Heading to my gate at Logan last week, I felt some trepidation over those inevitable loose strings left behind in Boston. But Miami’s sunny skies warmly awaited.
I strategically choose my Airbnbs near Whole Foods Markets, and marveled at the immensely walkable neighborhood, filled with palm and magnificent banyan trees, just two blocks west of the famed SoBe art deco hotels and nightclubs.
And yet it was still close-knit. I remember coming here once with my parents and visiting a very large and populous housing complex. When my father asked a resident if she happened to know Ida and Goldie Abrams, she answered, “From Revere?”
That was the trip where my dad and I walked past the hopping Ocean Avenue clubs one night (my mother stayed at the hotel), and suddenly, he pulled me into one and onto the dance floor. It remains one of my most treasured memories of him.
Miami has changed, and Washington Avenue is now eminently multicultural. But many streets are still named for Jews, there is an eruv and seven places of worship come up in a Google search.
A must-see is the Miami Beach Holocaust Memorial at 1933-1945 (the years of the Nazi regime) Meridian Ave. It rises between the Convention Center and Dade Boulevard and is adjacent to the Miami Beach Botanical Garden.
Traditionally Jewish areas lie around the Memorial and along 41st Street. The Miami Beach JCC is further up at 4221 Pine Tree Drive, across the canal from the legendary Fontainebleau and Eden Roc resorts.
The Jewish Cultural Arts Center at the Michael-Ann Russell Jewish Community Center is a few miles north, between North Miami Beach and Aventura. And as Jews migrated north, it goes on from there, all the way up the Gold Coast.
“In the winter, 10% of U.S. Jews are in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties,” said Eva Shvedova, the museum store and group tour manager at the Jewish Museum of Florida, where I took in a tour during a Miami Cultural Crawl. “There are about 600,000, mostly in Broward County,” she said, “and 124,000 Jews in Miami-Dade alone.”
Why not? Jews are many things, but they aren’t stupid. With sultry temps about 80 degrees all week, plenty of action and the ability to make foolproof plans in the winter, Florida is a guaranteed warm and pleasant destination. (Trust me—last year at this time, I was on an Amtrak and stopped to visit Nashville, New Orleans, El Paso and Los Angeles. All were freezing.)
Shvedova, a Russian immigrant, moved to Miami in 1994 and said she is both the oldest and longest-serving employee of the museum. It was originally a synagogue built in 1929, was rebuilt in 1936 and became the Jewish Museum of Florida in 1995. It is housed in two adjacent, restored historic buildings.
“There are mostly stories of immigrants here,” she said, pointing to the sanctuary’s hanging Japanese paper sculptures shining with fire-fused resin, created by eco-feminist Miami artist Mira Lehr.
Docent Elaine Litvak told a tour group of non-Jews that the best time to come was on Saturday because no money was taken that day, so it was free. She pointed out the art deco chandeliers above, and the bima. “Bimas never have human depictions,” she told them, “because of idolatry.”
Rather, she told them about the Lions of Judah above the ark. “King David was from the tribe of Judah,” she said.
Twelve stained glass windows, based on the months of the year, encircled the room, its floor slanted for maximal viewing. The museum’s permanent exhibit “Mosaic” tells the story of the Jewish community of Miami. Another exhibit on the liberation of Auschwitz, on loan from Yad Vashem, is displayed in the gallery of the second, connected building.
Litvak showed the group “Tamim,” a captivating collection of highly unusual Jewish men by portrait photographer Zachary Balber. The subjects, most heavily tattooed, wear Balber’s bar mitzvah yarmulke.
I had planned to attend services on Shabbat at Temple Emanu-el, the oldest Conservative congregation in Miami Beach, which is celebrating its 75th year, as I had admired its majestic white building directly across from the Fillmore. A friend in Fort Lauderdale urged me to get there in time to get some kugel, but I made it for most of the service, and was glad that I did.
Why does it seem that the sermon always speaks directly to you? This week’s portion was about the burning bush. “Don’t ignore the burning bushes that you pass,” Rabbi Marc Phillippe told us. “Moses could have walked by, but he stopped and looked at it, and heard the word of God. From then on, miracles occurred.”
He continued: “Every day, we might bypass such miracles. But it is when we listen to the still, small voice inside of us and pay attention to our surroundings that miracles happen.”
Visitor Alan Levin also spoke about listening to the burning bush. A former Pfizer CEO, he is about to be ordained as a rabbi. “If anyone had told me this years ago, I’d have said they were utterly and completely crazy,” he said. “But you have to remain open to your own journey.”
My table mates included a hipster couple who had been to the Wednesday New Order show I was at, and a woman who lived right near me on Beals Street in Brookline.
When I mentioned to synagogue president David Greenberg (whose rendition of upcoming events could have been a stand-up act) that I had come to Miami for the New Order shows, he paused and said, “Oh yes, they used to be Joy Division.”
Sitting at an outdoor Whole Foods table amid languishing conversations, I think about all these connections and stay on alert for those burning bushes. In Miami, it’s easy to do.
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