Aaron Davidson was born too late to remember a time when Miami Beach and North Beach mirrored New York City for its numerous butcher shops and kosher delis.
These places were sitcoms unto themselves, where Bubbe bargained with the butcher for choice cuts and lots of lox swam out the front doors. Pop culture was awash in images of food dancing out the doors of these places.
More than 50 million people tuned in to watch Rhoda Morgenstern marry Joe on the 1970s TV sitcom, Rhoda. But series star Valerie Harper’s memorable opening credits voice-over revealed her first love: “The first thing I remember liking that liked me back was food,” Harper’s Rhoda recounted as items from a Bronx butcher sailed across the screen.
Kosher butchers and delis once dotted the landscape of South Florida, too, where the Jewish population once swelled in communities like Miami Beach and North Miami Beach.
“Food is so intertwined in so many ethnic groups and in Jewish life culture, every life cycle event is accompanied by food,” says Jo Ann Arnowitz, executive director of the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU.
That’s the basis for the museum’s new Growers, Grocers & Gefilte Fish, a year-long exhibit the museum opened Monday to tell the 200-year-old story of Floridian Jews in the food industry. The exhibit celebrates those who grew, prepared, distributed, cooked and served the foods. From Moses Levy, who oversaw an agricultural colony in the Micanopy area of Florida, south of Gainesville in 1820, to celeb chefs like Michelle Bernstein and Allen Susser (Chef Allen) who turn food into art today, the exhibit aims to unearth some of the roots that formed Florida and filled our guts with pastrami, kreplach and brisket.
Among the Growers, Grocers & Gefilte Fish offerings: a re-creation of a Wolfie’s deli counter and an old-fashioned grocery store. “This will really bring back memories,” Arnowitz said. “This will cover the whole state and feature about 250 companies and a small sampling of such a rich history of Jews involvement in this industry.”
Davidson would seem an unlikely documentarian. After all, he was only a teenager at Rabbi Alexander S. Gross Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach in 2007 and 2008 when he set out with his video camera to capture some disappearing or changing landmarks, including Sunny Isles Beach’s Rascal House and North Beach’s Abraham’s Bakery and Goldstein & Sons, the kosher butcher.
The original Abraham’s closed about a year ago. Goldstein & Sons’ storefront shop moved a few doors down to 7419 Collins Ave., runs as Goldstein’s Prime, and still offers kosher meats, adjusted to changing times with self-serve stations. Rascal House, with pickles, cole slaw and bread baskets filled with onion rolls, pumpernickel bread and salt sticks on the table, opened in 1954. The restaurant closed in 2008 and is now an Epicure Market.
Davidson, now 24, came of age in the Internet era. The days of Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. popping into Rascal House for a nosh of mile-high corned beef sandwich and cheesecake post-gig is a mere relic of retro TV shows.
But his parents knew. And they shared their love of South Florida history with their son and whisked him into these establishments long after the Vegas stars left and much of the population departed north.