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A Special Moment In Time: Ida And Isidor Cohen

By Seth H. Bramson

There are so very many revered names in the history of Greater Miami, from the Weiss family of Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant to the Galbut family of Miami Beach, to the Traurigs and the Hechts (Flagler Dog Track) and the Pallots, Julia Tuttle, Mary and William Brickell, Everest and John Sewell, Carl Fisher, Collins and Pancoast, the Lummus Brothers….suffice to say, the list borders on nearly endless, but among all of them, the patriarchs of historical Jewish Miami is and will forever be remembered as the revered Ida and Isidor Cohen.

It was through Cohen’s granddaughter that the greatest single collection of Miami Jewish history was bestowed upon me, and that story, in and of itself, is not only fascinating but bears telling here, for Isidor Cohen arrived in the budding city-to-be, excitedly awaiting the arrival of the recently renamed Florida East Coast Railway, on February 6, 1896. Cohen was here to greet the arrival of the first passenger train of that great and fabled railway on April 22, 1896, getting to meet, among others, Henry M. Flagler, James E. Ingraham (for whom the Ingraham Building in downtown Miami is named) and Joseph R. Parrott, Mr. Flagler’s railroad vice president.

The story of how the collection came to be part of The Bramson Archive is fascinating in and of itself, and is today part of this area’s local historical lore, for it was sometime in early 2007 that I received a phone call, a pleasant female voice on the other end of the line.

“Mr. Bramson?” “Yes?” “Hi, my name is (and we will leave out the names because of issues of privacy, to which the family is certainly entitled) and I understand that you are interested in memorabilia.” Without even knowing what the “memorabilia” was which the caller might have had, I immediately responded in the affirmative.

“Well,” she said, “I have some material that you might be interested in. Would you mind coming over to see it?” Needless to say, the answer was a without hesitation warmly stated “not at all; happy to do so.” And with that, an appointment was made, a day, date and time set, and at the appointed hour I was warmly greeted and ushered into a lovely home in Broward County.

As we walked into the dining area, I noted seven large plastic storage boxes on the table, on the chairs and on the floor and I somehow insightfully garnered the idea that the memorabilia might be in those boxes.

She again referred to me as “Mr. Bramson,” at which point I corrected her, as I do anybody who is gracious and cordial: “My students call me ‘Mr. Bramson’ or ‘Professor Bramson,’ my friends call me ‘Seth.’” To which she replied, “That is so nice, Seth.” “Do you know who I am?” I thereupon responded that I knew where she was employed and what her husband’s occupation was, at which point she smiled warmly and asked me, “but do you know who I really am?!!” Suffice to say, I was caught completely off guard.

“Why, no, (her name), I only know what I just told you.” And then, following that remark, she stunned me beyond words. “Seth,” she said, casually and off-handedly, “my grandfather and grandmother were Isidor and Ida Cohen.”

At that moment, besides being startled and speechless, I felt my knees weaken and my pulse quicken, for I suddenly had some thought as to what treasures might be in the boxes.

“We have been having, for several months, on ongoing family discussion. You know, for many years, any time anybody in the family was going to throw something away I always said, ‘no, don’t. Our family is very important to Miami’s history and we should keep it. So they always told me that, if I wanted it saved, it would have to be saved in my house.’ “By now, I was perspiring, realizing who I was with and what was in the boxes: it was the true and actual beginnings of Miami’s Jewish heritage and I was standing with a direct descendant of Isidor and Ida and in the boxes that I was staring at was that heritage.

“The problem,” she stated, “is that our children our grown, we don’t need a house this large and we are getting ready to move. We need to place these boxes with somebody with whom and in which location where they will be treasured and revered.”

And then came the bombshell: “Seth, for some months we have been having an ongoing family discussion. Do we give the collection to the Jewish Museum, to the Historical Museum or to the Bramson Archive?” And, with my pupils dilating, my legs close to collapse, my eyelids fluttering involuntarily, I knew she hadn’t invited me to her home to tell me that they were giving the collection to the museums; I knew then that it was going to wind up where it should be and where it belonged: in The Bramson Archive.

Continuing, she noted that, “if we give it to one of the museums, we know that we will get a lavish letter of thanks and then it will all go into a basement, never to be seen again, but if we give it to the Bramson Archive, we know it will be shared with the community.” Indeed, dear readers, I will, below, point out a perfect example of a horrible example regarding the MISplacement of such incredible and totally immeasurably valuable historic memorabilia

I was, for a number of years, quite cordial with one (the late) Thelma Peters, a beloved local school history teacher, writer, and the author of “Biscayne Country,” the story of part of Northeast Dade (now Miami-Dade) County stretching from approximately Buena Vista (the original site of the Deering Estate, James’s brother, Charles, who, after selling the property to the Florida East Coast Railway, would move “down south” and build his beautiful home “way down” on the Ingraham Highway in far Southwest Dade County) to today’s Arch Creek, the site of the reconstructed natural bridge, just west of Biscayne Boulevard on Northeast 135th Street in North Miami, that location now a treasured county park.

Over the years, when I would see Thelma, she would tell me that she was donating some historic items to a local history museum and with each declaration I would plead with her to sell me the material because, as I would explain, “once you give it to them it will go into a basement, never to be seen again,” upon which she would chortle and assure me that would not be the case.” As time would tell, she was wrong.

Thelma’s dear sister had moved to North Carolina, and with Thelma’s “getting on in years,” she decided to move to the Tar Heel State to live with her sibling, and it was at that point that I received “the call.”

“Seth, this is Thelma,” and after we exchanged the customary pleasantries, she said, and I quote: “you were right and I was wrong,” to which I replied, “I am not certain what you are referring to, Thelma.” It was at point that she reminded me regarding my entreaties connected with her selling me the memorabilia which she was donating to said organization, and then said, and again I quote, “Seth, I owe you an apology, and I want to make it up to you.”

My response to her was to the effect that she didn’t owe me said apology and she was simply doing what she thought was right at the time. As our readers will learn, it wasn’t.

She then went into her “tale of woe,” sharing with me that several weeks previously, she went to the museum and asked to have four or five which she had donated, copied, in order that she could bring them up to her sister. After waiting for close to an hour she was told, much to her dismay and distress, that they couldn’t find the pieces. I told her that I was not surprised and at that point came a very happy, and, yes, tremendous surprise.

“Seth, if you can arrange to come to my home (she lived in a condo on Biltmore Way in Coral Gables) I have two boxes to give you, and the happy shock was when I got there and she told me that the boxes were all of her clippings from Miami’s various newspapers, all dealing with local history, going back to the early to mid-1920s, which was when her family had come here.

At any rate, the Cohen family’s history, thanks to their granddaughter, has been preserved, and is a cherished part of The Bramson Archive.

Suffice to say then, for the moment and in conclusion for this edition, that thanks to my acquisition of the Cohen collection, “L’Chaim! The History of the Jewish Community of Greater Miami” was published by The History Press, of Charleston (www.historypress.net) in 2008 and was the first-ever history of the Jewish people in Greater Miami, remaining today the best-selling book on South Florida’s Jewish heritage ever published.

Next time: Isidor and Ida Cohen, Part Two: Who They Were and What They Did

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