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By Neal Milner
The stretch of Southeastern Florida between North Miami and Boca Raton is crass, noisy, and unattractive. One strip mall follows another. Big Retail is everywhere. Stores have names that shout out: Bagelmania, Chair City, and the Great American Smoked Fish Company, which claims to be purveyor of "The Biggest Variety of Smoked Fish in the United States of America." Boeing could build its new Dreamliners in Sample Road Flea Market's huge, hangar-like building. The weather is unbearably hot in summer, surprisingly cold in winter, and the beaches are only so-so.
At least to my eyes, which are Hawaiian eyes. I have lived in Honolulu for the past thirty-five years and formed my impressions of South Florida through the many visits to my in laws who retired to Broward County in 1967. They lived there (first in Hollywood, then in Lauderhill) until their deaths almost forty years later. Honolulu's beaches and climate beat Florida's hands down. Hawaii has lush mountains, while Southeast Florida is monotonously flat and non-descript with an overly manicured and artificial greenness. Honolulu feels smaller, older, more exotic, and unique. It has far more cachet and far less tumult.
The Florida that I knew seemed so Jewish, not contemporary Jewish, but rather the kind that reminded me of our family's half-Yiddish arguing and kibitzing sessions at my grandparent's house in Milwaukee back in the 1950s. Even though Jews come from all over the States to retire around Boca or Fort Lauderdale, that corner of Florida felt parochial with a definitely New York City vibe.
There are a few thousand Jews scattered throughout Honolulu but just one synagogue with a building, along with a Conservative chavurah that rents space from the Unitarians and a Chabad outpost that is plucky but miniscule by Lubavitcher standards. There is a small Hebrew School, but no Jewish day school, community center, Federation, or Jewish old folks home. And no Jewish neighborhoods. No chance of seeing a group of old Jewish guys sitting in a Waikiki bagel shop kibitzing about their golf game or politics because there are no bagel shops in Honolulu. In fact Jews in Honolulu don't gather that way anywhere. When my mother-in-law once asked my children, who by then had celebrated their B'nei Mitzvah with the local chavurah, what it was like to be Jewish in Hawaii, my daughter answered, "We don't think about what it's like being Jewish. We think about what it's like being haole (Caucasian)."
My Florida visits were obligations--part of a good son in law's consideration tool kit. To pass the time down there, I became an amateur ethnographer of old Jews. Actually ethnographer is not exactly right. My model was Larry David, not Clifford Geertz. I was only interested in the funny things that the old people said and did. These old Jews became comedic content, and their experiences became bits. Usually I hung out in a square mile area that included parts of Tamarac, Sunrise, and Lauderhill. I had regular sites like Bagelmania on University Drive, Flakowitz's Deli, and a nearby strip mall on Forty-Fourth Street where my in laws regularly shopped, but any place was fair game. Best source was Forest Trace, my in laws' retirement community, which was within the square mile area. Its dining room alone could fill a notebook.
I used this material in stories, which I told to my friends at parties or to audiences on stage. Like these:
- Forest Trace in the morning. Emergency vehicles are in the parking lot as they often are at that time of day when the staff discovers which residents had not woken up that morning. The residents call these first responders the Forest Trace Taxis. An old woman comes out of the main entrance, gets into her Mercedes, and slowly reverses straight back for fifty feet until she broadsides the parked fire engine. She then pulls directly forward until she is back into her parking space, then backs out and does exactly the same thing again.
- A perfume shop in Hollywood's Shmata Row (the name alone!), a collection of small discount stores in a run down strip mall in an even more dirt-poor neighborhood in Hollywood. An old lady is shpritzing and re-shpritzing a sample bottle. As the mist settles throughout the store, she argues with the salesman about whether the discounted perfume is really fresh. "Lady," the salesman finally says. "It's cologne, not fish."
- A Former IHOP down the street from Forest Trace and across from a new Chabad synagogue. This diner is now a drab but busy place where you can get two eggs, bagel, and coffee for less than three bucksegg white omelet fifty cents extra. There are no packets of artificial sweeteners on the tables. The waitresses carry them in their pockets to keep the customers from filling their purses.
- Forty-Fourth Street in Sunrise. After spending close to a half hour in a store that specializes in shoes for the elderly and finding something that seems to be exactly what she wanted, my mother in law tells the store owner, who moved his business from New York City because he thought he had found a nice little niche market, that she was not going to take that pair of shoes because they were "too perfect."
