From Beach To Mainland, A New Culture Boom
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From Beach To Mainland, A New Culture Boom

The restored Colony Theatre in South Beach.
The restored Colony Theatre in South Beach.

Poetry readings are not common at hotels, let alone hotels in Miami Beach, where the prevailing culture historically emphasized tan lines more than lines of verse.

But on a recent Sunday morning at The Betsy, a boutique hotel on South Beach, a crowd gathered for bagels, coffee and two hours of Yiddish poetry. The event featured several professors and a video of Hyam Plutzik, the New York Jewish poet whose son, Jonathan, bought the historic property and renovated it for a grand reopening in 2009.

As an homage to his father’s literary world, the younger Plutzik installed a writer’s room for visiting scribes, along with a cultural program — jazz concerts, art exhibitions, Jewish films, book talks — that would give many JCCs a run for their money.

The Betsy may be unique, but it’s also emblematic of the new currents animating Miami, a metropolis that is more cosmopolitan than ever.

Miami, like all great cities, is in a constant state of flux. Along with skyrocketing prices, that flux has lately brought a tide of goodies for the Jewish visitor: world-class Israeli chefs at the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, a plethora of kosher eateries, more places to see Jewish art and theater, kosher options at the airports.

The sculpture garden at the Perez Art Museum. Wikimedia Commons

There’s even a public bike rental program, Citi Bike, with apps geared specifically to out-of-town travelers. The program has evolved since its origin in 2010 as Deco Bike, complementing buses and taxis as an easy, inexpensive solution for the carless in Miami Beach. (Caveat: I’m not a biker, and haven’t personally used it, but I see a lot of happy riders whizzing by.)

Another major upgrade: the spectacular Pérez Art Museum, which overlooks Biscayne Bay, across the causeway from Miami Beach. With views that rival anything you’d see inside, the Herzog & De Meuron-designed building opened in 2013 as the new incarnation of the former Miami Art Museum, dedicated to art from the 20th and 21st centuries — the era of this very modern city.

On view now is the first major show in years to feature the Iraqi-Australian Jewish artist Toba Khedoori, whose muted palette belies a compelling intensity; in her drawings, a narrow hallway or a row of apartment-block windows captivates with suggestion.

Like Yiddish poetry at The Betsy, the Pérez’s Khedoori exhibition highlights the way new and better venues are fomenting Miami’s evolution as a Jewish cultural destination. Greater Miami already had one of the largest concentrations of Jews anywhere, a storied Jewish history and a wealth of Jewish institutions.

But over the past decade, Miami has become a visibly more affluent city, and a more diverse one as well, Jewishly and otherwise. One felicitous result has been a crop of theaters, hotels, museums and other places where Jewish culture flourishes.

Among the latest: the University of Miami’s Sue and Leonard Miller Center for Contemporary Judaic Studies, which will likely see more historical drama as the home of the National Jewish Theater Foundation’s international Holocaust theater program.

Last year saw the launch of Miami New Drama, a fledgling company co-founded by two playwright-directors: Venezuelan-Jewish Michel Hausmann and Moisés Kaufman, who is well known to New York audiences. Hausmann’s “The Golem of Havana,” a 2013 play about a Cuban-Jewish family on the eve of revolution, was the company’s début production at the Colony Theatre, an Art Deco gem on Lincoln Road.

It’s a testament to the enduring vitality of Miami Beach that even as H&Ms and Italian bistros open along Lincoln Road, the pedestrian heart of South Beach, you can still take in plenty of culture. There are plays and the Cuban Classical Ballet at the Colony, whose 1935 interior has been gorgeously restored, and paintings and sculptures at several inviting galleries, like the ArtCenter South Florida.

Back in the Colony’s heyday, Jews were restricted from settling north of South Beach. My grandparents and many of their New York neighbors spent Jewish holidays at the original Ocean Drive resorts in the 1930s and ’40s; even as the geographical restrictions were lifted after the war, South Beach remained the heart of Jewish Miami Beach.

So it’s particularly gratifying to observe the flowering of Jewish life up and down the isle. By my unscientific tally, there are more kosher eateries around Surfside and North Beach — from steakhouses and bakeries to tacos and tapas — than in the entire stretch between Baltimore and South Florida.

Indeed, there’s more of everything in Miami these days. More younger families, more Jewish (and non-Jewish) newcomers from across Latin America, more luxury towers, more parks and boardwalks and terraces for gazing at the huge Florida sky. And there’s more than ever to do under the Miami sun. 

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