“The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries, (1823-1969)” by Arlo Haskell— A Social History

Haskell, Arlo. “The Jews of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers, and Revolutionaries, (1823-1969)”, Sand Paper Press, 2017.

A Social History

Amos Lassen

Arlo Haskell gives us a social history of the pioneering Jews who settled in Key West, Florida. Their fascinating story is skillfully told by Arlo Haskell. Their stories are colorful and filled with detail and Haskell has done his research well by going through 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 look for and capture the pirates who were using Key West as one of their launching points to attack the very successful Caribbean trade routes. Key West was next to a shipping lane and was only 106 miles north of Havana, Cuba, a major 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 place that was filled with mosquitoes; rowdy, hard drinking sailors; illegal slave traders and saloons. It had a political and economic life that was very different than the rest of Florida and the South. 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. Key West was a “northern ally” of Lincoln during the Civil War.

Jewish merchants and peddlers from the North and the Southeast saw the economic opportunities the port offered despite the fact that Key West could only be reached by boat. Jewish business people reached out to the nearby Cuban Jewish community and the two Jewish communities drew upon their expertise and common interests and set up profitable cigar making businesses, dry goods shops, smuggling routes, and rum running operations. Key West became a center for making cigars.

Haskell follows the development of the Jewish community up until 1969 with the 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 also the larger Jewish world. 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.

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