Just as with the ‘all the way’ Cuban sandwich, Jewish immigrants influenced Ybor City

Seders & Cigars — A History of Jews in Tampa premieres on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. at the Glazer Family JCC as part of the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival.
Published March 21
Updated March 21

The Cuban sandwich is the symbolic representation of the immigrants who built the district of Ybor City where the delicacy first flourished.

The bread and the mojo-marinated roast pork are Cuban, the ham is Spanish, the Genoa salami is Italian, and the Swiss cheese, pickle and mustard are both Jewish and German.

At most authentic Latin eateries, a Cuban sandwich with everything is ordered as "all the way."

Yet, Ybor's authentic history is not always told "all the way."

The large Spanish, Cuban and Italian populations during Ybor’s founding decades are well chronicled.

But the smaller Jewish and German communities are often overlooked.

"Maybe it's because we didn't have anything flashy like flamenco shows," laughed Tampa filmmaker Barbara Rosenthal, who is Jewish. "Maybe this film will educate those who overlook the Jewish story."

That film is her documentary Seders & Cigars — A History of Jews in Tampa.

It premieres on Sunday at 10:30 a.m. at the Glazer Family JCC, 522 N. Howard Ave., as part of the Tampa Bay Jewish Film Festival.

While the documentary explores the contributions that the Jewish community has made to all of Tampa, there is a focus on Ybor because that is largely where late-19th and early-20th century Jewish immigrants, primarily from Germany and Romania, settled.

Some owned cigar factories.

But Jewish families mostly operated the retail businesses frequented by the district's cigar workers.

The late-historian Tony Pizzo, whose knowledge of Ybor was so vast that he was memorialized with a statue there, estimated that three-fourths of the shops on Seventh Ave. were Jewish-owned.

Or, as former Tampa City Councilwoman Linda Saul-Sena quipped in the documentary, there were so many that "you could get a minyan together within a block of Ybor City."

Jewish family names engraved into the facade of storefronts remain on some of Ybor’s historic buildings. There is Max Argintar, who sold menswear from 1522 E. Seventh Ave.

Isidore Kaunitz is credited in the documentary as Ybor's first Jewish business owner. The native of Romania was drawn to Tampa in the 1890s by the economic promise that a railroad brought to the city, and he settled in Ybor because of the promise of its cigar industry that would later become the largest in the world.

Kaunitz's first general store was located inside a wooden building. When he outgrew that locale, he erected a larger one that also became the first brick building on Seventh Avenue.

Known for wearing a white Panama hat and suit, for marketing reasons, Kaunitz named his store El Sombrero Blanco, Spanish for The White Hat.

It was common for Jewish business owners to speak Spanish as well as Italian, filmmaker Rosenthal said.

"In Ybor, the Jewish merchants would speak as many as five or six different languages," she said, "because some also spoke Greek, Hebrew, Yiddish and of course, English.”

They also supported the other immigrant groups' causes.

Dry goods store owner Edward Steinberg, for instance, donated enough money to Jose Marti for the Cuban War of Independence against Spain that he was later honored with a reception hosted by the freedom fighter.

As Ybor's cigar industry grew, so did the district's Jewish population.

They worshiped at the Rodeph Sholom synagogue, which first had a modest temple on Palm Avenue and later erected a larger one on the same grounds. In 1970 it permanently moved to 2713 Bayshore Blvd. where it remains today.

By then, with the cigar industry all but gone, many of Ybor's original Jewish establishments had left the district, though Max Argintar Men’s Wear operated until 2003.

Still, today, a Jewish family remains a prominent part of Ybor and its modern-day cigar industry.

Ybor's last surviving cigar factory is operated by the J.C. Newman Cigar Company, which moved there from Cleveland in the 1950s.

"People always talk the Cubans, Italians and Spaniards when talking about Ybor," said company president Eric Newman, who is featured in the documentary.

“A lot of people don't realize the influence of the Jewish community. The documentary does a good job of telling the story."

Contact Paul Guzzo at [email protected] or follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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