Exploring The Significant Role Jews Played In Shaping Modern Day Key West

Feb 19, 2019

Long overlooked in the history of Key West is the influence of the Jewish community on the island city. From cigar factories in the 1880s to smuggling and immigration, Arlo Haskell's book “The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries” goes back almost 200 years to tell the forgotten story.

Haskell documents how Jews helped rebuild after a massive fire in the 1880s and three powerful hurricanes in the early parts of the 20th century, as well as their role during the Cuban Revolution. Haskell joined Sundial to talk about his book. 

HASKELL: The [devastation of the] 1909 and 1910 hurricanes was compounded by there being two of them roughly a year to the day back-to-back. It was a real one-two punch that knocked Key West on its heels. In 1919 when that storm came, World War I had recently ended [and] the Volstead Act, which made Prohibition the law, had just gone into place. So the 1919 hurricane was really like the finishing blow for what would have been a very difficult economic period even without the natural disaster. I say in the book, most people think of the 20s as the "Roaring 20s" but in Key West the depression really began in 1919, at the dawn of the 20s.

WLRN: Another big event was the Cuban Revolution.

Yeah that's right and that was one of the most fascinating pieces of the research for me. The Cuban Revolutionary activities during the 1990s, when José Martí was here rallying support for his cause, Key West was really I think second to New York in terms of the economic might of the exile base that was here. It was a hugely important exile center for Martí and his followers that overthrew the Spanish and secured an independent Cuba. Martí's call was really for equality and democracy. He made explicit appeals to Jews in Key West and beyond. He used the idea of the historic idea of Jews and the culture around Judaism to say on the one hand to his fellow Cubans, 'if we don't fight off the Spanish we're going to end up as bad as the Jews' and on the other hand he also made it clear that a free Cuba was going to be for anyone. You didn't have to be Cuban by birth. It was for anybody who believed in these ideals of liberty and equality.

And Jews and Cubans actually had a shared enemy, Spain.

Absolutely. Spain under the inquisition had terrorized Jews for centuries. The main Jewish leader of the Cuban revolutionary movement here, Louis Fine, said he had participated with Martí out of a sense of vengeance against Spain.

What conversations have you had with Jewish leaders in Key West about the book and the legacy of Jews on the island?

I think people are grateful that this history is visible. It had disappeared. Not only was it not a part of the real legacy of Key West but it had disappeared from local oral history to a large degree because the community was so splintered by the anti-immigration hysteria of the 1920s and 1930s. I think a lot of stories about what was illegal or undesirable behavior were not told very often in families and so they had remained quiet. So it's something that's new for people within the community. There's a lot of gratitude.