From South Beach to Century Village: The Jewish History of Florida
Happy New Year readers! I recently got back from a vacation to South Florida. Both my parents (from Montreal) and in-laws (from Boston) go south from the northeast to the southeast for winter, because they’re Jews, and that’s what Jews do.
I’ve been to South Florida many times for winter vacation. We used to drive from Montreal, a 30-hour trip divided into three 10-hour days. A typical New Year’s of my childhood was spent falling asleep at 10 pm after watching HBO in our Econo-Lodge hotel room en route back to Canada. That suited me just fine.
Our family Florida destination was Deerfield Beach, specifically Century Village, the retirement community where my maternal grandparents rented a small, second-floor, one-bedroom apartment (with one and a half bathrooms, thank God). They would spend the winter months of the year there, which in Montreal can mean late October to mid-April. They passed away in 1996 and 1997, and my mother and her older sister (my aunt) inherited the place. They couldn’t buy there themselves at the time: Century Village rules require you to be 55 years of age to buy, but you could inherit at any age.
Century Village is exactly like it sounds. The original location was in West Palm Beach, though there are now other branches in Boca Raton, Pembroke Pines, and Deerfield Beach, the one I visit. The Century Village in Deerfield is a community of about 14,000 residents. The average age seems to be 105. People joking refer to it as “Cemetery Village.” Things in Broward County close early, but not too early for the residents to grab their early bird specials at the clubhouse restaurant. The place is fairly desolate at 8 pm, but by 6 pm, the roads are filled with seniors going on “the walk,” a half-hour trek around the Century Village oval. Shuffleboard, or Jewish curling, is a popular sport. Almost each condo unit has its own pool, but like my favourite comedian Jackie Mason says, Jews don’t typically care for swimming, preferring to “sit by the pool” (my mother is a prime example here, as were my grandparents).
Remember the Seinfeld episode about the retirement community known as “Del Boca Vista,” where Jerry’s parents stay? Century Village is exactly like that. In fact, if you want to “check in” on the app foursquare at Century Village Deerfield, you can do so under “Del Boca Vista.”
Thus my earliest Florida memories are from Century Village, Deerfield Beach, in Broward County. Florida’s Jewish modern history, however, began in South Beach. I learned this at the small but excellent Jewish Museum of Florida, located on Washington Ave near 5th, not far from the epicenter of American douchebaggerie.
Florida Jewish history is actually quite fascinating, running from South Beach to Century Village. True, some conversos, and perhaps marranos, made it to the North Florida Spanish city of St. Augustine in the early 15th century. Some other Jews made their way to Florida when it became an English colony in 1763. And some Jews made their way to the deep South prior to Civil War, including David Levy Yulee, who sat as Florida’s first senator, and the US’s first Jewish senator, from 1845-1851, and 1855-1861. These Jews went mostly to north Florida, and founded their first congregation, the Reform Temple Beth-El, in 1876 in Pensacola, Florida. Miami’s Jewish community got the ball rolling in 1912, when they founded the city’s first congregation, B’nai Zion, later Beth David. The Florida Jewish Museum is housed in a former Synagogue, first built in 1929 and expanded in 1936.
The most interesting part of the museum was the small exhibit on the Jewish gangster Meyer Lansky, the most notorious member of Miami’s Jewish community. Born Meyer Suchowljansky in Russia in 1902, Lansky grew up on New York’s Lower East Side, where he had immigrated at the age of nine. Lansky was a math whiz with a phenomenal memory, and became known as the “Mob’s Accountant,” making his first money in bootlegging before partnering with fellow gangsters Bugsy Siegel and Lucky Luciano in the gambling business, while keeping his rival mobsters in line through Murder Inc. He was also a proud Jew, who helped break up pro-Nazi rallies in the US and prevent German espionage through his control of the New York shipyards. He used that same control to help smuggle arms to the nascent state of Israel in 1948, while preventing arms from reaching the Arab nations. He also helped Golda Meir on her 1948 Zionist fundraising trip.
Lansky tried to immigrate to Israel to avoid being imprisoned, though the Jewish State ultimately did not allow it. Nonetheless, Lansky succeeded in escaping a life behind bars, in part because his memory allowed him to avoid keeping books and records of his crimes. He died a free man in Miami in 1983. While living there, he also donated enough money to the shul to pay for a stained glass in his honour.
The museum also documented the plight of the thousands of Cuban Jews who fled to Miami after Castro’s revolution. These included Ashkenazi Jews who chose Cuba when the US closed its doors to most Jewish immigrants in the 1920s and Holocaust survivors who sought refuge on the tropical island, as well as Sephardic Jews who came even earlier in the 20th century, who found a warm haven after witnessing the decay and collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
But the biggest boost to Florida’s Jewish population can be summed up in two words: air conditioning.
Ok, so jet airplanes were important too. But even with airplanes, nobody, and certainly no Jew, was going to move to Florida for a long period of time if they couldn’t manage the heat (Jews will only sit in a sauna if it has air conditioning). I remember in college my wonderful American history professor Stephan Thernstrom told our class about a survey in the 1920s where Americans were asked to rank which states had the best weather. Florida came next to last. The winner? Vermont. In the 1920s, cold hearty air was good for you, and summer heat in the south was even more unbearable than winters in the north.
As thus, with the advent of air conditioning, more people, and more Jews, flocked to Florida, especially seniors to retire, or “snowbirds” to spend the winter months away from their freezing homes (and these two groups often overlapped). Their presence was also highlighted at the museum.
And so we return to Century Village, which was also mentioned in a museum exhibit. Jews still go to Century Village, though the prices of the units have dropped steadily in value as the market has fallen. But it remains an excellent retirement community for middle class people, who can’t afford the luxury of beachfront property but still want to grow old in comfort. And now it’s enjoyed by people of other ethnicities, some of whom also bring me back to my my roots. You can’t go a day in Century Village without hearing the unique French of the Quebecois, the French Canadian dialect known as joile. Some Parisian purists disdain this harsh accent; it reminds me of home. Things change, but the circle of life continues.