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.
Making these short, roughly 10-minute documentaries, using high definition video, “seemed a natural thing to do,” Davidson said.
“Little did I know these places would disappear. I wish I made more of these films. Once upon a time there might have been more than a dozen kosher bakery and specialty butcher shops in Miami Beach. Fast forward to today and you can go to Costco and Publix and Whole Foods. People don’t make that special trip anymore to kosher butcher shops because they can get it anywhere. On the positive side, now there is kosher food available everywhere so I guess it’s a mixed blessing.”
What Davidson aimed to showcase is the flavor of these portals to our past.
“It was old-fashioned. People came in and the butchers cut the meat. Old ladies would say, ‘I don’t want that chicken, I want that one.’ This is the flavor of how things used to be. Now everything is self-service, prepackaged, prepared food. Now everything is automated. I was making these as a 16, 17 year old. I liked to watch these old guys. They were very visual. To watch these guys make braided challahs and to see how complicated that was, they did it like it was second nature.’’
The Rascal House film was shot on the closing weekend and captured the unsmiling, no-nonsense waitresses as they flew out of the kitchen, arms laden with platters of corned beef sandwiches and bowls of steaming matzo ball soup. Customers reminisce about enjoying a lifetime of meals once they got past the signs reading, “This line for parties of 2 or more.”
The first of his films, A Slice of Life, the Goldstein shoot, was originally made as part of a competition organized by the Jewish Museum that had asked students to submit entries that explored Florida Jewish history.
“We met Aaron back in 2006 when he was an 11th grader at Hebrew Academy and entered one of our creative student contests,” said Arnowitz. “He won first prize and has added on to that film. He added the Abrahams and Rascal House films and keeps tweaking and updating. We’ve shown his films here for quite a few years and established a relationship with him and watched him go further along. He’s very talented.”
Davidson, a freelance photographer and videographer who is studying TV production at Miami Dade College, added epilogs to the three films to show what has happened in the spaces these places once occupied. Prior to the documentaries’ showing at the Jewish Museum, Davidson showed them at festivals in Los Angeles, Atlanta and Mississippi. The Q&A sessions were amusing for the high-brow questions viewers would tend to lob at the young filmmaker.
“As if I’m Steven Spielberg,” he said, laughing. “I can’t talk about trends and whatever. These are just things I’ve made. Now, I’ve done a bit of research but sometimes it takes the innocence of a younger person to see something that other people take for granted.”
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