By Myron S. Lubell
The Montréal Review, October 2023
Miami Beach, Florida is one of the most well known resort cities in the world. However, during the 20th century this glitzy “fun-in-the-sun” paradise was also a haven for elderly Jewish immigrants, many of whom had fled from Czarist Russia. It was also home for recent survivors of the Holocaust. They were easy to identify, always dressed in short sleeves, proud to display the numbers branded on their arm - but some wore long sleeves, even on the hottest days of summer, hiding a memory from hell.
This famous tropical island is not very large - only 87 blocks from the southern tip to Surfside, a small bedroom community – which is where I lived as a teenager - but I always regarded Miami Beach as my hometown because that’s where I went to school - where I spent weekends at the beach staring at the girls – trying to look cool while roasting in the sun. Unfortunately, there were no schools in Surfside – or movie theaters, libraries, or parks. Aside from delicious cheeseburgers at my neighborhood drugstore everything that was fun was in Miami Beach.
In the early 1950’s - my high school years - Miami Beach was called the “Winter Playground of America” – that was before Disney World and a dozen cruise ships that sailed to exotic Caribbean ports. The most famous street in the city was Lincoln Road – which cut across the narrow island from the ocean to Biscayne Bay – it was one of the most exclusive retail shopping streets in America. My mother and her sister, my aunt Pearlie, loved strolling on this boulevard of their dreams, browsing at the latest fashions from New York. But, they rarely bought anything – “Those prices are outrageous,” said my mother. “Money doesn’t grow on trees.”
The area south of Lincoln Road was commonly referred to as South Beach. Eventually it would become a trendy neighborhood, known for fine restaurants, Latin music, glamorous people, and Art Deco architecture. But, during my teenage years it was home for thousands of older Jewish residents, most of whom were retired and of modest means. Washington Avenue, the commercial hub of this region, was a vestige from another era - Yiddish competed with English as the language of the street. (See Note #1) It was a vibrant concourse, exploding with humanity, alive with personality - kosher butchers, bakeries, delicatessens - and a “shul” on every corner. (Note: Large synagogues were usually referred to as “temples” – but the small synagogues in South Beach were called “shuls.”)
For me, the jewel of South Beach was a restaurant located at the southern end of Washington Avenue - “Joe’s Stone Crab.” Every year for my birthday my parents took me to “Joe’s.” A waiter dressed in a tuxedo would tie a paper bib around my neck and give me a tiny cocktail fork - then I dug into a half dozen luscious stone crab claws. Meticulously, I removed the shells and dipped each claw into a tangy mustard sauce. The glorious conclusion to this birthday treat was the most delicious key lime pie in the world.
“That pie is to die for,” said my mother - my father smiled and ordered several additional slices.
Side note: Today - a lifetime later - I still go to Joe’s for my birthday - still loving their stone crabs and key lime pie.
A few blocks north of Joe’s was the “Famous,” a popular Eastern-European Jewish restaurant. On top of every table was a bottle of seltzer - so you could make a good “greps” (belch) when you finished eating. “Ess Gezunterhait!” (Eat in good health) That was the special “blessing” before the meal. Then came a seven course eating orgy. My father was in heaven. He loved that restaurant, but as he always said,“it didn’t love him.” After dinner, the long drive home to Surfside was sometimes very unpleasant – my mother didn’t stop complaining.
“Rose, stop kvetching (complaining, whining) - just open the windows,” said my father.
It was a huge menu - maybe 50 different entrées, but I only liked the kreplach soup and the kishkehs. Kreplach is similar to Chinese Won Ton soup, but it has chopped meat inside the dumplings. Kishkehs are spicy sliced sausages, made from stuffed derma and several mysterious ingredients.
“What do you think they do with the leftover food when they clean the dishes at night?” said my father.
“Is he serious?” I asked my mother - but she had a mouthful of delicious kishkehs and didn’t respond. Who knows - maybe he was right?
I also drank a lot of seltzer with chocolate syrup - it was much better that way. It was fun to greps in public - only at the “Famous” was that allowed. I remember the time I saw Milton Berle - he was sitting at the table next to ours, smoking a cigar. I lifted a seltzer bottle and aimed it at him and said, “hi Uncle Miltie.” He made a funny face, raised his bottle, and pretended to squirt back at me. In future years, when I developed a taste for heavy Jewish cooking, the “Famous” was gone.
