Sunrise? Sunset?

Two New Projects Train a Lens on Jewish Florida

By Lisa Keys

Published December 15, 2006, issue of December 15, 2006.
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Jewish culture in Miami Beach: a faded memory, or something that is alive and kicking, though occasionally interrupted by bursts of absurdity? Two new programs — one upcoming on PBS, the other in constant reruns on VH1 — offer opposing views of the state of Yiddishkeit in south Florida’s glitziest strip of sand.

“Where Neon Goes To Die” is the Miami-based Dora Teitelbaum Center for Yiddish Culture’s first foray into the world of film. It’s a bold, though amateur, attempt to detail the rise and fall of a Yiddish-speaking Jewish culture, beginning with the post-World War II era and ending with its demise in the heady “Miami Vice” days and beyond. The title — from an oft-quoted statement by comedian Lenny Bruce — isn’t the only clue that the film is about a lost society; the first few seconds of the documentary comprise a montage of shuttered cafeterias, pastel-clad dancing retirees and implosions of faded hotels. Over the course of 53 minutes, the film, drawing on the center’s vast amounts of archival footage, takes viewers on a journey that zigzags from the Yiddish vaudeville stage to the shtetl, the Everglades and back again.

In the years after the Holocaust, thousands of elderly Jews made their way to Miami Beach. These Yiddish-speaking shney-feygelekh (Yiddish for “snowbirds”) “fought off assimilation and immersed themselves in their music, dance, theater and political life,” narrates David Weintraub, who is not just the executive director of the Dora Teitelbaum Center but also the film’s producer, director, writer and narrator.

Combining archived performances and “recent” (though undated) interviews with Jewish luminaries and community members, “Where Neon Goes To Die” examines the manifestations of this Jewish culture, from Yiddish theater (“It was like taking the Catskills mountains… and bringing it down to the South,” recalls Corey Breier, president of the Yiddish Theatrical Alliance) to the sundown “friendship circles,” filled with singing and dancing that took place nightly at the oceanfront Lummus Park.

It was a vibrant and exciting time for these retirees, but it wasn’t destined to last. In an odd twist of fate, the Jewish community’s active preservation of South Beach’s Art Deco architecture is what directly led to the political machinations that pushed them out. Beginning in the late 1960s, in an effort to develop the area for tourism, Miami Beach’s city council instituted a series of legislations — including rent freezes and construction moratoriums — that eventually pushed out the Jewish elderly.

All this provides fascinating fodder for a documentary. Unfortunately, much of the best material is lost in a tangle of bad writing and poor editing. At times, the narrative skips wildly from one decade and subject matter to the next, without suitable introductions (or, at least, pauses) in between. On the decline of Miami’s Yiddishland and the Jews’ role in preserving the area’s 1920s architecture, for example, Weintraub states, without an interlude: “Miami Beach’s Yiddish legacy was not destined to continue. The district where so many of the Yiddish-speaking community lived had been rebuilt in the short period after the 1926 hurricane, giving the area its predominant style: Art Deco.”

The film has at it fingertips a wealth of great material, but it fails at providing the necessary larger context. (The one exception to this is the commentary offered by historian Deborah Dash Moore, who does a superb job of situating the forces of Miami Beach’s Jewish migration into larger Jewish and American cultural phenomena.) So, though it ends on a cautiously optimistic note, “Where Neon Goes To Die” may leave more critical viewers with more questions than they had when the film began. Perhaps you’d like a different cause for concern? Switch channels to VH1 and, instead, you can bemoan the ignorance of modern Americans. One would hope that in this day and age, with such outwardly Jewish icons like Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart, most Americans would have at least a passing familiarity with Jewish culture and tradition. But apparently not if you’re a blond behemoth with the last name Hogan.

“Koshermania,” an episode of the current third season of “Hogan Knows Best” — a reality television show that chronicles the lives of wrestler Hulk Hogan, his wife, Linda, and their children, Brooke and Nick — opens with the family’s recent relocation to Miami Beach. Linda goes out to walk her seven lapdogs (what is it with reality-show wives and their menageries?) and receives a chilly reception from the neighbors, a feeling that’s compounded by a policeman responding to the Hogans’ construction debris that’s blocking their road.

Determined to make peace, Linda bakes a batch of cookies and climbs aboard Hulk’s motorcycle to spread good cheer. Her offer of cookies is immediately denied, however, when a neighbor — through her screen door — responds: “Thanks very much, but we’re kosher. We can’t have anything.”

“What’s kosher mean?” the Hulkster asks. “Like pickles?” It’s a refrain he repeats ad nauseum throughout the entire episode. Are the Hogans really that ignorant, or are they intentionally, er, hamming it up for the camera?

It’s likely the former. Though the Hogans’ offerings are denied from door to door — clearly there’s no lack of Jewish culture or, at least, Jews, in this Miami neighborhood — Linda continues on with her plucky perseverance. Standing amid a group of Orthodox children outside her home, she attempts to hide the treyf and sweetly says: “We made some cookies, but they’re not kosher. Maybe after the holiday you can come over and have some.”

The demoralized couple goes back inside their house, where their daughter has a different interpretation: “I thought kosher was a kind of meat!”

Son Nick — taking a break from using a slingshot to throw water balloons at passersby — offers the most intelligent answer: “Kosher means Jewish!”

They may have it all wrong, but at least Linda’s heart is in the right place. She invites the whole neighborhood to a barbecue; she sends Nick and the Hulk out to buy kosher food. (Out of protest, the boys Hulk intimate that they should serve regular food and just say it’s kosher.) Amazingly, their Jewish neighbors come; everyone gets along, and the Hogans learn a thing or two about shomer negiah and religious Jewish ways.

Does such ignorance really abound today, or is it just a curse of being a Hogan? This is a good question, which brings us to an important message in the conclusion of “Where Neon Goes To Die” — that remembrance of what cultures came before us is what enriches our culture today. In the final minutes of the film, Weintraub quotes a Sikh — yes, Sikh — saying: “If wealth is lost, nothing is lost. If heritage is lost, you are lost.” Weintraub can thank Hulk Hogan for proving him correct.

Lisa Keys is a writer living in New York City.

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