The Jews of Key West: Smug­glers, Cig­ar Mak­ers, and Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies (18231969)

Arlo Haskell
  • Review
By – December 19, 2017

The Jews of Key West: Smug­glers, Cig­ar Mak­ers, and Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies (18231969) by Arlo Haskell | Jew­ish Book Coun­cil

Pluck, inge­nu­ity, tenac­i­ty, intel­li­gence, and cre­ativ­i­ty are words that apt­ly describe the char­ac­ter­is­tics of the pio­neer­ing Jews who set­tled in iso­lat­ed and beau­ti­ful Key West, Flori­da. Their fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry is skill­ful­ly told by Arlo Haskell in his book The Jews of Key West: Smug­glers, Cig­ar Mak­ers and Rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies (18231969). Haskell fills his social his­to­ry with detailed and col­or­ful sketch­es of indi­vid­u­als and fam­i­lies, bring­ing their accom­plish­ments to life through per­son­al let­ters, con­tem­po­ra­ne­ous news­pa­per arti­cles, and archival pho­tos and drawings.

The first doc­u­ment­ed arrival of Jews in Key West was in 1823 with the entrance of Levi Charles Har­by, a Jew­ish sail­ing mas­ter,” as part of the West Indies Squadron under com­mand of Com­modore David Porter of the Unit­ed States Navy. The squadron was there to cap­ture the pirates who were using Key West as one of their launch­ing points to attack the very suc­cess­ful Caribbean trade routes. Key West sat next to a nine­ty mile-wide ship­ping lane and was only 106 miles north of Havana, Cuba, a bustling Span­ish port city. This trade was essen­tial to the Amer­i­can econ­o­my and inter­na­tion­al trade, and so Key West soon became an impor­tant Amer­i­can naval base.

Key West became known as a rau­cous place filled with mos­qui­toes; row­dy, hard drink­ing sailors; ille­gal slave traders; and saloons, says Haskell. It was a town that offered a polit­i­cal and eco­nom­ic life far dif­fer­ent than the rest of Flori­da and the South. Accord­ing to Haskell, it had a rel­a­tive­ly pro­gres­sive and tol­er­ant climate…where near­ly half of the white cit­i­zens were for­eign born” and blacks were twice as like­ly to be free” than in any oth­er place in the Unit­ed States. In fact, Key West was a north­ern ally” of Lin­coln dur­ing the Civ­il War.

Jew­ish mer­chants and ped­dlers from the North and the South­east were quick to seize upon the lucra­tive eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties the port offered despite the fact that Key West could only be reached by boat. These Jew­ish busi­ness peo­ple reached out to the near­by Cuban Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. These two Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ties drew upon their exper­tise and com­mon inter­ests and set up high­ly prof­itable cig­ar mak­ing busi­ness­es, dry goods shops, smug­gling routes, and rum run­ning oper­a­tions. Key West became a cig­ar man­u­fac­tur­ing cen­ter with­out rival,” writes Haskell.

Haskell fol­lows the devel­op­ment of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty up until 1969 and the mile­stone com­ple­tion of the build­ing of B’nai Zion Syn­a­gogue, mark­ing 200 years of Jew­ish his­to­ry in Key West. Through­out this peri­od there were accom­plish­ments that helped not only the Key West Jews but the larg­er Jew­ish world. For exam­ple, Key West served as a haven for poor New York Jews who were placed there by the New York Indus­tri­al Removal Office (IRO), an orga­ni­za­tion ded­i­cat­ed to help­ing poor Jews reset­tle in less crowd­ed areas of the coun­try. In the 1920s, Euro­pean Jews flee­ing per­se­cu­tion and pre­vent­ed from legal­ly enter­ing the Unit­ed States were secret­ed into Key West with the help of the Cuban Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty. This excel­lent book will appeal to read­ers who want to bet­ter under­stand the rich­ness and diver­si­ty of the Amer­i­can Jew­ish experience.

Car­ol Poll, Ph.D., is the retired Chair of the Social Sci­ences Depart­ment and Pro­fes­sor of Soci­ol­o­gy at the Fash­ion Insti­tute of Tech­nol­o­gy of the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. Her areas of inter­est include the soci­ol­o­gy of race and eth­nic rela­tions, the soci­ol­o­gy of mar­riage, fam­i­ly and gen­der roles and the soci­ol­o­gy of Jews.

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