of the old greats: Wolfie Cohen’s Rascal House, The Famous, Embers, Joe’s Broadway, Junior’s, Wolfie’s, and Pumpernik’s. Surfside, Miami-Dade’s little town that could, is trying to preserve itself as an enclave of Jewishness in the vastly changing world. But Miami Israeli and kosher cuisine is picking up again. Motek מותק: (Hebrew for sweetheart), with it’s Crispy Schnitzel Sandwich and Challah Bread Pudding. Zak the Baker , with their Chocolate Babka and Challah Pull-Apart Rolls. The Bagel Shop Emporium, where you can get Lox and Bagels, and a fish platter filled with your choice of Nova Bellt, Lox Belly, Kippered Salmon, Kippered Salmon Salad, Whitefish, Whitefish Salad, Herring in Wine or Cream Sauce. And if you really want to dive into more Kosher food in Miami, head here: KosherMiami

Judío is Spanish for Jewish

The same Forward article noted another interesting statistic about the changing face of the community: “While many are retirees, Florida isn’t just a place for elderly Jews. A combination of factors – lower costs of living than in the Northeast, the lack of state income tax, Jewish institutional infrastructure, the draw of Miami to Latin American immigrants and, yes, the weather – has helped turn Florida into one of America’s largest, most diverse, and most unusual Jewish communities.”

Most influential in Miami is the Jewish-Cuban connection — the “Jewban.” Their history dates as far back as 1895, when Key West Jews raised funds for Cuban revolutionaries fighting for independence from Spain.

Local Mitchell Waksman of Edgewater Jewelry Group, a decades old Jewish business, explains his own family’s experience. “My grandfather fought in WWII for Poland and Russia. After the war, he left Europe and tried to go to America but wasn’t allowed entry. Like many other Jews at the time, he found home in Cuba where the Jewban population was swiftly growing.”

Unfortunately, that peace came to a halt with Fidel Castro. An estimated 10,000 Cuban Jews came to South Florida in 1959. “It is believed that Jewbans in Cuba became successful because they weren’t allowed to hold jobs there, due to their immigrant status. My grandfather came with that same tenacity here and established a small factory off of Red Road that employed 50+ workers manufacturing bridal rings and Hispanic-oriented jewelry,” notes Waksman.

“Most people don’t know that the Cuban Jews established the synagogue Temple Beth Shmuel on 17th and Michigan in Miami Beach,” says Waksman. “We lived in Westchester growing up, but still went all the way there for service. I think this goes a long way to show you how important and close this community of Jews were in Miami. They helped really develop Miami.”

This helped other Jewish immigrants, from Central and South America, make an easier integration into the city. For example, there is a strong Venezuelan Jewish population in Miami. The Hispanic Jewish population in Miami has developed its own roots and culture, fostering a unique community.

An Infusion to the Arts

The Jewish community has played an active role in developing and nurturing the arts locally. Examples date back as far as the 1930s with Yiddish theater. Other institutions include the Jewish Museum of Florida, Bass Museum of Art, New World Symphony, Miami City Ballet, The Wolfsonian-FIU, the Miami Beach Holocaust Memorial (which was a fighting battle to establish), and the resurrected Miami Jewish Film Festival with director Igor Shteyrenberg at the helm.

And let’s not forget that Larry King got his start in Miami’s AM radio business. According to Larry King’s My Remarkable Journey, “He started doing interviews on a mid-morning show for WIOD, at Pumpernik’s Restaurant in Miami Beach. He would interview anyone who walked in. His first interview was with a waiter at the restaurant. Two days later, singer Bobby Darin, in Miami for a concert later that day, walked into Pumpernik’s as a result of coming across King’s show on his radio; Darin became King’s first celebrity interview guest.”

Fast Facts

  • Ida Schneidman Cohen, wife of Isidor Cohen, became the Mother of Miami’s Jewish community.
  • Abe Aronovitz serves as the only Jewish mayor of Miami, while Mitchell Wolfson served as the first Jewish mayor of Miami Beach. Wolfson formed WOMETCO, which became the first television station in Florida, WTVJ. He also built the Miami Seaquarium and left an endowment to create the Wolfson campus of Miami-Dade College.
  • Ted Arison helped expand the cruise ship industry, while the son of prominent lawyer Joseph Kaplan, Mitchell, is Miami’s literary hero, opening Books & Books and launching the highly regarded Miami Book Fair International.
  • Today, the Jewish population of Florida is about 750,000. It is the third largest concentration of Jews in the country, and South Florida has the single largest concentration of Jews (13 percent of the total population) outside of Israel.