Hello from Key West, Florida, Calling on southernmost Jews


KEY WEST, FLA. - What, you’re surprised there is Jewish life here?

This is the southernmost point in the continental U.S., a city of 27,000, with an artsy-craftsy live-and-let-live vibe. Bars and souvenir shops. Gorgeous sunsets and beaches. Quiet side streets of white wooden homes with graceful fences, porches and balconies. Roosters wander about. Hemingway lived here. Truman vacationed here. A good place to wind down or drop out.

Rabbi Shimon Dudai of Conservative Congregation B’nai Zion says that when he’s away and he tells people where his temple is, they respond, “I didn’t know there were Jews in Key West.”

Well, I recently had a nice visit to B’nai Zion.

And Mam’s Best Food restaurant, certified Kosher by the local Chabad, was doing a lively business when I stopped in to chat with local resident Arlo Haskell, 40. He is the author of a fascinating new history, “The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969)” (Sand Piper Press, 2017).

The tiny eatery, with a counter, cloth canopy and a handful of outdoor tables, is owned by an Israeli expatriate. The food – falafel and hummus for me, a mix of chicken and shawarma for Haskell – was outstanding, and the conversation as interesting as the book.

Haskell, often, online, exhaustively researched letters, news stories, records, pictures and so on and spoke to people firsthand. He grew up here, but he illuminates a history that was full of discoveries for him and of which the Jewish community, let alone the rest of the population, was only dimly aware.

He might seem an unlikely chronicler. He’s not Jewish. He comes from a secular Catholic family. But his wife, Ashley, is from a secular Jewish family in New Jersey. Their daughter, Aviva, was named at B’nai Zion and, at 2-and-a-half, attends its Hebrew School for little kids. Sometimes she calls her dad Abba. “I feel very welcome there,” Haskell says, and he is picking up some Judaism by osmosis. “By now, at a Seder, I have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen.”

Haskell, with red hair, bushy eyebrows, and a mustache and beard, is executive director of the Key West Literary Seminar, an ambitious annual conference, and he owns Sand Piper Press, which has published several other books. But “The Jews of Key West,” he says, is by far the best-seller. Its initial 1,500 copies gone, it’s in a second printing of 3,000.

The idea for the book came from B’nai Zion member Susan Savitch, who’d done some research herself and turned files over to Haskell. It intrigued the historian in him.

“I met my wife 20 years ago at (Bard) college and knew the story of her grandparents and great-grandparents coming over from Russia, and so I was familiar with that story of general Jewish immigration.” But he also was intrigued by Key West history and the chance to look at it through a different lens.

The resulting book is a story of 19th century Jewish entrepreneurs who imported tobacco from Cuba, which is only 90 miles away, and became major players in the cigar industry. And of Jews whose lingering hatred of Spain, where their ancestors were persecuted, drove them to help support the effort for Cuban independence by sending money and arms to the island. And of Jews who, amid the ugliness of American anti-immigration laws in the 1920s, smuggled Eastern Europeans landsmen into the U.S. through Cuba.

It is also a story of everyday commerce and resourcefulness. Haskell reminded me that there was a large influx of Jews here following a catastrophic 1886 fire. “A lot of existing business owners had been wiped out,” he said, and Jewish peddlers flooded in to fill the vacuum. When the town enacted a prohibitively heavy tax on them, they opened stores themselves, and their businesses – dry goods, groceries, and the like – flourished.

But eventually hard times sent Key West into a tailspin and most Jews packing, especially to Miami; only a dozen Jewish families remained in the 1930s. Jewish ranks would not swell again until the Navy buildup In World War II led to a Key West revival.

The disruption helps explain why Jewish history became obscure to latter-day Jewish residents, Haskell said. Much of the communal memory had left. And those families who had stuck around weren’t eager to broadcast the activities of relatives who’d been involved in the illegal smuggling of refugees. And, he said, Key West tourism boosters were more interested in promoting sunshine, palm trees and selected lore, and left Jews out of the picture.

Haskell’s book ends in 1969, which is when Congregation B’nai Zion, founded in 1887, the oldest in South Florida, moved into new quarters. For many decades it was located in the building that now houses the tony Sarabeth’s restaurant (where my wife, Elizabeth and I enjoyed yellowtail snapper one night). If you look upward in the main dining area you can see where the women’s balcony was when the congregation was Orthodox.

B’nai Zion currently describes itself as Conservative with a liberal, egalitarian slant, welcoming men and women of any sexual orientation.

Chabad Rabbi Yaakov Zucker estimates there are 1,000 Jews in and around Key West, and Rabbi Dudai of B’nai Zion says he’s probably right. As is the case elsewhere, many are unaffiliated.

Chabad says it has 250 or so members – most of them Israelis, who own many of the T-shirt and other tourist shops. But Chabad here was founded in 1995, well after the period covered by Haskell’s book, so I was drawn to B’nai Zion. Rabbi Dudai is vague on figures – he suggests the temple rolls may include, say, 50 families and 50 individuals. The main thing, he says, is that the congregation is “diverse, vibrant, and, after a slow period, growing again.”

The rabbi says Key West Jews, many of whom led accomplished lives elsewhere and retired here, are prominent in the arts and are patrons of theater, music and other causes. With snowbirds on hand, the temple offers a busy schedule of films, lectures and other activities.

About 60 people were at the Saturday morning service I attended, which took note of Tu B’Shevat and welcomed new members. The congregation includes lawyers and doctors. Its president, Dr. Frederick Covan, used to be chief psychologist at New York’s Bellevue Hospital. He practices in Key West and his business card calls him “Southernmost Shrink” and features a drawing of a palm tree, sunglasses and a couch.

But there is a real mixture. One member is a landscaper. And “Bounce,” a 68-year-old man, used to be a juggler and unicyclist and now gives lessons.

I spoke with Savitch, who recruited Arlo Haskell to do the book, and who organized the historical photos that grace the social hall.

I was disappointed that two members who helped underwrite the book, Zabar’s co-owner Stanley Zabar and his wife, Judith, were not on hand.

The prayers were mostly Hebrew, but not the hurried blur I associate with Orthodox or Conservative minyans. Cantor John Kreinces led the singing.

Rebbetzin Nadia Dudai presented a sumptuous lunch on an outdoor terrace surrounded by magnificent mango, avocado and palm trees. Bagels, lox, whitefish, herring, an eggplant dish, salads, dates, figs, pastries...

The service nourished my soul, the food nourished my body, I met some friendly folks, and I felt good.

M. CHARLES BAKST, former Providence Journal political columnist, has been spending the winter in Fort Myers, Florida.

Bakst, Key West,