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  • The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823–1969) by Arlo Haskell
  • T.D. Allman (bio)
The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries (1823–1969). By Arlo Haskell. Key West, FL: Sand Paper Press, 2017. 208 pp.

You’ll find a marvelous description of a palm tree in this charming, important, beautifully-produced book. You and I could never write such a description because there is no way for a palm tree to surprise us. Not so for David Henry Mordecai, who was the first recorded Jewish teenager to visit Key West. Aged 15, he traveled there from Charleston on his father’s supply ship, the Isabel, in 1849. In Key West, the boy wrote in his diary, “I first saw a cocoa-nut tree. It is beautiful from 60 to 70 ft. high and no leaves except at the top.” He adds: “The Bark is smooth rather, and in layers, thus--” Here he sketched the palm tree he saw. The sketch is as naively accurate, and alive, as the diary itself. I know this because right next to the text citing that description is a lovely sepia reproduction of the page in the boy’s diary, with his sketch of the palm tree (16).

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover and, when it comes to Florida, that’s especially true. Many books on Florida are as pretty as a picture postcard on the outside and as dishonest as a swampland real estate salesman’s spiel between the covers. This book tells the truth, and tells it beautifully, but before getting to that I want to praise the book’s production. The publishers have provided it with a sturdy cover with a [End Page 582] fold-over flap to ensure that, even when exposed to Floridian dampness, it will never curl up on you. A great part of the pleasure of this book is the tactile experience of holding it and of enjoying its elegant and clear typeface, its layout, and the quality of its illustrations. The Jews of Key West was as much a labor of love for the Sand Piper Press as it was for Arlo Haskell, who wrote it. My sole complaint is that this book, handsome as it is in quality paperback form, does not have a hardcover version. It would have been a definitive collector’s item.

In addition to fascinating antique photographs, and high-quality reproductions of important documents, The Jews of Key West includes woodcuts by the beloved Cuban folk artist Mario Sanchez. One shows a bearded rabbi sitting in front of the Key West synagogue. Another shows “Hymie Markovitz’s fruit stand, Abraham Wolkowsky’s men’s shop, and Sam Wolf’s cigar store.” The Jews of Key West, we learn from Haskell’s account, were pioneers in the manufacturing and marketing of Cuban cigars, including the famous Monte Cristo brand.

Then as now, strange bedfellows abounded in Key West. Louis Fine, leader of Key West’s Jewish community, was born in Vilnius, Lithuania. His next door neighbor was a leader of the Cuban community named Teodoro Perez, whose houseguests included the great liberation leader, Jose Marti, who advised Jews to stop waiting for the Messiah. Key West’s Jews responded by helping the Cuban revolutionary party collect taxes from Cuban residents in Florida, contributing money of their own, and also helping smuggle armaments to the freedom fighters in Cuba. That same house where Marti slept today is one of Key West’s famous gay guest houses, the La Te Da. From national liberation to gay liberation: you can trace the cultural transformations of America in one Key West house. Haskell doesn’t just tell us that. He provides a map of the actual streets and houses that is both accurate and aesthetically pleasing.

Its early Jewish migrants came to Key West seeking escape from hatred, persecution and death. Reading Haskell’s description of the island’s early Jewish peddlers, I thought of the peddlers I often see on another island, Manhattan. Young Jews with nothing but a will to survive then, young Africans with nothing but a will...