Southern & Jewish
Southern & Jewish celebrates the stories, people, and experiences – past and present – of Jewish life in the American South. Hosted by the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life, posts come from educators, students, rabbis, parents, artists, and many other “visitors-to and daily-livers-of” the Southern Jewish experience. From road trips to recipes to reflections, we’ll explore a little bit of everything – well, at least all things Southern and/or Jewish. Shalom, y’all!
To celebrate the online publication of the Florida section of the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Life, Southern & Jewish is running a series of features on interesting Florida Jews. I’m calling this series “The Friends We Made Along the Way.”
Sometimes the historical research and writing process grows dull. As the editor and lead writer of the Encyclopedia of Southern Jewish Communities, I spend a lot of time in these particular histories. After awhile, the towns and cities start to blend together. Patterns become predictable: the railroad shows up; some Jewish merchants arrive; maybe they start a synagogue, or maybe it takes another four decades; populations trend up or down; there’s a congregational split, and so on.
But sometimes you get to write about a Jewish giant—not an important rabbi, mind you, just a very tall Jew.
His name was Jack Earle, and he lived (for a time) in Sarasota.
Jack Earle was born Jacob Reuben Ehrlich on July 3rd, 1906, in Denver, Colorado. When he was still a child, his family moved to El Paso, Texas, where his father Isadore owned a jewelry store and pawn shop. Although Jacob had been born premature and underweight, he began to grow quickly at seven years old, and he reached seven feet tall before his thirteenth birthday. About that time, his father took him on a trip to California, where Jack caught the attention of a Hollywood talent scout. After a brief but productive career in the early film industry (where his height proved a great asset in the early days of special effects), Jack joined the Ringling Bros. Circus as their resident giant. By that time, he stood just over eight-and-a-half feet tall, and the circus billed him as the world’s tallest man.
When John Ringling moved the circus’s winter headquarters to Sarasota in 1927, he introduced several part-time Jewish residents to the sleepy resort town, where Jewish residents had just begun plans to build their first synagogue, Temple Beth Sholom. Richard Fuchs, a Ringling Bros. employee and eventual founder of the Ringling Museum attended services there occasionally. Other circus Jews included Milton Bartok (patent medicine marketer, minstrel show producer, and, later, circus owner) and Albert White (an accomplished clown who persuaded the circus to engage local rabbi Barry Konovich as the circus chaplain in the 1970s).
It is not clear whether Jack Earle (who could have performed an outstanding hagbah) participated in the Jewish community, but he did play basketball for Sarasota Junior College during the 1932-1933 season. Following his 14 years with Ringling Bros., Earle returned to California and then retired to El Paso. He continued to visit Sarasota in the off season to visit the Dancing Dolls, a troupe of little people with whom he had developed a close friendship.
So, what does the story of Jack Earle tell us about Jewish history in Sarasota, specifically, or Florida, in general? First, it highlights the presence of Jewish performers and businesspeople in the circus industry, which had a decades-long history in Sarasota and an ongoing legacy there. Second, it demonstrates how Florida’s development as a subtropical resort destination attracted Jewish residents whose stories diverge significantly from the common trope of the southern Jewish small town merchant (though Florida had plenty of those, too).
As for Jack Earle’s place within southern Jewish history more broadly, it’s worth noting that he lived in two cities at the margins of the region. Neither Jack Earle’s unusual height nor the time he spent at the boundaries of the South should relegate him to mere novelty status, however. Instead, Jack Earle’s biography highlights the surprising variety of Jewish experiences in the South and refreshes my sense of what southern Jewish history might be.