Letter from South Florida: Pieces of Home
Jews relocating to the Sunshine State are bringing with them their couscous recipes and Yiddish records, their fondness for egg creams and favorite native pastimes.
The boys are playing stickball, the egg creams are flowing and a Frank Sinatra record is booming in the background.
Normie Graff is up to bat. He anticipates the ball and skips into it. Two swings, two strikes. Out. a When it’s “Little David” Rosen’s turn, he swings and hits, but doesn’t run. a “We’re too old to run,” said David Hamburger, 74, who stopped playing because of health issues and now volunteers as the league’s announcer. “Running is for young people.”
Sounds like the Bronx, circa 1945, but it’s Wellington, Florida, 2006.
Ranging in age from 52 to 85, these men remember the days when kids played stickball on the streets of New York, hitting the ball—or spaldeen—with a broom handle borrowed from bubbe, using sewers to measure distance and maybe breaking some windows. Afterward, they would go to the soda shop for an egg cream or a cherry coke.
“We had no toys, no one bought us iPods, no laptop computers, but we were innovative,” Hamburger said. “As long as we had a rubber ball, we had a game.”
The league is called the Wycliffe Stiffs, named for the Wycliffe Golf and Country Club where most of the players live. When they came to South Florida, these retirees wanted to bring something from home.
Whether it is for nostalgia or comfort, many people who move to South Florida add to its Jewish melting pot by mixing in traditions from home. The Wycliffe Stiffs (the ‘stiff’ moniker is partly a reference to one of the league’s first sponsors, a funeral home) is one example. While moving somewhere new can mean leaving something behind, for many Jews relocating to the Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Palm Beach areas, you can take it with you.
Raquel Scheck, who moved to Miami from Havana at age 16, brought her beloved Cuban foods with her and integrated them into her Jewish cooking. In her kosher home, Scheck serves traditional holiday meals accented with Cuban flavors and, on Shabbat, makes baked chicken with black beans and rice or fried plantains.
“My kids and grandkids love the Cuban food and customs I brought from Cuba,” said Scheck, 62. “Mainly they love the Latin music—the cha-cha, bolero, salsa. For us the Cuban traditions are Jewish traditions. My house is kosher and all the holiday foods are a mix of Ashkenazi and Cuban. I make noodle kugel with pineapple or guava to give it Spanish flavor, and dessert is usually flan.”
When Scheck met her husband, Michael, a native New Yorker, she found that they had the same Ashkenazi traditions. “Once we had children,” she said, “we also celebrated the American holidays. Most of our family customs are Jewish with a sprinkle of Cuban.”
Scheck and her husband are founders of the Samuel Scheck Hillel Community Day School and board members of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation. That involvement comes from her own parents—her mother was active in WIZO and her father was president of a Zionist organization in Cuba and involved in the Patronato, the conservative synagogue in Havana.
“There was always an emphasis on Jewish education and giving back to the community,” Scheck recalled. “I am involved today because of my parents, and now we have passed it on to my children. My Jewish education molded me to who I am and we founded the day school so my kids could have the same. L’dor v’dor [generation to generation], now my grandkids are there.”
While making a new life in South Florida, Jews coming from Russia, France and Latin America have also brought with them elements of Jewish life that help them retain their former identities.
Daniel Berrebi, 46, lived in Paris for 24 years before moving to South Florida in 2004 (he was born in Tunisia). But he has no interest in maintaining a connection to the city he was happy to leave. Instead, he and his fellow North African Jews have a deeper tradition that goes back to their countries of origin—Morocco, Tunisia and Nigeria.
Berrebi moved to France when he was 20. (His parents remain in Tunisia.) Wanting to retain some of the old Tunisian Jewish rituals, he and the North African community observe holidays as a group. One tradition is Mimouna, a celebration of liberty and friendship held on the evening after Passover ends, which Berrebi and his compatriots continue to practice.
Every shabbat, about 30 people gather at homes in Miami-Dade County to share North African dishes such as couscous, merkaz (beef sausages) and dafina, a stew of meat, chickpeas and eggs that can be prepared before sundown on Friday so that no work is required on Shabbat.
“Traditionally, dinner can last four to five hours, and we do it every week,” said Berrebi, a yacht builder.
Berrebi predicts that more French Jews will move to the area in the coming years, so he has organized a network, with the help of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation, to provide aid for new immigrants. “I want to help the new Jews,” he explained, “to find a life here and connect with the Jewish population, find a job, find a lawyer to get them a visa, find a Jewish school, help with the language and explain how the banking and tax systems work.”
