Miami – a city full of New Yorkers who hate winter. Well, that’s not all. There are also New Yorkers there who don’t like the intensity or taxes of New York. Combine this with a mix of people from Spanish speaking countries who came to the United States, and you’ve got yourself a very beautiful city, albeit with some interesting cultural nuances. For example, people there think it is perfectly normal to have a front lawn full of crabgrass, supermarkets that don’t sell fruits and vegetables but have excellent wine selections, and instead of squirrels filling the trees, they’ve got lizards.
We no longer stay in hotels if we can avoid it. Thanks to the internet, you can find very reliable information and ratings about houses for rent which usually cost about the same or sometimes less than a hotel with the same number of beds. Plus, in many rental houses you get your own pool. It turns out that in the Miami area, there is a conspicuous absence of house rentals near/in Jewish communities on sites like Homeaway and AirBNB. This is probably because housing is more expensive in these areas. No problem – you can either choose to stay in a hotel, say, in the Bel Harbour area where there is a Jewish community very close to the beach or rent a house from the Jewish equivalent of Homeaway in Miami. If you’re into Bel Harbour / Surfside and being in a hotel near the beach, then there’s a Young Israel in the area with daily minyanim and some Chabads. Young Israel and Chabad both seem to be very big in the Miami area.
Instead of a hotel, we rented a house in North Miami Beach from “Florida Kosher Villas“. There are others who do it, but this person had the largest selection of houses and most professional website. I don’t do ‘heimish’ on my trips – I want professional. It’s the same idea and same feel as HomeAway – you get the whole house with a pool, the garage is converted into a game room, washer, dryer, . . . it might as well have been a Homeaway.com rental. There were two important differences: 1) price, 2) Judaism. You pay a premium over the same sort of house that you’ll find on Homeaway, but the service was just as excellent as we experience renting on Homeaway.com and you can’t match the location. We were right in the middle of the North Miami Beach Jewish community with a synagogue across the street and four more within five blocks of the house.
The house was further equipt with a kosher kitchen (and cameras, not on when you’re there, to ensure it stays kosher), everything you need for Shabbos (candles, kiddush cup, benchers, hot plate, urn …), washing cups, seforim, and the whole deal. The house was just redone and the experience was great. You don’t have to feel like you’re “compromising” on your Judaism when you’re there and get all the amenities of a typical house rental. I’d highly recommend this option to anyone.
North Miami Beach is one of many different Jewish communities in South Fliorida, all in the right 1/4 of the state. The left 3/4 is reserved for the birds – the Everglades is huge. It’s a non-pretentious community of almost exclusively one floor, three bedroom houses. They’re kind of like Jerusalem apartments in house form. Originally, it was a winter retreat for Northerners. (Now it’s an all year retreat for Northerners.) The community hasn’t quite figured out the internet thing yet, but walk into a few shuls and have some conversations with people and you can figure out most of the minyan times. The North Miami Beach Kollel website is the only place I have found many minyan times for the community listed together.
The community is made up over about seven different kehillas, almost all right near NE 10th ave. Here’s a link to a map of Sharray Tefillah, one of the synagogues in North Miami Beach which I point you to because it’s about in the “center”. To the South, is the Young Israel and to the North is Torah V’Emunah and soon to be the Kollel. As an over-generalization, the further south, the longer the mishaberachs and shorter the shemonei esrei. As you go north, the shorter the mishabereachs and the longer the shemonei esrei to give a sense of the nature of the different synagogues.
Surfside, Fl – After you get done basking in the fact that you have your own house with your own pool, it’s about a 20 minute drive from North Miami Beach to the beach in Surfside, Fl. The beaches are beautiful with high rise buildings lining the shore. North of the high rises are some parks with beach access as well. Midweek, the beaches were not very crowded and we were able to find places where immodesty wasn’t so much of an issue. Florida is literally flatter than a pancake so you have to go quite far out in the water until it covers you. Further, Surfside, which the local Jews consider part of the Bel Harbour Jewish community, has a plethora of kosher restaurants (see next section).
The Florida Keys – Drive south until Rt. 95 ends, then keep driving south down Rt. 1 until it turns into one lane and cross some bridges and you’re in Key West, the first key. That’s as far as we made it, where we found more beautiful beaches with water so calm it was warmer than a bathtub. To cool off, you had to get out of the water, not in it. We also found Caribbean Water Sports, behind a beautiful Hilton Hotel. There they have parasailing (see our picture above), jet-skiing, snorkeling, and so forth.
