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The Jewish Press of Tampa and the Jewish Press of Pinellas County are Independently- owned biweekly Jewish community newspapers published in cooperation with and supported by the Tampa JCC & Federation and the Jewish Federation of Pinellas & Pasco Counties, respectively. Copyright © 2009-2017 The Jewish Press Group of Tampa Bay, Inc., All Rights Reserved. 


May 5, 2017  RSS feed

Text: T T T

New book explains how father and son helped turn Florida into flourishing state


David Levy Yulee David Levy Yulee Moses Elias Levy came to the land of what later would become the “Sunshine State” in 1818, in hopes of turning the lush land into a paradise for the Jewish community.

In a new book, Moses and Son: Pioneer of Frontier Florida, Jerald Blizen of Clearwater, explains how the contributions of Levy and his son, David Levy Yulee, were a catalyst that helped turn Florida into a viable state.

Levy settled in the area of Micanopy, a small town south of Gainesville that even now has a population of less than 1,000. He was an accomplished Moroccan businessman who had used his intelligence and connections to make himself wealthy.

After traveling to Puerto Rico and St. Thomas in the Caribbean, he married and had two sons. He was 39 by the time he moved his family to Florida, and he planned to use that wealth and influence to provide safe harbor for Europe’s persecuted Jews.

“Florida came into being by the efforts of two unlikely men – a father who was into real estate and a businessman, and a son who was a legislator and a lawyer,” said Blizen, an 89-year-old former journalist.

Levy’s son, David, is actually the better known of the two in Jewish American history with the distinction of being the first person of Jewish heritage elected to the U.S. Senate. He served as a senator from 1845 when Florida was admitted to the union until 1851 and then from 1855 to 1861 when he withdrew to support the Confederacy.

The youngest of Levy’s children, David changed his last name from Levy to Yulee, a family name Levy had discarded for business reasons, after his relationship with his father grew contentious. The small town of Yulee, near Jacksonville, is named for him.

At the same time Yulee’s political career was taking off, he was also shedding his religious heritage. But that didn’t prevent him from being attacked for his Jewish roots. President John Quincy Adams and Vice President Andrew Johnson both antagonized the politician, said Blizen. Adams specifically went after Yulee’s “alien condition.”

However, politics was not what drove Yulee away from Judaism.

“I think he hid his religion mostly because he hated his father. His father cut out David and his brother Elias for a long time,” said Blizen. “They didn’t talk for around 40 years.”

While Yulee worked on his political career, Levy focused on trying to persuade European Jews to settle in Florida by offering business deals and incentives and by buying 53,000 acres of land around present-day Jacksonville.

He also helped develop the use of the first cross-state railroad, which ran from St. Mary’s River to Cedar Key, an ambitious task given that there were not many roads that were paved throughout the territory.

Levy was temporarily successful with his railroad endeavors, but faced a large amount of turmoil, from questions about his and his family’s citizenship to becoming nearly destitute after losing property and a sugar plantation during the Second Seminole War.

Today, there are no pictures of Levy. In time, Levy County was named for him, but outside of a marker at Micanopy State Park, no artifacts remain.

It was still enough to capture Blizen’s attention more than 50 years ago. While he was a reporter for the then-St. Petersburg Times, he researched and wrote the first draft of Moses and Son: Pioneer of Frontier Florida.

Blizen said he put the book in a desk drawer and let it collect dust for 40 years until his son, Stephen, convinced him to edit and publish the book himself. His son also contributed by creating the cover art for the book. Blizen said that he had been interested in the story because of his journalistic curiosity and his connection as a Jewish resident of Florida.

Blizen came to Pinellas County after graduating from the University of Minnesota in 1948 when he joined the Times as a reporter and then became Washington correspondent for the paper. He left the St. Petersburg Times in 1965 to become press secretary for U.S. Sen. George A. Smathers. He stayed with the senator until he lost his seat in 1969 and then worked as a deputy manager and senior vice president at Hill and Knowlton Strategies in Washington, before retiring in 1987 and returning to Pinellas County.

Moses and Son: Pioneer of Frontier Florida came out in February and is available at in paperback, Kindle and audio book versions.

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