Jewish History Month – Pioneer Jews of Naples

The Humanistic Jewish Havurah hosts Marina Berkovich, president of the Jewish Historical Society of Southwest Florida (JHSSWF), on Sunday, January 20 at 1:30 p.m. in the David G. Willens Community Room at the Jewish Federation of Greater Naples, 2500 Vanderbilt Beach Road, Suite 2201, Naples. Reservations are being accepted by Dena Sklaroff at or 239.591.0101. The event begins with “coffee ’n chat” before the speaker takes the podium at 2:00 p.m.

Nearly 40 years ago, together with her mother, Marina surrendered her USSR citizenship and became a stateless refugee en route to the U.S. She resided in New York City before coming to live in Naples, where she eventually formed the JHSSWF in 2010. Southwest Floridians know Marina as documentary film producer of Naples, Florida – REDEFINING PARADISE, Naples Oral Histories: If These Walls Could Talk and the Southwest Florida Jewish Pioneers series.

Her presentation is titled “Timeline of Southwest Florida Jewish History.”

From a humanistic perspective, the events of modern times and the literary responses to them are equally important as the events and literary responses of ancient times. Theodore Herzl is as significant as Joshua. A humanistic approach to Jewish history needs a determination to look beyond biblical literature to real events.

Humanistic Judaism finds a humanistic meaning in Jewish history. It is the tale of our struggle to survive. It is a collection of useful skills that do not derive from theology, but come from human ingenuity, from the response of a desperate people to the cruelty of fate.

A humanistic approach to Jewish history needs to give a special place to Jewish secular achievement. It was the transformation of the Jews from agricultural and pastoral people into a dispersed urban nation. Jews became a city people and remained a city people.

The urbanization of the Jews had many causes.

Like their Canaanite and Phoenician racial cousins, the Jews found their land too rocky and too dry to sustain a growing population. Later, political and religious persecution added to the outflow. Jewish refugees settled in the cities of their host nations. In later centuries, Jews were forbidden to own farm estates by their Christian rulers.

But the chief reason for the urban conversion was simply that city life was more stimulating, more interesting and more profitable than farm life. The crafts and trading were more attractive to the Jews. Jews, like many other people, were voluntary recruits to urban existence.

For most of Jewish history, the Jews were a mobile urban people developing the attitudes and skills that would make them ideal candidates for the capitalistic world. Money and trade, not manure and sheep, were motivating forces in their lives. Manufacture and distribution, not plowing and seeding, were the stuff out of which daily activity was made. Academics and culture replaced superstition and augmented tradition.

The Jewish experience moved away from Jewish ideology. The economic development of the Jews turned them into bookkeeping entrepreneurial wanderers. Thus, the Jewish personality is an urban product, finely tuned to city life and city anxiety. If most Jews adapt easily to the demand of requirements of modern urban living, it is not because they were verbally skilled in Talmudic arguments. Quite the opposite. Polish pilpul (Talmudic verbal games) was the direct result of an urbanized culture that placed great emphasis on talking and verbal exhibitionism. City communities value verbal skills even more than physical prowess.

Coming to terms with the Jewish urban past and with Jewish urban skills is necessary for an authentic Jewish history. A humanistic approach to Jewish history looks for human motivation.