Review by Malcolm Robert Willison …….
Arlo Haskell, the annual Key West Literary Seminar’s executive director, has just published a fascinating work of historical reconstruction. His interestingly-organized book, well-designed and -illustrated by David Janik, covers much of the previously by-passed, almost-lost history of Key West’s Jewish population, from the town’s founding through its post-war boom.
Haskell is not a professional historian but an accomplished writer, poet, and administrator. His straightforward prose is highly readable without sacrificing careful and wide-ranging research and 14 pages of careful citation of sources. He was urged to undertake this multi-year project by Susan Ochroch Savitch, another Key Wester, who collected, and provided him with, the vast store of material she had gathered.
In less than 200 pages the book reveals the vital role played by U.S. Jews in the history of Key West, starting in 1823 with the thirty-year-old Charleston native and future Captain Levi Charles Harby in Commodore David Porter’s anti-piracy squadron. (As Edward Kritzler establishes in Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean (2008), many concealed Iberian conversos Jews were officers in the Spanish fleets in the Americas–some likely for various reasons to have landed in the Keys.)
Of central interest in Haskell’s book is the role of Jews in Key West’s commercial development, painstakingly mapped by Haskell from U.S. and Cuban publications and newspapers, various U.S. historical societies’ collectioins, U.S. Census and other U.S., Floirda, and Key West government documents, local directories, and organizations’ records and reports, and his own and Savitch’s invaluable interviews and family papers. By the 1850s traveling Jewish peddlers and tobacco wholesalers were passing through Key West, among them Max White of New York City and Tampa, who then actually settled in Key West and with his partner Sam Cline in 1859 established here a very successful downtown clothing store. Soon after the end of the Civil War, The Jewish Messenger, of New York City was being sold in Key West to a slowly but steadily expanding Jewish population, as Haskell discovers.
But of even greater importance for the development of a Jewish community in Key West was the Great Key West Fire of 1886. This devastation burnt down much of the commercial downtown of Key West. But it opened a vast new opportunity for Jewish peddlers and traveling “traders” to bring in replacement goods, and then settle in Key West. They quickly opened a plethora of new shops and stores. Most of the newcomers had come, via New York City from the more traditional Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, and they proceeded to establish schools, clubs, immigrant-assistance, and Jewish religious congregations, including the present B’nai Zion. The Savitch-Haskell collection of Key family papers and recollections were crucial for these fascinating stories.
These Jewish immigrants may have found Key West a more tolerant place than their homelands, but it was not without its own restrictions and discriminatory prejudices. The initial city charter of 1828 allowed the licensing and taxing of “hawkers, peddlars [sic], and transient traders,” many undoubtedly Jewish. In 1860 very high fees were imposed on peddlers, no doubt under pressure from local businesses. Finally in 1891 the local Anglo-American Merchants Protective Association, having won control of the city board of commissioners, quickly imposed absolutely prohibitive fees for peddling.
Prefiguring this attack on mostly Jewish (and black) peddlers, when the 1889 yellow fever epidemic swept through the growing Key West Jewish community, the principal sufferers were harshly treated as the cause of the epidemic. These same civic ‘leaders’ would later found and lead the anti-Semitic (and of course anti-black and anti-Catholic) 1920s Key West Ku Klux Klan.
But there was an ally against those Anglos, namely Key West Cubans. Many Key West Jews lived and had their businesses among the many Cubans in the upper Duval Street Gato neighborhood. Its cigar rollers and manufacturers had fled the ultimately unsuccessful rebellion aagainst the Spanish Empire from 1868 to 1878. When the second Cuban rebellion began in the early 1890s, Jose´ Martí–poet, essayist, and journalist–became its leading spokesman. Leaders of the Key West Jewish community came to his aid. One prominent member, Joseph Steinberg, in fact became the treasurer of Martí’s new Cuban Revolutionary Party. Martí espoused an anti-racist ideology of inclusive democracy and individual aspiration. He used the Jewish Maccabean revolt against the Roman Empire as exemplary for Cubans, and condemned the Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Martí´s outreach to U.S. Cubans and their other supporters was headquartered in Key West, and he came several to organize support, raise money, and rally the Cuban cigar-rollers at what is now LaTeDa (short for La Terraza de Martí) various Jewish-owned factories. Once armed resistance broke out in Cuba, it now seems certain that leading Jewish Key West merchants like Louis Wolfson and Louis Fine secretly financed the purchase of arms and their secret shipment to a Cuba in revolt.
Jews and Cubans in Key West formed a political alliance against the town’s Anglo-American elite. Abraham Pohalski was elected to the City Commission in the 1890s, and two local Cuban Americans became state legislators. (Carlos de Céspedes had already served as mayor in the 1870s and an African American was elected county sheriff in 1888). The Cuban example may also have facilitated the formation of a Key West branch of The Federation of American Zionists in support of an independent Jewish homeland only two years after Theodor Herzl’s proposal of an independent Jewish homeland.
The spread of the militant national temperance movement in Key West restricted the many Jewish bars in Key West, including the later Pepe’s and what would become the original Sloppy Joe’s on Greene Street. Finally the initiation of national Prohibition in 1919 closed all but illicet ispeakeasies. The subsequent two decades of economic decline in Key West initially coincided with the rise of the 1920s KKK and the severe shrinkage of Key West’s Jewish population. To survive, some local Jews facilitated the smuggling of liquor from Cuba, along with Eastern European Jews evading the new extreme U.S. restrictions on in-migration. Both were secreted in the recently revealed hidden cellars and tunnels along Duval Street, probably originally used for secret supplies for the Cuban revolutionaries. The Great Depression and the Keys Hurricane of 1935 that ended Flagler’s overseas railroad, compounded Key West’s shrinkage and decline. Only the U.S. Navy’s return to Key West for World War II sharply revived its economy, which carried on through the two prosperous post-war decades. Haskell’s The Jews of Key West ends as the post-Navy economic slump and the great hippy wave begin. In his handsome book Haskell has distilled a rich and varied local story in its fascinating historical and international context.