These stories have legs. They resonate. When people hear them, they knowingly say, "uh huh," as if they know that this is what South Florida and old Jews are all about. These bits are like the "Seinfeld" Florida episodes, where Jerry visits his parents Helen and Morty at Del Boca Vista. They are stories that we hip, modern insiders tell about those who are no longer on the inside. We are Jerry. They are Morty. We may be just as neurotic as those old people, but in hipper, more nuanced, less trivial ways. We will never sell overcoats for a living, wear white belts, shout at condo board meetings, or have dinner at four o'clock in the afternoon. Yada yada yada.
The summer after my in laws moved from their apartment in Hollywood to Forest Trace, I was sharing one of the building's elevators with a resident who looked about ninety years old. Because I had just finished a run in the ninety-degree heat, I was shirtless and sweating. When the man stared, I thought he was about to hassle me. Forest Trace was a place that still had a dress code for dinner, after all. Instead, after giving me the once over, he said to me wistfully, "I used to have a body like yours."
There I was, a man close to sixty with a physique like vegetarian jogger, whose dating scene had ended in 1965, a person who had managed to walk shirtless on Honolulu beaches for over three decades without anyone, particularly women of any age or eyesight, ever saying anything nice about my body, and now I get this compliment from an osteoporosic old man. But I loved what he said. His words and his look were saying that I was so different from him. I was still a Jerry.
Making fun of old people is a way of keeping our youth. We can look at them and say, "I'll be there soon." Or we can look at them and say, "I'm a long way from there" or, better yet, "I am never going to be like them at all." A few years later, after clearing out my father in law's apartment, I rode the Forest Trace elevator for the last time. I no longer had reasons to visit Florida. The source of my material was gone, and so was my illusionary defense against growing old.
Lauderhill has become the cricket capitol of the United States. The city is building a world-class cricket ground that will seat over thirty thousand people, and it made a serious bid to be a venue for the 2007 cricket World Cup. A quarter of the city's population is from the West Indies, with many South Asians adding to that city's mix, cricket hotbeds all. The parks in Lauderhill and the surrounding towns are filled with official and unofficial cricket matches, some only a short distance from Forest Trace. I could have walked over from Bagelmania.
I did not know or see any of this even though it was in plain sight because I did not bother to look around. I was busy re-creating My Florida, the one already in my head, the one with the old Jews who were so comically different from me. Those other people were non-speaking extras; the Jews were the stars. Florida Jews and cricket? Come on! Who ever heard of Jews playing cricket? I had become Jewish-centric, like my grandparents back in the 1950s. The question that framed their lives was, "Is it good for the Jews?" Mine was slightly different: "Is it funny about the Jews?" But my question produced the same blinders.
I was not totally clueless. From the same balcony where I watched the old lady hit the fire engine, I saw the many Haitian and Jamaican care givers arriving at Forest Trace every morning. I shopped at a Jewish deli on University Drive that was now owned by Indians. I ate breakfast down the street from Bagelmania at the Orange Blossom where I had eggs and grits served to me by a waitress who actually had a southern accent. But Jewish life remained my frame of reference. The Indian deli owners and the waitress in the Orange Blossom were funny because they were so different from my main characters. Imagine Morty Seinfeld arguing about lean pastrami with an old woman in a sari; a lady with a Le Fragrance De Shmata Row bag asking a waitress at the Orange Blossom if the grits were fresh; or finding vindaloo on the Forest Trace dinner menu.
Funny, but constricting and frightening. It's more serious than just remaining a total ignoramus about cricket. Looking only at My Florida kept me from seeing changes around me and from making sense out of them. There I was, a storyteller for God's sake, totally missing a chance to find out how the Indian family got to Sunrise and ended up owning a Jewish deli. How hard would this have been? Some conversations with the owners and their family? A little background research? A mind open to learning something counterintuitive?
I blew a chance for good material that would have let both my audience and myself experience something outside of our predictable ways of looking at that part of the world. Instead I stuck to my old knowledge and my old ways of seeing South Florida. At this rate, I will soon take the next step and constantly complain that everything was better years ago. I was losing my hip-ititude and turning into a wistful old man on an elevator who looks admiringly at a fifty-five year old youngster and says, "I used to have a cosmopolitan perspective like yours."
from the November 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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