From Eden to the nations to Miami: “Shtetl in the Sun” at the Cleveland Print Room
In 1977, two photographers set themselves a challenge: Take pictures of Miami Beach’s Jewish retirement community residents every day for ten years. The photographers were named Andy Sweet and Gary Monroe. They called their undertaking simply “The Miami Beach Project.”
Tragically, five years into the project, Sweet was murdered in his own apartment during a home invasion. At the time of his death, he was 29 years old. A Miami Herald obituary wrote of Sweet at the time, “Though young, Sweet was virtually an institution on the Beach, having made thousands of images of the place and the people.”
Monroe and Sweet’s family Both parties suffered a second loss when the negatives from his work were lost. For a time, it appeared Sweet’s legacy would literally fade with the irreversible aging of his colored photo prints. However, advances in digital technology have allowed his images to be restored to their original colors and preserved on the cloud. Newly accessible for mass viewing, Sweet’s images are the subject of more attention than they have been in any time since his death. In the last two years, the Miami Project has being explored in a book published by Letter16 Press, and a documentary film.
Add to the list of revivals Shtetl in the Sun, an online exhibit of 30 Sweet’s photographs hosted by the Cleveland Print Room. The show borrows its title from the 2019 Letter16 book. “Shtetl,” a Yiddish noun, refers to one of the modest, predominantly Jewish towns which dotted Europe between Germany and Russia from the 13th and 20th centuries. The traditional shtetl and the lifestyle it supported were effectively eliminated by Nazi Germany’s genocidal policies. In the context of the Miami project, the shtetl serves as an ideal of Jewish refuge in a predominantly gentile nation. Just as dissenting Protestants saw in America a chance to erect a “shining city on a hill,” Jews carved out enclaves like South Florida—not to wall themselves off from outsiders, but to live as one people among many, distinct but free to move and mingle.
Sweet seems to have sought out those rituals, formal and informal, which maintain communal affinities. He shows us bearded, black-suited Orthodox men studying together in patio chairs; teen boys in ties and kippah stiffly waiting for Shabbat services to start; and lei-clad Bubbes balancing plates of party snacks in their laps. The images are Americana of the most immediately recognizable sort—nuclear and extended families gathering together with the cheap, mass-produced goods which came to dominate markets following World War II.
In the 1970s and today, the Miami Jewish community is diverse—indeed, it is more accurate to speak of “the Miami Jewish communities.” But the ancestry of most Jewish Miamians does run through the original shtetls. The earliest Jewish immigrants in South Florida settled in the 1880s. Many congregations are peopled by Ashkenazi Jews who fled persecution in Europe, but not all took a direct route to Florida. Several waves of European Jews came to Miami at different times, under different circumstances, bearing different memories. In the 1950s, some 10,000 Cuban Jews of Ashkenazi descent fled to South Florida to escape the Castro regime. Many Holocaust survivors relocated to Miami after WWII. We can expect not all were greeted warmly in their earliest days as Americans. Now, those who escaped the Nazi genocide are all-but-universally respected for fighting, in whatever ways they could, to endure, or at least defy their killers. But in the years immediately after the war, many survivors were pilloried by fellow Jews, who accused them of passively allowing Germans to drive them into death camps “like sheep to the slaughter.”
Survivors’ struggles during and after the war are not depicted in Sweet’s images. In fact, if any survivors are among the faces documented in A Shtetl in the Sun, they are not identified as such. The persons memorialized by Sweet’s camera are anonymous, and the images curated by the Print Room are untitled. But there is power in knowing most of the adults depicted could have endured the Shoah. As fellow Americans living in post-WWII prosperity, Sweet’s subjects live lifestyles very much like our own. We immediately feel familiarity looking at Sweet’s diners in cafeterias, middle-aged men in socks and sandals, and retirees celebrating New Year’s Eve with goofy hats. There is nothing special or alien about the people targeted by German genocidaires. Just as much as us, they enjoy cakes, swimming pools, and finding a patch of shade in which to read. Sweet captures his subjects’ humanity not as it is expressed by perseverance or courage, but in their indulgence in simple pleasures.
His images have much charm and humor, and could be appreciated for this without the context of his subjects’ traumatic history. Context does not undo this charm, but allows it to point to something beyond itself—the utter, undeniable, and human normality of the people who endured a defining event of the last century.