Much has been written about the close bonds forged between Jews and African-Americans in Miami in the 1950s at the start of the civil rights movement. But a more complex, conflicted side of that relationship has fired the imagination of local novelist Joan Lipinsky Cochran.
The central characters in her latest book, “Still Missing Beulah: Stories of Black and Jews in Mid-Century Miami,” are elderly Miamian Tootsie Plotnik and his adult daughter. In the 1950s, we’re told, Tootsie had a Bahamian mistress and counted his black business associates among his friends. But he also refers to his African-American employees using the term schvartze – a Yiddish word widely regarded as a racial slur.
Lipinsky Cochran says Tootsie is loosely based on her own father; the mistress was made up, but the character’s relationships with African-Americans parallel real life.
“He had many close friends who were black and he’d get in trouble for showing up at restaurants with them,” she says. “He would refer to his own employees as schvartzes, ‘coloreds’ and occasionally, use the N-word. He was a very conflicted character, as is Tootsie.”
Lipinsky Cochran, who was born in Miami Beach and grew up in Coral Gables, says “Still Missing Beulah” grew out of a short story she wrote for her master of fine arts thesis.
The book integrates linked short stories with brief historical accounts of race relations in Miami stretching back to the 1950s. They include the history of Overtown, the famous Flagler Street lunch counter sit-ins and the McDuffie race riots of 1980.
“I wanted people who had come to ‘Neon Miami’ to know what Miami was like in the civil rights era,” says Lipinsky Cochran.