Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

Back to the Shtetl: Jews Choose Florida Sunset

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February 1, 2005
c.2005 Newhouse News Service
TAMARAC, Fla. _ It’s after the Yiddish Circle meeting, the cantor has sung “New York, New York,” and Jacob Goldstein is quietly recalling his years in a Soviet labor camp during the Second World War. “We had to work until it was 50 degrees below zero,” he says.
Abe Zalcberg stirs. Better there than where he spent the war, he avers gently. At Buchenwald, he says of the Nazi concentration camp, “our life was in danger every day, every minute.”
Today Goldstein and Zalcberg are safe and warm, friends and neighbors in Kings Point, a 20-year-old community of some 9,000 older folks, all but a small number Jewish.
Kings Point itself is nestled in the city of Tamarac, founded in the 1960s by a Jewish developer and governed by a mayor and vice mayor who are both 80ish Jewish guys from New York, resettled here. This is not Florida by-the-sea but Florida by-the-swamp, the last tract of Broward County before it becomes the Everglades. In the annals of Jewish geography, Tamarac is at the heart of the largest concentration of old Jews anywhere in America, maybe in the world.
“Florida is the Jewish `medine,’ the Golden Land,” says Len Ronik, a retired plumber who, in a familiar trajectory, moved from Queens Village in New York to Kings Point a decade ago at 60 and is now president of the homeowners’ association.
Ten percent of Jews from all across America now live in three South Florida counties _ Miami/Dade, Broward and Palm Beach. More remarkable, those counties are home to 30 percent of all American Jews 65 and older. Less than one of every five American Jews is 65 or older. But in South Florida every other Jew is old, bound by an identity as much cultural as religious.
Drawn by the sun and each other, a critical mass of that generation who grew up in the shadow of the Holocaust, World War II and the Depression, not far from their immigrant roots, has retired to communities at least as Jewish as the neighborhoods where they grew up.
“Jews are clannish,” says Ronik, who grew up on New York’s Lower East Side and didn’t learn English until he started school in a classroom where everybody except the teacher spoke Yiddish. “They are looking for the shtetl that doesn’t exist anymore.”
“Shtetl” _ a Yiddish word for the small Jewish towns or villages formerly found in Eastern Europe. Ronik’s is a revealing, even jarring sentiment, one widely echoed at Kings Point.
In his lifetime, Jews spread out across America. In 1940, nearly 70 percent of American Jews lived in the Northeast, mostly around New York, says Ira Sheskin, director of the Jewish Demography Project of the Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies at the University of Miami. By 2001, fewer than half of all Jews lived in the Northeast.
Simultaneously, America became a much better place for Jews _ perhaps, many would argue, the best and freest place Jews have ever known. Admissions quotas, restrictive covenants, restricted country clubs and a pall of deep prejudice fell away before their eyes. Now, success is their stereotype, an embarrassment of riches. For better or worse, intermarriage rates have soared; today nearly half of all Jews marry non-Jews.
And yet, having witnessed these changes and raised increasingly assimilated children, it is as if, by their choice of where to spend their remaining time, these older Jews are declaring: “Melting pot, shmelting pot! Enough!”
“It’s clearly a return to their roots,” Sheskin says.
Many of this generation, especially in New York, lived mostly among Jews all their lives. But Sheskin says many others moved to more mixed surroundings in the suburbs to bring up their children. Now, that mission accomplished, they want back what they had before _ each other.
Cookie Blattman, who grew up in an Orthodox home in Brooklyn, moved to Kings Point more than a decade ago.
“My husband used to say, `You know, we could move where there’s mixed,”’ she recalls. “He says, `You want to live in a ghetto?’ I said, `Yes, I want to live in a ghetto.”’
Blattman is now a big “makher” (Yiddish for a person who makes things happen). She runs the Kings Point Yiddish Club, is a popular performer and sings the opening of “Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen” (“To Me You Are Beautiful”) on her voicemail. It was she who introduced Goldstein and Zalcberg after each lost his wife.
