“Fascinating” describes local author Arlo Haskell’s new book, “The Jews Of Key West: Smugglers, Cigar Makers and Revolutionaries (1823-1969).” It’s impossible to understand the full scope of Key West history without reading this book. Shining a light on the Jewish community, Haskell, a Florida native and head of the Literary Seminar, describes how Jews were a vital and integral part of the economic and cultural growth of Key West. Even the remotest history buff can easily read this in-depth, exceedingly well-researched account of how the Jewish community were important leaders and developers of the Southernmost city.
“It’s about how much of this history is so exciting, but also so unknown,” said Haskell, originally commissioned by Susan Savitch, who had the idea for the book six years ago. Once Haskell started, it became an epic journey of research that spanned states and countries. He relied on online research through our local library, the College of Charleston and Harvard Library. Also, Haskell weeded through Cuban memoirs in Spanish, using only names to guide him.
The result is a detailed account of how Jewish men such as Joseph Seidenberg, Pinkus Pohalski and others owned and powered the cigar industry synonymous with making the industry international and Key West wealthy. Also, little has been written about how Jose Marti, the Cuban revolutionary, collaborated with local Jews for his cause. Marti was even a Jewish scholar, relating to Jews because both Cubans and Jews were persecuted by the Spaniards. Lastly, learn how the Jews became smugglers in the 1920s, hiding Jewish aliens exiled to Cuba against immigration quotas. The whole book is dotted with familiar names, like the history of the Wolkowsky family and buildings that are still on Duval Street today.
“The book isn’t about living memories but about a time that hasn’t really been investigated or left out for a more tourist history,” said Haskell. Haskell himself is not Jewish but garnered the support from Congregation B’nai Zion for research and will be doing a reading later this year at the synagogue.
The book is beautifully laid out, with more than 100 full-color images, and delightfully easy to read. Published by Sand Paper Press, the book is available from local booksellers including Books & Books, Key West Island Books, and the Custom House Museum. The retail price is $24. More information is at www.jewsofkeywest.com
Arlo Haskell.NICK DOLL/Contributed
“ Through deep research and enormous forensic effort … this book fills a gap in the literature of the American Jewish experience.” – Rabbi Lance J. Sussman, an expert on American Jewish history