The Everglades – Go to Anhinga trail, the internet said. It’s the highest rated trail in the everglades, the internet said. So we went the 1 hr 50 min drive to find it. It’s I’m sure it must be great but i couldn’t tell you – it was almost all closest for construction so we went to the adjacent trail – the Gumbo Limbo trail. This is a short paved path trough a part-jungle/tropical forest, part-Northern forest. Tropical trees and rhododendron grow next to each other. That’s kind of interesting until we ran out as fast as we could watching a Berenstein Bears / cartoon style cloud of mosquitoes chase us out and bite us. We were still finding and killing mosquitoes in the car an hour later.
Fine, so we went to the visitors center to see what else we could do. We could drive 35 miles in the wrong direction from where we wanted to go to take a pontoon boat (we’re the hiking type, no thanks) or a few more miles to find another trail where we were warned the mosquitoes were much worse. Wait, what? Now I know why Spanish explorers had so much trouble making it the Pacific Ocean and the Panama Canal was delayed for hundreds of years, largely due to mosquitoes and disease. So much for the Everglades.
Animal Rehabilitation Clinics – I didn’t drive 1 hr 50 minutes to the Everglades to just give up on having fun. It turns out there are interesting things outside of the Everglades. It’s mostly a sparsely populated area with large farms, but along the route a small tourist industry has popped up. We stopped in one of a few “animal rehabilitation” places – where they take in wounded animals from the wild or which have been confiscated from people who acquired them without permits and didn’t know how to take care of them. E.g. they had two lions that a female dancer thought she was going to use in her routine. I can think of worse ideas, but this one goes in the top 10%. I went to the Everglades to see animals (not just mosquitoes, thanks) so I got my fix in – lions, turtles, bears, birds, cats, snakes, and of course lots and lots of alligators. It was $12/person to enter as a “trial member” to this “members only” place and I’m pretty sure the worker just pocketed the money after the “credit card machine was down” but whatever. We liked it.
Robert Is Here – This is a fruit stand which started out when a kid was sent to sell vegetables along the road. The story goes that it didn’t work until the father added big signs saying that his son “Robert is here”. Anyway, today it sells tropical fruits. Looking to get your schechiyanu fix [prayer connecting with G_d for the opportunity to experience something new, such as a fruit you haven’t eaten]? There’s plenty here – raw guava are amazing! I had no idea. Sapote are interesting – it’s like if sweet potato were a fruit. Warning: the place isn’t
cheap . . . but the fruit is excellent.
State Parks with Activities – There are a lot of these with kayaking, boating, and the like. We made it to two – one in Key West and one in Miami – Oleta River Park was recommended to us by a local (well, a NY transplant) with some nice hiking, biking, and kayak trails (not the same trails) as well as a beach and camping sites.
Jewish Museum – The Jewish Museum is n downtown Miami (read: traffic area), converted from a synagogue dating back to the 1930s. Upon entering, I noticed the stained glass window with the name of Meyer Lansky, a famous member of the mob. Apparently, he treated the shul nicely. The Jewish community has moved to other areas of town and is huge, but this shul has seen better days. Shuls have turned into better or worse – this one now gives some history of Jewish settlement in the area and when we were there, the adjoining building had two things: an empty aron hakodesh and idolotry – naked statutes of ‘biblical’ women as interpreted by a local sculptor having no respect for the women represented or the place this building once was. It was … no, is, painful.
The Miami / Fort Lauderdale area an absurd number of kosher restaurants. I’m told most of them are fairly new and this hasn’t been a long-term phenomenon. We made the most of it, trying as many restaurants as possible. We only covered a small fraction of them –
At the corner of 95th and Collins Ave in Surfside, Fl is “Isaac Bashevis Singer Blvd” with mostly Jewish stores. This includes about eight kosher restaurants – the cafes were decent, especially Cafe Vert which has many gluten free options. The restaurants vary from Asian to italian and are more ‘up scale’. We always found good service, but the food didn’t always match. Kosh was the priciest of them. For $28 the “linguine beef” was hamburger meat and plain pasta with no spices and no salads et al if that’s your sort of thing. For desert, head over to Kosherland supermarket on the same block. Five dollars buys you a paerve pastry better than any deserts we had in the restaurants.
In North Miami Beach you can find a Carvel which was a whole a lot better than we have up north – I bought the same thing in both places to test it. Florida’s Carvel had real strawberries and better ice cream. The one in New Jersey used syrup. Pita hut, a middle eastern style shwarma place was very professional and the food was pretty good and at 2:15pm on a Friday it was packed … with non-Jews. That’s always a good sign for a kosher restaurant. Holy Bagels and Pizza was our breakfast choice one day. It was a pretty solid breakfast in a sit down restaurant and not expensive at all.
In Hollywood, Fl, we only hit up one restaurant on our way to the plane – flying into Fort Lauderadle is much less expensive than Miami and the airports are all of a half hour drive from each other. The restaurant was Levy’s Kosher, another solid choice with pita/laffa-type foods.