The surprisingly influential Jewish community at the southernmost corner of the United States

The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823-1969), by Arlo Haskell. Sand Paper Press. 208 pages. Deluxe Trade Paperback $24.00.

In seven well-shaped chapters, Haskell packs an enjoyable and frequently astonishing history of Key West’s Jewish community. Hearing of the topic, some people will assume that this is a slender thread to spin into a book. However, they would be wrong. Haskell’s research has turned up a considerable amount of information that brings to life 144 years of Jewish involvement in this most idiosyncratic town.

Young Men’s Hebrew Association

The chapters bite off chronological slices of history, each focusing on the economic and cultural aspects of Jewish life. Thus, the journey begins with a discussion of sailors and merchants in an era of military events,stressing the importance of Key West as a port town, a multilingual place that had an international flair. In the first half of the nineteenth century, the Jewish community was tiny, hardly a real community. Early Jewish settlers included Mordecai White and Samuel Cline, who were tailors and clothes merchants. The naval presence brought them customers.

During a twenty-year span that followed the initial attraction of Jews to Key West, opportunities in a growth industry took hold and swelled the population, including the Cuban and the Jewish population. Samuel Seidenberg “was the first manufacturer to capitalize on the fact that a cigar as good as the Cuban ones could be made in Key West at significantly lower cost.” He constructed a huge factory. His Jewish rivals included M. Myerson, Max Marx, the Pohalski brothers, and Julius Ellinger. Haskell’s narrative of the Key West tobacco boom shows how it promoted the town’s economy, attracting investment with its hundreds of employees. The Pohalski brothers built a company corner of town with homes for their workers. Their section of Key West gave rise to dry good and grocery stores, as well as a drug store and a saloon. These leaders were primarily secular Jews.

Arlo Haskell photo Nick Doll

As he traces the growth of the Jewish presence in Key West, Haskell keeps us in touch with larger issues of the time, including the Civil War and the Ten Years’ War fought to liberate Cuba from the Spanish Empire. He points out parallels in the age-old Jewish and nineteen century Cuban struggles for autonomy and independence. Haskell points out the need for Key West’s Jews to form alliances with exiled Cubans who, under the leadership of José Martí, had made Key West their command center.

The latter decades of the nineteenth century mark the beginning of a true Jewish community. New Jewish settlers in Key West often continued their European enterprises as peddlers and shopkeepers. Though Key West was ravaged by a fire in 1886, the rebuilding of the town brought new opportunities. Abram Wolkowsky and other Eastern European Jews shared religious customs, the experience of exile, and the Yiddish language. Slowly, Jewish institutions begin to take hold. Congregation B’nai Zion, still functioning, gives 1887 as its date of origin.

The Jewish Alliance’s Key West chapter emerged in 1891. Its primary concern was to establish a Jewish cemetery, and it did so. As the century wound down, “Jews had become an important and highly visible component of Key West business life.” One of the community leaders, Louis Fine, was not only a successful business man, but also served as lay leader for religious matters until Key West had its first rabbi.

Fine’s grocery store had a lower level used “to store weapons for the [Cuban] rebel army.” Haskell devotes a chapter to exploring the phenomenon of “Jewish Revolutionaries” in the 1890s.

The first two decades of the twentieth century witness a strong, thriving Key West Jewish community. The Jewish congregation held services and other activities on the second floor of the Fine family’s hardware store. When Fine was not available, itinerant Rabbi Herman Horowitz handled the community’s religious needs. All kinds of Jewish businesses were set up along and near Duval Street.

Marks, Rosenthal & Wall Family

Jewish shoe merchants

On top of the Honest Profit House, a clothing store run by the Wolkowsky family, sat the office of the U. S Immigration Inspector, and through that office many hundreds of Jews took their first steps toward citizenship.

Key West rode the wave of nationwide improvements in communication and other technologies. The growing Jewish population was serviced by efforts of the Jewish Alliance to find jobs for Jewish immigrants. This initiative included relocating immigrants from overcrowded New York to various other places around the country, Key West included. By 1905, the Jewish community reported having 158 members. Its members joined efforts to reunite Jewish families that had been separated. . . .

To read the entire review, as it appears in the July 4, 2018 Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the July 5 Naples and  Charlotte County editions, click here: Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 1  and Florida Weekly – Key West’s Jews 2

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Filed under Authors and Books, Florida Authors, Jewish Themes

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