August 22, 2019

Ghosts on the Beach

I arrived in Miami Beach one morning last week on a mission: to find the last kosher hotel in South Beach, an ultra-hip area of restaurants, clubs and shops that used to be the hub of Florida Jewish life.Today you can drive along Ocean Drive (inch along is more like it) and see scores of suburban teenagers and sophisticated European tourists sitting at Art Deco restaurants and hotels, sipping their lattes and looking to be seen, but you won’t find many Jews. South Beach is where Gianni Versace was murdered on the steps of his mansion and where Gloria Estefan, Madonna and Sylvester Stallone all have had multimillion-dollar homes at one time or another.

Today, posh South Beach is almost unrecognizable as a place where Jewish retirees came to get away from harsh winters for five months out of the year. A prime example of the vast change between then and now can be found at the intersection of 17th and Collins Avenue, one of the busiest corners on the beach.On the ocean side of Collins is the Delano, a beautifully renovated Art Deco hotel owned by Ian Shrager, former partner of Studio 54. Walking into the Delano is like walking onto a movie set, only a movie set located on Mars. Oversized furniture placed at random decorates the spare, narrow lobby, while the staff stands spellbound against a lime-green background. Out back, where hotel guests dine and wander the grounds on their way to the beach, naked jet-setters lie under starched white sheets getting rubdowns by hotel masseurs. On the beach, more naked guests and beautiful people in fancy blue cabanas.

In contrast, directly across the street, on the west side of Collins, is the Plaza South. The Plaza South, like dozens of other hotels in South Beach, used to cater to winter guests until the ’70s, when the hotel turned into a residential nursing home.

Now, white-haired men lean on their canes or sit in wheelchairs on the small verandah, watching the blur of activity down Collins, while their African American caregivers take in the crowds at the Delano, probably wondering how things could have been so transformed. The two worlds, old and new, still co-exist, but for how long is anybody’s guess.

Determined to find at least one kosher hotel, I drove to Eighth and Collins, where my Aunt Dora used to stay with her mother, who wintered at the Edison, a kosher hotel near the ocean. I thought I might be able to find the building, but all that I could find was Armani Exchange and Kenneth Cole shoes.Aunt Dora wrote a description of the area as it existed at the time: “There was a stretch of hotels [along Collins Avenue] with long front verandahs. The little old women would sit there for hours reminiscing about their pasts. On the bulletin board in the foyer there would be announcements of upcoming events, i.e. the big weekly special: ‘ICE-CREAM TONIGHT!’ Every week they would have a concert on the beach.”Talk about laughs, it was hilarious – an old ‘cucker’ would stand up and announce he’s an expert on imitations, then would commence to imitate a rooster, etc.! Mama gave up – she said, ‘Who wants to waste time with these altinkas [old Jewish people]? Another thing I remember: we’d always go to a Jewish movie. Inevitably, they’d be about family relationships, how ungrateful the children were to their old parents and how lonely the old people were.”

After Eighth Street, I headed down to the Sanford L. Ziff Jewish Museum of Florida at Third Street and Washington Avenue, an area that was humming with Jewish activity until the ’50s. Founded five years ago, the Jewish Museum is in the former Beth Jacob Synagogue, which housed Miami Beach’s first Jewish congregation. Built in 1936, the building features Art Deco architecture, a copper dome, a marble bimah and 80 stained-glass windows.

The museum evolved from a traveling exhibition called “MOSAIC: Jewish Life in Florida,” depicting Florida’s early Jewish community from 1763 to the present. The exhibition, which consists of photographs, artifacts and oral histories, generated so much interest that a permanent building had to be found. At present, the museum houses this collection, plus other traveling exhibitions, cultural and education programs, and a research center.

At the museum I got a wealth of information on Jewish life but also a more realistic view of my search, from a man named Elliot who volunteers at the museum. “All the Jews [of South Beach] have either moved to Broward County [Fort Lauderdale and vicinity], Douglas Gardens Nursing Home or straight to the cemetery.”

After hours of searching out leads and talking to various people, I realized that it wasn’t the last kosher hotel I needed to find, but the first.

