My heart is in the east, I am in Key West

“My heart is in the East and I am at the ends of the West” (Judah HaLevi, Spain 1085-1141)

I recently participated in a writer’s institute in Key West, the furthest of the Florida Keys on the Gulf of Mexico, and the southernmost point in the United States.  Walking the streets of the island’s Old Town neighborhood where novelists and poets like Ernest Hemingway and Wallace Stevens drank, womanized, and wrote, I felt rather out of place as a religious Jew.  It isn’t that “Margaritaville” is hostile or unwelcoming to Jews, or that I wasn’t genuinely interested in better understanding how one sliver of America lives.  It is, in fact, a very relaxed, mostly quiet place where no one tries to force feed a definition of what’s conventional on anyone else. It’s just that the secular excesses of tourist life on this island are so out of synch with how I live.

Looking for something more familiar, I found the quiet Israeli ex-pat community that lives on the island, tucked in among the ubiquitous tourist traps, Karaoke joints, sex shops, water sports outlets, non-kosher eateries and loud bars.  Since I wear a kippah all the time, I am sort of a “landsman (“homeboy”) magnet” for Jews of all types, and Israelis living abroad are no exception.  When I walked into a T-shirt  shop on the main strip, Duval Street to purchase a baseball hat, the owner immediately asked me in Hebrew if I knew that I could get two caps for the low price of ten dollars.  Responding in Hebrew, I thanked him but said that one would be sufficient.  He was nonetheless happy to give a bargain to a brother, telling me quietly, “Kach et zeh b’hamesh,” “You can have the hat for five bucks.”   We got to talking about local Jewish life, and when I lamented that a kosher deli listed on the internet had closed, he cut me off excitedly, “No, no the place to go is just down the street,” and gave me typically vague Israeli directions that are the stuff of generations of jokes.  After I pressed him for firmer details, he walked me two stores down to his friend who gave me exact directions in Hebrew to the one kosher restaurant in Key West.

The restaurant is a tiny storefront adjacent to a covered tent, underneath which is a crowded courtyard with some tables and plastic chairs.  A small sign, “Mam’s best Food” with a blue Jewish star, is its sole advertisement on the street, and I chuckled initially at the misspelling of the word, mom.  The owner, Ilana, left Israel eight years ago to follow some of her children who had left after their army service, and to prepare for the birth of a grandchild in the States.  Eight years later, her “hole in the wall” manages to compete with upscale tourist eateries and trendy food shops, drawing business mostly but not exclusively from the locals.  The food is outstanding, no-frills Middle Eastern fare:  truly the best home-cooked comfort food that your traditional Jewish mom or grandmother might serve you.

I ate there almost every night, not only for the food but to meet people, hear their stories and speak Hebrew.  One night, Ilana greeted me, “Shalom, mami, I was wondering if you would come back today.”  Mami is Israeli Hebrew slang for “sweetie” or “dear one,” yet she had no problem calling this total stranger that name.  Later, a fairly burly young Israeli man greeted Ilana as mami, as if she were his daughter or his grandma.  He explained to me that Israelis who come to the island are running away from one thing or another, though he was cryptic about what those things might be.  I spoke with a gay man who had long ago left his religious Jewish background and Israel behind, yet who came by frequently to eat, help out, and perhaps just be comforted hearing Hebrew.  Another young woman who came to make money but is determined not to assimilate and to return to Israel told me that many people come to Key West after army service looking to make money, then they get stuck in that relentless pursuit.

A place like Mam’s Best Food probably does not survive on fare alone.  It too is a “landsman magnet,” a secular sanctuary for Israelis who have dispersed themselves to that Jewish desert in a far corner of the world, yet who yearn to connect to home and a sense of self in some way, however vague.  I have no illusions about the waning Jewish identities of the ex-pats living there.  They have marginalized themselves Jewishly, in many ways no different from some American Jews who are being slowly euthanized by the American dream.  However, Ilana and her mamis remind me that somehow the longing among minorities for ethnic solidarity and distinctiveness  – Jews being no exception- stubbornly persists, even and especially in this most unlikely of places.

About the Author
Dan Ornstein is rabbi at Congregation Ohav Shalom and a writer living in Albany, NY. He is the author of the forthcoming book, Cain v. Abel: A Jewish Courtroom Drama, which will be published by the Jewish Publication Society in 2019.