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The Surfside Tragedy Recalls South Florida’s Long Hold on the Jewish Imagination and Reality

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(JTA) — Until the other day, when a 13-story building inexplicably collapsed in the middle of the night, placing the whereabouts, and lives, of 159 residents in doubt, few gave Surfside, Florida very much thought. The town was, after all, a South Florida misnomer. There’s no surfing. The white caps on the Atlantic Ocean never provide enough tubular lift. The people of Surfside skew older. Nearly half of its 6,000 residents are Jewish, and of those, many are Orthodox.

You can call Surfside sleepy, but even that wouldn’t describe it. Until this week, nothing truly special ever happened there. Now, with a tragedy so titanic — and still unfolding — its name will become synonymous with misery.

To the casual observer, Surfside was a breakaway township from its more widely known neighbor, Miami Beach, just to its south. Those over the border on Miami Beach, and in Bal Harbor, the village to Surfside’s immediate north, for many decades had good reason to regard themselves as South Florida’s very own Old City of Jerusalem — a mixed enclave with a major Jewish quarter, and a bit more decadence.

Surfside didn’t have the Art Deco jazz-age sparkle or swinger elegance that the Eden Roc and Fontainebleau hotels offered back in from the 1950s into the ’70s. In Surfside, the Americana was the swankiest hotel. It once showcased a very young Jackson 5, long before any Billie Jean took notice of Michael. A rare excitement, but the town’s residents didn’t beg for more. Surfside enjoyed the stillness — on land and sea.

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I know about Surfside. I grew up on 74th Street on Miami Beach. The horrific spectacle that FEMA has now declared to be a national emergency site is on 87th Street. By the time the Champlain Towers was built in 1981, I had long decamped for college and then New York.

I frequently return to Miami Beach, but mostly in my imagination. Many of my novels have featured scenes with Miami Beach as the backdrop. My last one,........

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