Aside from “Joe’s” and the “Famous” I rarely went south of my school, Ida M. Fisher Jr. High, which was located on 14th street. However, on a few occasions, I joined my best friends, David and Shelly Steinberg (twin brothers) – to visit their great uncle Louie Marcus, the Romanian born brother of their grandmother. He lived at the Nemo Hotel on 1st street, a retirement hotel for elderly people. Although he wasn’t my relative, I called him “Uncle Louie,” out of respect.
Uncle Louie – the best dressed man in South Beach
Also, living at the same hotel was another relative of the Steinberg’s, Tante Baila, (Tante – the Yiddish word for aunt) - she was a solemn woman - probably in her 80’s - with sad eyes.She didn’t speak English - so she never joined in any of our conversations - but she understood a word, now and then.
Tante Baila – lost in her memories
The Nemo attracted many immigrants from Romania, but I was surprised to see that none of them spoke Romanian. “That’s because, for hundreds of years we were forced to live in ghettos. Yiddish was our language,” said Uncle Louie, “but if we needed to speak Romanian, like to a ‘shammus’ (policeman) we could manage.”
Sometimes we walked barefoot on the beach with Uncle Louie and Tante Baila. That was the only time I ever saw the solemn old lady smile - but only a hint of a smile. We also joined them for lunch at a neighborhood cafeteria.Uncle Louie loved chopped liver with a slice of onion and lots of shmaltz” (chicken fat) which he acknowledged was “a killer.” “When I die, my grave will say, ‘here lies Louie Marcus - he ate too much shmaltz.’ “
And when we weren’t walking or eating we just sat on rocking chairs on the front porch of the Nemo and watched a completely different world, where kosher butchers ran around the street in blood stained aprons - religious old men wore long black robes (even in the sweltering heat) - and women wore babushkas (kerchiefs) on their head. But, it was a world without the laughter of children – the children of these elderly immigrants were older than me - with their own families – living on the north side of town – or maybe across the bay, in Miami.They sometimes visited their elderly parents for dinner – but not too often.
“In Romania, when I was a boy, I was a peddler,” said Uncle Louie, “but what a peddler! When I moved to New York in 1890 I had saved a few shekels -I opened a grocery store in Brooklyn, the Marcus Market.”
“Uncle Louie is worth a fortune,” said David.“He retired several years ago and started buying up buildings here in South Beach. He lives at the Nemo because he likes to spend time with his Romanian friends, and he knows Tante Baila likes it here. They were close, as children, in Europe - but after he moved to America they didn’t see each other for 55 years. She came here after the war.”
“In the ‘old country’- she was …”Uncle Louie paused and gathered his thoughts. “Fifty-five years ago she was a happy girl - a Shaineh maideleh (pretty girl) - but here she just sits all day with her friends – lost in her memories.”
Uncle Louie and his Romanian friends went to shul every Friday night, but they weren’t religious. Aside from Pesach (Passover) and the high holidays, they didn’t celebrate any other Jewish holidays. “What’s to celebrate?” said Uncle Louie, “they’re all the same - they tried to kill us – we won – let’s eat.”
Some of the residents of the Nemo lived in Miami Beach since the early 1930’s and enjoyed telling stories about the city -before it became predominantly Jewish. For them, everything was held together by stories. Of course, if three of them told the same story, you’d hear four versions - the extra version was what they heard from Sam Mermlestein, the local expert on everything.
“That man never shuts up,” said an elderly lady with silver-blue hair, “but little Sammy knows what he’s talking about - and he’s kind of cute.”
“I’d love to meet him,” I told Uncle Louie. “He sounds interesting.”
“Interesting?” Louie chuckled.“That old fart pulls cock-and-bull stories out of his tuchas (tush).”
Then one day, while eating lunch with Uncle Louie and Tante Baila, I finally met Sam - a 90-year-old man who was shorter than me – and I was one of the shortest boys in the ninth grade.He walked over to our table, introduced himself - and told us he was Uncle Louie’s best friend, but you’d never know it by watching the two of them together – they didn’t stop arguing - and their friendly spats and quarrels were animated with Yiddish insults.
“Sam, you’re so farblondzhet (confused),” complained Uncle Louie.
“Look who’s talking,” responded the little man, “but at least I’m not a kunyehlemel (naïve) like you - mister smartie pants.”
And while munching on an overstuffed pastrami sandwich, Sam told a colorful history of Miami Beach, his beloved island.I think most of his story was factual …well, a lot of it was.
“In the 30’s just about everything south of Lincoln Road ‘vus Jewish,” said Sam, in a heavy European accent, “but the north side of the island ‘vus all goyem, rich goyem.” (Note: Elderly Jewish people usually referred to Christians as gentiles or goyem)
“At the famous Roney Plaza hotel they had a sign in the lobby - ‘no dogs, niggers, or Jews allowed.’” Sam grimaced – a look of disgust – and pointed a middle finger toward the ceiling. (Note: This well-known gesture pre-dates the modern era).