In collecting together, these older Jews have created communities unlike any before, because there has never been a generation quite like theirs, spanning the most horrific chapter in all Jewish history and what would count among the brightest. They are seared by traumas that may help explain the solace they find now, surrounded by one another.
At Kings Point, Miriam and Murray Siederman, a Yiddish interpreter for Gen. George Patton who tears up recalling the mournful liberation of Dachau, are neighbors to Holocaust survivors Joseph and Helen Brown _ though Joseph, a leader in the Warsaw Ghetto, is now ceding memory to the ruthless maw of Alzheimer’s.
Nearby is the home of Ines and Jack Jacoby. In 1939, not yet 7, Ines and her twin sister Renate provided one of the most poignant images of the era, the pleading innocence of their faces framed in a porthole of the St. Louis, a luxury liner that had brought more than 900 Jews from Germany to within sight of Miami Beach. Refused entry, the passengers were returned to Europe, where many eventually were killed. Ines and her family spent the war in Westerbork, a camp in Holland.
“And now we’re sitting here,” she says. “Old people.”
“My question is who is going to live in Kings Point in 10 years?” wonders Rabbi Michael Gold of Temple Beth Torah in Tamarac. Gold presides over a lot of Kings Point funerals and 50th wedding celebrations, but he says succeeding generations are rife with intermarriage and divorce.
And, sometimes, a different take on the world.
It’s natural for people to flock to others like them, Mayor Joe Schreiber observes. But he adds, “The younger generation seems to be different.”
Echoes Ronik, “My son says he will never move to a place like this.”
If Kings Point represents the pinnacle of a way of life, it may already be a kind of relic.
“It’s the last hurrah,” says Mitch Ceasar, the Broward County Democratic chair who has been like a grandson to a couple generations of Tamarac Jews since he organized the city’s first Democratic club on his arrival here from Brooklyn 30 years ago while still a college student.
At its best, life in Kings Point is like a long, warm stay in the Catskills. Marathon mah-jongg. Billiards, bridge, canasta and Scrabble. Jewish organizations from a chapter of Hadassah to a lodge of the Knights of Pythias, and clubs beyond counting for everyone from Chicago transplants to survivors of the Holocaust to those of Sephardic heritage. The drama group (its president, Evelyn Golder, grew up in vaudeville the child of a marimba-xylophone act) rehearses 10 months for its annual performance.
In the imposing Clubhouse, the glassed-in fitness center looks like a scene from the movie “Cocoon.” Directly across from the Clubhouse is the glittering, private 1,000-seat Palace Theater, with its steady run of aged Borscht Belt talent: comedian Freddie Roman on Wednesday night, Brooklyn-born pianist Peter Nero on Friday, and Fred Travalena filling in Saturday for an ailing Nipsey Russell.
“This is my third visit to Kings Point,” announced Bruce Smirnoff, the Jewish comic who opened for Nero. He wondered aloud if anyone remembered his previous appearances there with Dudu Fisher (Orthodox Israeli cantor-turned-entertainer) and Tovah Feldshuh (she played Golda Meir on Broadway). No response.
“How many remember what you had for breakfast this morning?” Smirnoff continued. “Something on a bagel?”
In some cases the move here is so complete, whole social sets were transported intact.
Cookie Blattman and her husband, Leonard, dance three nights a week. On Tuesdays it’s at the Sunrise Jewish Center, a few hundred people, 90 percent Jewish, most with the same set of partners they’ve had for decades. “We danced together in New York,” Leonard says from the edge of the floor. “We danced together in Brooklyn. We danced together in Bay Parkway. We danced together in Coney Island.”
Sheskin explains this as something comforting and familiar _ like why he watches Nick at Nite. “I know the Beaver is going to get into trouble and I know that somehow or another, his parents will forgive him.”
“It’s an ease,” says Iris Silverberg, who moved from Long Island with her husband Joe. “You don’t really have to watch what you say in terms of leaving out any Jewishness. … Any Jewish expression, if you don’t use it, somebody else uses it. The holidays. The camaraderie. `What are you doing?’ `What are you doing?’ `I’m going to my children.’ `Are you cooking?’ …