Adaptability is bred into Jews, noted Rabbi Herbert Panitch, director of refugee resettlement and rescue migration for Jewish Community Services in Miami. That ability comes “from moving so many times over the centuries,” he asserted. “Therefore, many of our people adapt quickly to a new environment.”
For Russian Jews in South Florida, Panitch offers monthly Shabbat services at Beth Torah in North Miami Beach. Prayers are in Hebrew with responsive reading in Russian and English. After services, Panitch leads worshipers in singing old Yiddish tunes.
When Elizabeth Cigale was a small girl growing up in Leningrad, her father would sing to her in Yiddish. At the time it was a strange and unfamiliar language. Today, living in Sunny Isles, Cigale attends Panitch’s monthly Friday-night services.
“When I listen to Rabbi Panitch, it gives me peace and hope and makes me feel good,” said Cigale, 62, who moved here in 1975. “It makes me think of my father, who died when I was small. I didn’t realize then that the songs were sung in Yiddish, but it comes back to me when Rabbi Panitch sings. My father had a difficult life. He lost family in the Holocaust and died early. But he kept his Judaism alive by passing it on to me.”
A Russian Club organized by a local senior center has been operating since last summer, drawing an average of 40 Russian-born Jews to its events, ranging from music performances and poetry readings to dances and holiday celebrations. The club’s Hanukka party included latkes—something most of the club members remembered eating as children.
Recently, one of the club members brought in Yiddish recordings from the Barry Sisters, an American duo who toured and were popular in their native land.
“The Barry Sisters were not born in Russia, but they sang the songs that were popular in Russia—mostly in Yiddish,” Cigale said. “It was not something you could buy in the record store in Russia, but we all loved it. We sing and listen and dance a little.”
In addition to the new Russian Club is a woman’s choir that meets in a church in Sunny Isles. There, Cigale and 17 other Russian women sing “Tumbalalaika,” “Sholom Aleichem” and “Yerushalayim shel Zahav.”
Every Sunday since he moved to Florida from Buenos Aires in 2002, Sebastian Tussie has kept up the tradition of socializing with other members of the Latin Jewish community. He is a member of Hebraica, the Latin American department of the Soref Jewish Community Center. The JCC formed three years ago in Broward County and consists mostly of Jews from Argentina and Uruguay.
“Coming here from Argentina, the most important thing we are looking for is to find again those friends and relatives and continue with the flavor we are used to,” explained Tussie, who lives in Weston with his wife and two children. “While Americans like to stay at home on Sunday, in Argentina, Jews hang out with their friends and family at country clubs that resemble Jewish community centers in America. We meet every Sunday at the JCC, speak Spanish, have a barbecue, socialize, play soccer or tennis and swim.”
Hebraica members play backgammon and South American card games such as truco and burako, a rummy-like game popular among Jews in Argentina. One evening a month, the group watches a film from Argentina.
Back in wellington, the women have also taken up stickball. When Marian Rosenberg was growing up in Queens, New York, she watched the boys play the game, but would rather jump rope or play stoopball with the girls. Today, the 59-year-old is the director of the Wycliffe Stiffs women’s league.
Started three years ago, the league is called Charlotte Russe, named for a dessert of pound cake and whipped cream that was popular in New York when the women were girls.
“We played outside, there were no organized sports back then,” Rosenberg recalled. “You went outside and played in the street with your friends. Then you would get a frank or a Charlotte Russe and eat it while you were walking.”
The two women’s teams—called Chocolate and Vanilla—consist of 40 members. While they play, 1970’s disco music can be heard in the background. The men help with pitching, announcing and scorekeeping.
“At this age you start to feel nostalgic about your old school, where you were brought up and your old friends,” Rosenberg said. “It has little to do with athletic ability, more about having a good time.”
Whether any of the stickball players knew each other up north doesn’t matter. The game brings them back to a time when you could walk up to a bunch of kids and start a game.
“It makes you feel like you’re 14 again and you’re with the guys,” confessed Graff, while his 80-year-old eyes recall a mischievous boyhood in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn.
The mission of Marty Ross, who started the league five years ago, is to keep stickball a tradition, not just a game. “There are so many things today that add extra pressures to playing a game,” said Ross, 65. “Here is something that is pure fun.”
Teams are called the Coney Island Cyclone, New York 2-Sewers, Yonkers Stickball Busters and the Bronx Bombers. “When I show people the stick and the ball, there is a certain mystique,” said Ross, who is known as ‘the Commish.’ “Their eyes light up. I am taking them back.”
A move to South Florida does not have to mean a shedding of regional or cultural identity. Instead, relocating often leads Jews to readapt—or rediscover—long-held traditions and customs.