“That’s bubbe meise’ (old wives’ tales) Louie interrupted, “There’s no proof such a terrible sign ever existed.”
“You vant’ proof?” said Sam. “I’ll give you proof.” Veins protruded from his forehead as he finished his pastrami sandwich and pounded a fist on the table.“I had a friend – may he rest in peace – who knew someone who said he saw the sign – and dead people don’t lie.”
Who was right? Uncle Louie or Sam?I’m sure Louie was - but I thought about the legend of Davy Crockett, the famous frontiersman – who was immortalized by a very popular song that we heard on the radio every day and every night – “born on a mountain top in Tennessee.” Obviously, Davy didn’t really kill a bear when he was a child, but in the song he “killed him a b’ar when he was only three” – and we all know which version of the Davy Crockett story putsa smile on your face -which version turned him into a legend.(Incidentally – I owned a Davy Crockett coonskin cap, but it was fake –made from rabbit fur.)
“I own vun’ too,” said old Sam, as he spread cream cheese on a bagel. “That’s my vinter’ hat.”
Sam lived in Miami Beach since 1930 and was the “mavin” on love, life, politics, mosquitoes, Chinese food, World War II, local history, and baseball (a mavin is a self-proclaimed authority on everything that’s important)
“Baseball?” Uncle Louie chuckled. “Ask him if he’s ever been to a baseball game. Go ahead – ask him.”
I knew Miami Beach had several “restricted” hotels and country clubs where Jews weren’t allowed to sleep, eat, or play golf, but I never knew that it was once divided like Korea, with Lincoln Road separating a Jewish South Beach from a gentile North Beach.By the time I moved to Florida (September 1951) the entire island was predominantly Jewish.Of course, even in 1951, there were some obvious distinctions between the two sections of the city.The people in South Beach were older and generally less affluent – and many spoke with foreign accents. Some of the mean kids at my school made fun of them and called them “alter-kakers” (a derisive Yiddish term which translates as “old shit” or “old fart”)
There were also differences in the architecture. North Beach, with the exception of the elegant hotels on Collins Avenue, was mainly expensive homes with elaborate landscaping. South Beach was much more commercial, with very few private homes. Ocean Drive, the scenic street that ran parallel to the beach, was lined with small multi-colored hotels (purple, pink, aqua), but west of this picturesque oceanfront the interior of South Beach consisted of hundreds of white stucco apartment buildings – I thought they were ugly – and they all looked alike.
“They were built with mob money,” said Uncle Louie, “money they wanted to hide from the tax collectors.”
“A lek un a shmek’ and you got an apartment building,” Sam added his opinion – which he always did. (Inferior work. Literally: a taste and a smell)
“Before 1910 most of Miami Beach was owned by John Collins, an old Quaker from New Jersey,” said Uncle Louie.
“Some type of schnapps is named after him,” said Sam.
“No - that’s a ‘Tom’ Collins.” Uncle Louie laughed.“I don’t think old John drank anything stronger than orange juice. Collins Avenue was named after him - he was a farmer, not a ‘shikker’ (someone who frequently drinks liquor) – but I guess he wasn’t a very good farmer. He tried to grow oranges or avocados, I forget which one. Either way, his groves failed. Like I said, he was a Quaker, but a farmer he wasn’t! Eventually the old man sold most of his island to a rich “macher” (a big shot) from Indiana, Carl Fisher.”
Tante Baila never joined in the conversation since she didn’t speak English, but when Uncle Louie made reference to Carl Fisher she had something to say. “ Er zol vaksen vi a tsibeleh, mit dem kop en dred!” (May he grow like an onion, with his head in the ground) (See Note #2)
“Damn! She doesn’t like Carl Fisher,” I responded. “Our school is named after his mother, Ida M. Fisher.Wasn’t he Jewish?”
“Jewish! He was a Jew hater,” exclaimed Uncle Louie.
“Don’t be so dramatic,” said Sam. “You ‘vusn’t ‘dere.Fisher ‘vus still alive ‘ven I moved here and he ‘vusn’t such an anti-Semite. OK, he ‘vouldn’t sell land to Jews, but the guy ‘vus a businessman; he ‘vus building a fancy-shmancy’ island for goyem.”