“I think we’re all connected. It’s a feeling, deep within our being,” she says. “I love `Jewishkeyt’ (Jewishness). How do you explain Jewishkeyt?”
It’s not a matter of religious practice. Among Jews nationally, those in South Florida are the least likely to be intermarried, and far more likely to count Jews as all or most all their closest friends, according to demographer Sheskin’s surveys. But they are also the least likely to keep kosher.
“They are more likely to be playing golf than in shul,” notes Rabbi Gold, using the colloquial Yiddish for synagogue.
There are observant Jews like Blattman, but there are also Jews like Goldstein, who came from a family of Bundists _ Jewish socialists who reveled in Yiddish as much as they reviled religion _ and still writes a political column for the Yiddish weekly, the Forverts (Forward).
Kings Point has a personality _ kind of Jerry Seinfeld meets Bernard Malamud at the corner of “kvell” (beam with pride, especially about the achievements of children and grandchildren) and “kvetch” (complain). The place is thick with shtick.
The politics is Old Testament. Mayor Schreiber and Vice Mayor Marc Sultanof are bitter rivals with competing Democratic clubs (there is no Republican club) and an antic, sit-com contempt for one another. If Jews are the people of the book, the book was recently thrown at both the Yiddish and Video Clubs for violating Clubhouse rules by advertising events to outsiders.
The new general manager, Shannon Ventry, isn’t Jewish. She was raised in the largely Jewless Florida Panhandle, has learned to adjust to the inverse of the Southern personality she grew up with, with its cheery patina of gracious hospitality. Here, she has learned, the sweet center lies beneath the hard shell.
“I know how people see me, as a Jew first,” says Ronik, a huge Howard Stern fan. “`Never again.’ That’s how I live my life. `Never again.”’
Whatever other purpose Kings Point serves, it is incubating some of the purest strains of New Yorkese extant, the very rhythm of which can prove contagious. Mitch Ceasar, the Democratic Party leader, says his former wife always knew when he had been with the “condo people” by the escalation of his accent. “You know what Jackie Mason said about places like that,” Ceasar adds. “Too many Jews.”
“Too many Jews,” says Judy Frasieur, quoting not Jackie Mason, but her late husband, who wasn’t Jewish and, overwhelmed, steered clear of the Clubhouse.
“I like a mix,” says Beatrice Beirach, originally from Brooklyn. She and her husband, Irving, didn’t seek out Kings Point for its Jewishness when they moved from Los Angeles nine years ago. And, Irving complains, everybody’s old. “Would I come back here again? No.”
But Marcelle and Leonard Bock picked out Kings Point precisely for how Jewish it is.
She lost her parents, twin sisters and most of the rest of her family in the Holocaust, surviving as a teenager by hiding out with gentile families outside Paris. For years the Bocks lived in Norwalk, Conn., where there are a lot of Jews. They eventually moved to Wilton, where the schools were better but the few Jews kept a low profile. They lived there almost a quarter-century, never completely at home.
When time came to retire, Leonard says, “We looked at the West Coast (of Florida) and people said, `Well, we can go to the West Coast but you won’t find any Jews over there.”’
They chose Kings Point. “I did this intentionally,” Marcelle says. “I know what it’s like to live in a community that’s not Jewish.”
“We’ve been the outsiders in life since the millennium,” Cookie Blattman is telling Jacob Goldstein and Abe Zalcberg. “So when my husband said to me `Do you want to live in a ghetto?’ I said, `Yes.”’
“It’s not a ghetto,” Zalcberg says. “I was in ghetto before the camps.”
Then maybe a shtetl, says Blattman. “Isn’t Kings Point a shtetl?”
Again Zalcberg shakes his head. “You don’t know,” he says. “The shtetl is with the chicks, with the cows, with the bad roads.”
But here it is, 2005, and he is surrounded by Yiddish speakers. The Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Fort Lauderdale has a twice weekly section, Shalom Today, devoted to Jews. There’s the weekly Jewish Journal of Broward County. The local gourmet shop now carries _ who knew? _ Kosher buffalo. Zalcberg’s cell phone rings “Hava Nagila.” He and his new friend Goldstein are headed home to play cards, then in a few days are off together on a Caribbean cruise.
Ghetto? Shtetl? Whatever. It’s home.

Written by jonathantilove

March 14, 2010 at 7:08 am

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