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Florida Matters: Jews Play Important Part In Florida's Story

Despite not being officially allowed to live in Florida until 1763, Jewish people escaping expulsion and exclusion were among the earliest settlers of the state.

A new comprehensive history – "Jews of Florida: Centuries of Stories" – takes a look at that historic individuals who include politicians, business leaders, artists and Nobel Prize winners.

Listen to this week's Florida Matters

Morris Lewy of Lakeland in the 1920s, holding a branch full of grapefruit.
Credit Florida State Archives
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Morris Lewy of Lakeland in the 1920s, holding a branch full of grapefruit.

Author Marcia Jo Zerivitz told Florida Matters host Robin Sussingham that many early settlers in Florida came from Europe, where their religion prohibited them from owning land. They moved around a lot in Florida to keep working amid constant anti-Semitism, she said.

“They couldn't own land. So they were very attracted to Florida because it was an economic opportunity was religious freedom and they could work the land,” she said. “That's why to so many of the early pioneers… Florida was attractive, because they it was a way for them to be independent, not have to work for someone else to support their family. And that's what they were looking for. They were looking away to support their family in freedom.”

Zerivitz has spent the past 35 years collecting stories of Jewish families in Florida. That work first resulted in the Mosaic Project, a traveling exhibit in the 1980s which now a part of the Florida Archives. Now, many parts of the collection are based in Miami Beach, at the Jewish Museum of Florida at Florida International University.

The new 400-page book, she said, provides Floridians an opportunity to learn about contributions of Jewish people in the state. But it also offers people an understanding of how this state not long ago was restricting Jews access to hotels, swimming, restaurants and country clubs.

“This idea always just stops people in their tracks,” she said of laws that date from the state’s discovery by Spanish explorers to anti-Semitic deed restrictions in South Florida in the mid 20th century.

Zerivitz said it’s equally important that Jews in Florida understand how deep their roots go back in the state. Continuity of faith is a critical tenant of Judaism, she said.  

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“Jews have made…enormous contributions to the development of Florida in every area,” she said. “And the fact is that we ourselves need these stories, these roots to ensure our continuity.”

Wilfred, Jack and Herbert Wolfson on tricycles at Munn Park, 1918 CREDIT: Florida State Archives
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Wilfred, Jack and Herbert Wolfson on tricycles at Munn Park, 1918 CREDIT: Florida State Archives
Interior of Cracowaner's Department Store, Tampa, 1920s CREDIT: Florida State Archives
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Interior of Cracowaner's Department Store, Tampa, 1920s CREDIT: Florida State Archives
Max Argintar and Celia Arnovitz in an automobile at the Tampa Fair, 1909 CREDIT: Florida State Archives
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Max Argintar and Celia Arnovitz in an automobile at the Tampa Fair, 1909 CREDIT: Florida State Archives
David Rothblatte, owner of Southern Grocery of St. Petersburg in his delivery truck, 1930, CREDIT: Florida State Archives
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David Rothblatte, owner of Southern Grocery of St. Petersburg in his delivery truck, 1930, CREDIT: Florida State Archives

Copyright 2020 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Robin is Senior Editor at WUSF, spearheading the station's podcasting initiatives and helping to guide the vision for special reporting projects and creative storytelling. She hosts the weekly current affairs program, Florida Matters, on WUSF and also created The Zest, the station's podcast that's all about food, which she continues to host and serve as senior producer.
Mary Shedden
Mary Shedden is news director at WUSF Public Media, where she oversees a team of reporters covering 13 counties on Florida’s west coast.
Christy Oshana is the Producer for Florida Matters, WUSF Public Media’s public affairs show.