The old people at the Nemo never missed an opportunity to tell tall tales about Carl Fisher - their eyes lit up when they told about his daring exploits - how he used an elephant to promote the island or how he tricked President Harding into staying at his Miami Beach hotel, to get free publicity.
“Carl Fisher was a genius,” said Uncle Louie, “just like P.T. Barnum, the most famous promoter in American history.” Louie smiled as he compared Fisher with Barnum – sometimes he even compared him with Superman.
I did a little research on my own – at the public library - I wanted to learn more about this fascinating pioneer. I discovered that Miami Beach was just one of many amazing accomplishments of his exciting life, a series of bold adventures that flirted with disaster.As a boy he was a natural athlete who could out-race his friends running backwards while they ran straight ahead. Then, at age 19, he became a master salesman and orchestrated elaborate spectacles to sell bicycles and cars – he was a pioneer in the automobile industry.
The library story about Carl Fisher was very informative - but in that version of the story he didn’t have super powers or x-ray vision. “OK, maybe he didn’t have x-ray vision,” said Uncle Louie, “but talk about vision! That meshugganah could see the future.” (meshugganah … someone who is borderline crazy - a little bit wacky)
In 1904 Carl Fisher, a young race driver, held the world’s land speed record and in 1911 he developed the Indianapolis speedway and the famous “Indy 500,” the Memorial Day race. Because of his love of the automobile he became the spearhead in the creation of the Lincoln Highway, America’s first transcontinental highway - also the north-south Dixie Highway. He made his fortune with the acquisition of a patent for an acetylene-burning headlamp in an era before automobiles had batteries.He sold the patent to Union Carbide for $9 million just before it became obsolete. (that’s $235 million in 2023)
“Oye! Did he have gelt,” (money) said Uncle Louie, “by the time he was 35 this daredevil had conquered the world and he was bored, and $9 million was burning a hole in his pocket, so he married Jane Watts, a15 year oldshiksah’ beauty queen, and set forth onhis quest to build the American Riviera. (a shiksah is a gentile girl)
“Not so fast!Don’t start the q’vest yet,” Sam interrupted. “Louie forgot to tell you about Gertrude Hassler.Before Fisher could get started in Miami Beach he had to take care of one little problem - Gertrude.She ‘vus his fiancé and she ‘vus Jewish.”Fisher dumped her for the pretty little shiksah and got his tuchus’ sued big time. The guy ‘vus a son-of-a-bitch but don’t go saying he ‘vus a Jew hater! Now … go on … tell about his q’vest.”
Uncle Louie spoke for at least an hour - while eating chopped liver and kosher pickles. He kvelled (beamed with pride) as he elaborated on the adventures of Carl Fisher - who he regarded as one of the greatest men of his lifetime – along with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Albert Einstein.
“Don’t forget about Jackie Robinson,” said Sam, “the colored baseball player in Brooklyn. But, Fisher, vut’ a pioneer! He turned a jungle into a paradise.”
That part of the story was accurate.I read a magazine article that described how Fisherconverted the groves of John Collins into a tropical paradise of sand and palm trees. Then he masterminded a dazzling sales campaign -creating the image of the Miami Beach “bathing beauty” – and that image became the centerpiece of his promotional efforts. In the middle of winter he distributed hundreds of photographs of beautiful women in tight skimpy bathing suits, with no stockings.The press ate this up; the “cheesecake” pictures appeared in every newspaper in America.
Fisher also sent a press release of a circus elephant plowing through a swamp to build Lincoln Road. “But the picture didn’t show ‘vut vus’ behind the elephant’s tuchas,” said Sam. “He used a dozen big strong colored men sv’inging’ machetes. That, he didn’t show!”
“See, what did I tell you?” said Uncle Louie. “Just like P.T. Barnum. He also had a famous elephant.”
The brilliant young promoter owned most of the island north of Lincoln Road, which he subdivided into lots big enough for the wintertime mansions of Midwestern millionaires. Many of the new homes were Spanish in design, with thick stucco walls, red barrel tile roofs, archways, patios, and swimming pools. The Midwest nouveau riche, millionaires from the newly emergent automotive industry, were now looking at the island that Carl Fisher was building. Like most resorts catering to wealthy clientele, Miami Beach was restricted to whites and gentiles. Jews were not welcome, but the rules were relaxed for Jewish millionaires.
“OK, so he wasn’t always a Jew hater,” said Uncle Louie, “but he only liked Jews who had deep pockets.”
“Vell’ I vouldn’t exactly say he liked them,” Sam replied, “but you know vut’ dey’ say - money talks.”