The Nemo Hotel at 110 Collins Ave., just around the corner from the Jewish Museum, was the first kosher hotel in South Beach. The Nemo was built in 1921 by Joseph and Harry Goodkowsky of Maine and Sam Magid from Boston, Harry’s brother-in-law. Today, Myra Far, Harry’s daughter, lives in Bar Harbor Island, Florida, and is very active in the Jewish community as well as recounting her family’s history.According to Far, it was “rich Uncle Sam” who got the ball rolling on building the Nemo, financing the hotel with money made in Boston. Her father was the contractor, and her Uncle Joe was the proprietor. The Nemo, a magnet of hospitality, drew hordes of Jews from Montreal and New York to the warm climes of Florida. Far spent her childhood on the East Coast, but in the ’30s, after her father died, she returned to the Nemo with her widowed mother and sister.

Far remembers that time perfectly: “South Beach had a real small-townish feel. We frolicked on the beach at 10th Street, meet all the boys, have corned beef sandwiches, eat ice cream at Dolly Madison’s.” Myra and her friends even watched the turtles lay eggs.

She remembers well the scores of Jews who lived in small apartments in South Beach or wintered at the kosher hotels – groups of retired furriers and teachers and “politically incorrect” Workmen’s Circle Jews, who would get into trouble for their views. They would gather at the beach to play lotto and bingo or entertain each other with labor songs. At the museum, I saw photographs of what Far was talking about: large crowds of older Jews raising hell on their banjos and guitars, mingling together for what looked like a hootenanny on the beach. “They were a rabid bunch,” Far recalls.

Her cousin Julia Goodkowsky was in charge of the Nemo’s kosher kitchen, cooking hot, healthy meals of chicken soup, giblets, borscht and herring. “It was first-class Jewish cooking, very delicious,” Far says, emphasizing the “delicious.” In 1936, Far married husband Aaron at the Nemo, descending down the staircase into the main lobby and then out into the courtyard, standing under the arches posing for pictures. On her wedding day, the guests dined on kosher stuffed squab, a delicacy of the time. For Passover, the Goodkowsky family and other Jews would travel uptown to the Fontainebleau, a large hotel at 44th Street and Collins that catered to Miami Beach’s Jewish community, with Rabbi Lehmer, the dean of Miami Beach rabbis, presiding over the seder. To this day, the Fontainebleau maintains a kosher kitchen.

The Nemo remained lively through the 1940s but soon faced drastic changes. By the late ’50s and early ’60s, “the Nemo was a dump,” Far says.

“The whole area was a disaster,” recalls Ben Grenwald, a past Miami Beach City Commissioner who served 1979-83 and who, along with Barbara Capitman (who single-handedly saved Art Deco architecture from demolition), was responsible for revitalizing the area. “Many of the hotels had fallen into disrepair,” Grenwald recounts. “The old hoteliers had mortgages they couldn’t pay, and no bank would help them. Then in the ’70s young people started coming down, and New Yorkers made real estate investments, buying up three and four hotels at once.” With the influx of Marielitos (Cuban boat people), younger crowds, and East Coast real estate magnates, “a lot of people with walkers were pushed out [of South Beach
],” Grenwald says.

Five years ago the Nemo Hotel was bought by Miles Shefitz, a restaurateur, who has since spent thousands of dollars in renovations for a fancy restaurant, of the same name. A few years ago he called Far to find out if the hotel had once had a restaurant, a necessary step to obtaining a license. She had fun telling him of her wedding day, a magical time, when she descended down the staircase to eat an elegant meal of stuffed squab. “By myself, I’m a book,” Far laughs, recounting a long-ago past.

The Nemo staircase is gone now, but the original floor of that time, black and white tile, remains. The Nemo safe, for the jewelry of those who could afford such things, is still there, now on the patio as a cabinet for a computer that keeps track of the high-priced fare. The Art Deco architecture, with its graceful arches and metal window frames, is still there, but nothing remains of the spirit of the original hotel or the people who once stayed there.

Before I left the area, I went back to the Delano to watch the crowds at the ocean, wondering how long it would be before South Beach is forgotten as a once vital nexus of a generation of Jews. Fortunately for us, people like Myra Far and the Jewish Museum’s MOSAIC program are making sure their history remains alive.