Klezmer Meets Salsa In Chic South Beach

A neighborhood long inhabited by Jewish residents transforms into a hot spot for young Hispanics

EVERY morning, Octavio Gonzalez orders the usual - espresso with milk and Cuban toast - at Puerta Sagua, a bustling Cuban restaurant in South Miami Beach. The painter, who moved here in 1981, then huddles with other Cuban exiles in animated discussions about island politics.

A few blocks away, an elderly woman is wheeled around Hebrew Home for the Aged, a small, somewhat rundown building.

The two SoBe residents represent twin trends in this beachfront area: an influx of Hispanics and an exodus of many Jews. South Beach, known as SoBe, is also emblematic of the shifting demographic face of south Florida. Like the many non-Hispanic families in Dade County moving north to Orlando in pursuit of a suburban lifestyle, many elderly Jews are also going farther north - to Palm Beach County.

As a result, this elderly Jewish shtetl, or community, is fast becoming a chic Hispanic barrio. Spanish is replacing Yiddish as the lingua franca of the street.

For decades, South Beach and its larger area, Miami Beach, have been a Jewish tourist haven, Florida's tropical answer to New York's Catskills. Many Northern tourists fell in love here and returned when they retired.

Then in 1980, the Mariel Cuban refugee influx made its way to South Beach because of its cheap rents and tropical ambiance reminiscent of Cuba. Soon Cuban yuppies and middle class Hispanics, many from Central America, followed. A building boom began, and the Beach began to take off. Lured by the ivory, palm-treed beaches and emerald ocean waters, many Hispanics abandoned Miami for SoBe's pastel Art Deco apartments where Jewish grandparents once lived.

''This is like a little piece of Cuba,''says Gonzalez.

The transformation is evident everywhere. Jewish delis selling kosher chicken have given way to Hispanic mercados with tamales. Only 10 years ago, South Beach was nearly empty on Saturdays, the Jewish sabbath, except for residents walking to temple services. Today Saturdays are busy tourist days, as German, Canadian, and Latin American tourists jam two-story hotels on Collins Avenue.

A few years ago, a temple with a star of David on the ceiling was sold and renovated into an upscale nightclub. The new owners retained the ceiling and named the club The Star to accommodate the design.

Within blocks of the Puerta Sagua restaurant, chic Washington Avenue nightclubs cater to Latin American tourists. On Ocean Drive, a small, two-lane street that fronts the Atlantic Ocean, pop musicians Gloria and Emilio Estefan have opened Lario's, a Cuban specialty restaurant. Limousines and tourists queue up outside clubs. Last Sunday morning at 10:30 a.m., one disco was still going strong with Saturday night business.

While the friction between the old and new cultures is sometimes palpable, it seems relatively harmless. ''Why can't these people speak English?'' grouses an elderly Jewish man who speaks Yiddish. ''I learned English when I came here. This is America. They should do the same thing also.''

But mostly, curiosity prevails between the two groups. A young Honduran woman pushes a baby stroller near a mikva, a traditional bath where Jewish women cleanse themselves.

''What's that again?'' asks the amazed young woman in Spanish when the tradition is described.

In some ways, as minorities from nations with troubled histories, the two main ethnic groups have much in common. Yet they ride different South Beach tides. One is ebbing, the other is just coming in. ''It's the only place I feel at home,'' says Gonzalez.

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