As a result of his genius by the mid 1920’s Carl Fisher was one of the wealthiest men in America. His young wife was enjoying their new life of opulence; they had 20 servants. But, Fisher was restless and bored with his new lifestyle. He didn’t play golf, and he wasn’t the type of man who enjoyed wearing white pants and drinking cocktails with wealthy winter residents.
“Maybe he didn’t like ‘vite’ pants, but he sure became a ‘shikker,” said Sam, “and he vus’‘shtupping’ (translation unnecessary) his secretary.”
In 1926 Fisher’s one-month old infant died – the great promoter was grief stricken - devastated - his only comfort was booze - his marriage fell apart and his life started to go downhill.
“He was down, but not out,” said Uncle Louie.“Even after the tragic death of his baby and an ugly divorce - the wheels in his head were still spinning - he had more worlds to conquer.”
Fisher then bought 10,000 acres at Montauk Point, the far end of Long Island, and made plans for a new adventure. His idea was to build another Miami Beach, a summer retreat for his wealthy friends. However, in 1926, shortly after the huge investment in Montauk, South Florida was hit by a powerful hurricane.Fisher’s world was falling apart. He had cash flow problems resulting from the hurricane - emotionally he was unstable because of the tragic death of his infant child and his recent divorce - and Chicago gangster Al Capone had moved to Miami Beach with casinos and speakeasies. Fisher was losing control of his island and his own life.
“It wasn’t just Capone,” said Uncle Louie. “The mob was moving in. Miami Beach had become infested with gambling, prostitution, smuggling, and corruption.”
When the Stock Market crashed in 1929, millions in loans were coming due at Montauk, and Fisher's investors abandoned the project. He was a physical and emotional wreck. He mortgaged or sold everything he owned, but it was hopeless.By 1933 he was wiped out, living alone on a side street in Miami Beach, suffering from cirrhosis of the liver and sixty years of fast living.
In 1939 Fisher died, broke, alcoholic, and nearly forgotten, in the city he built.
By the 1950’s – when Uncle Louie and Sam Mermlestein told us the “rags-to-riches-to-rags” saga of Carl Fisher the only reminder of this fascinating genius was an obscure monument on the west side of the city. A small brass plaque says: ``He carved a great city out of a jungle.'' The man who developed Miami Beach didn’t even have a street, park, hotel, or bridge named after him.(See Note #3)
“Fisher ‘vas ongeshtopt mit gelt’ (Literally: stuffed with money),” said Sam. “But ‘vut a promoter! His dream ‘vus to be the richest man in the cemetery.”
In contrast to the section of Miami Beach developed by Fisher (which had numerous discriminatory ordinances) - the area south of Lincoln Road had few restrictions and most of the small hotels and apartment buildings catered to retired or working-class Jewish people. In the years following World War II many wintertime tourists became permanent residents and the restrictive covenants - which dated back to the 1920’s - were impossible to enforce. In September 1951, when I moved to Miami Beach, the city had one of the most concentrated Jewish populations in the country -and thousands of palm trees.
“Boys’ – you have nothing to do tonight?” Uncle Louie smiled.“Why don’t you join us at a concert. I’ll buy a few Hershey bars -we’ll nosh and watch the show - do you like them with nuts or plain?”
The old people in South Beach attended free concerts every Saturday night at Lummus Park -an outdoor band-shell near the ocean. David, Shelly, and I joined Uncle Louie and Tante Baila - and watched a small band led by a fat man who sang like Al Jolson (sometimes on his knees). He was accompanied by an old black man who wore sunglasses and played the clarinet -and a woman with red bushy hair.Her name was Zelda and she sang, danced, played the violin, and told nostalgic stories about life in the “old country.” Her stories were a blend of humor and pathos - enriched with Yiddish idioms and slang - and she paused, frequently, so that everyone could turn up their hearing aids.
At the conclusion of the show the band played “Romania, Romania” -an impassioned Yiddish song about their beloved homeland. The entire audience stood, except those in wheel chairs, and clapped their hands along with the music. Some sang or danced in the aisles - many wept. A few even waved little Romanian flags.
“I can’t believe these people want to go back to Romania,” exclaimed a young woman sitting next to us. “They should be kissing the ground here in America.”
“No! We don’t want to go back,” replied Uncle Louie.“We’re crying for the friends and relatives we left behind - those who can never come to America.”
Tante Baila was also crying.And when she wiped tears from her eyes it was the first time I noticed the little blue numbers branded on her forearm – a permanent reminder of the “old country.” She looked at me, a long soulful look. Then she whispered in Yiddish: “Oib zein vort volt gedint als brik, volt men saichel hoben aribergain.”