Paula Lester has fond memories of Miami Beach.
The New Yorker recalled visting her grandparents when she was about 4 and being buried up to her neck in sand by her grandfather.
A lot of Jews have a connection here because they came to visit their grandparents, said Lester, 64. For me, its like coming home.
Lester, a director of Interdisciplinary Educational Studies at Long Island University, was part of a recent tour conducted by the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU focusing on food and Miami Beach Jewish history. Called Growers, Grocers and Gefilte Fish: A Gastronomic Look at Florida Jews & Food, the walking tour takes Jews and non-Jews on a journey through Miami Beachs Jewish restaurants and markets, both past and present. (The next tour is Thursday.)
If you walked around the neighborhood, you wouldnt realize that there was once a high concentrations of Jewish people here, said Howard Brayer, 57, who led the tour. The food tour is a reminder of that history.
The gentrification of Miami Beach, beginning in the late 80s, and a diminishing elderly Jewish population have contributed to a gradual decline of the Jewish population.
This tour should reintroduce people young and old to the Miami of yesterday, Brayer said. And the food is an added plus everyone loves food.
Beginning at the museum, Brayers led the group down Washington Avenue to Aroma Espresso Bar, an espresso bar chain in Israel. At Aroma, the group was served a Middle Eastern pastry known as börek, made of phyllo, and their choice of coffee.
Israelis are big coffee drinkers, said Lester, who ordered an iced cappuccino. And they know good coffee.
Afterward, Brayer gave a glimpse of former Jewish restaurants like Herman's Meat and Poultry, a kosher meat market in the 50s and 60s, and Goldstein and Gilbert's kosher restaurant.
Next, Brayer took the group to the second food stop: Pita Loca, a popular Middle Eastern spot. There, the tour members enjoyed falafel and Israeli salad, consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, onions and parsley dressed with fresh lemon juice, olive oil and black pepper.
The group then visited other Miami Beach historic Jewish hotels, bakeries and shops, before heading to My Ceviche for fish tacos and Joes Stone Crab for Key lime pie.
Jo Ann Arnowitz, the museums executive director, said that when she looked at all of the museums collection, she immediately saw they had an audience for the food tours.
There is even a resurgence of young people looking to learn about Jewish culture, said Arnowitz, pointing to a group of college students registering for the tour. I really wanted people to get a sense of history for the area and the Jewish presence.
After the tour, Lester and her two former students Sidney Nudelman, 70, and Debbie Nudelman, 61, who are now married explored the museum exhibit. There, they found vintage photos of Jewish farmers and peddlers.
A lot of Jews came to this country to escape persecution, and they brought their culture with them, Lester said. We make a positive difference by showing diversity.
And, she stressed, food is a way of keeping the culture alive.
The idea is to pass on information from one generation to the next, she said. Theres a feeling of comfort being in your own culture, and people should feel that.