By Larry Gordon
Miami Beach, Florida—After the last set of what we affectionately refer to as three-day yomim tovim, it seems that here, in what can proverbially be considered an out-of-town locale, just about everyone around us was confused.
It is a late Wednesday afternoon in this solid beach resort of a city, and there we are in suits and ties, some sporting hats, the women dressed in their stylish holiday finery, while the outside temperature and humidity hover somewhere in the 100-degree and 100% range.
On Thursday afternoon of Shemini Atzeres, we were walking down Arthur Godfrey Road, otherwise known as 41st Street, where some of the park benches are occasionally lined with what seem to be local homeless folks getting some much-needed sleep. Just as our entourage is passing one of those benches, a gray-haired middle-aged man lifts his head, looks in our direction, and says, “Is it Saturday already?”
“No,” I tell him, “it is not Saturday.” But without stopping or breaking my stride, I tell him that it just looks like it is—a comment which I think might have confused him more than set him straight as he laid his head back down again, hoping to fall asleep.
Many people employ an assortment of ways to deal with this wave of ten days of Shabbos and yom tov from Rosh Hashanah to after Sukkos—a long, enjoyable departure from our usual routines that featured a good deal of shul, dining, drinking, and celebration.
This year it seemed that anyone who was not in Israel or at home in New York somehow ended up in Miami Beach. This little corner of the city seemed to be crawling with New Yorkers, though the local residents will tell you that it is always like that down here.
But the locals seem not to mind, as the influx of tourists from the north and other areas must contribute a lot to the local economy. I’m not referring exclusively to the plethora of kosher restaurants but the fashion in which dollars pour out of folks for the purchase of aliyos and other honors that are up for sale in many shuls—particularly on Simchas Torah, when the money seems to flow in abundance along with the liquid refreshments.
Being away for at least part of yom tov means meeting people from other parts of the world whom we would probably never have the opportunity to encounter under usual circumstances. So one day I was in shul, I think it was the first day of yom tov, when I met a man named Jack who struck up a conversation while the aliyos were being sold. I asked casually where he resides and he catches my attention when he says that he lives in Costa Rica.
In the aftermath of World War II and the orchestrated escape of Jews from the Nazi murderers, those who were fortunate enough to successfully find safe havens were focused on the U.S. or Israel, but a sprinkling of the refugees ended up setting themselves up elsewhere around the globe. My new friend Jack’s story is slightly different. He was born in Europe and went to Israel with his parents after the war. He was a very young child. When he was a teenager—at the age of 14, the last time he says he lived at home with his parents—he went to Brooklyn to study in yeshiva in Crown Heights. Eventually, in his early twenties, he started working for a company that did some business in Latin America. His bosses wanted him to learn some Spanish and travel there, as he was a single young man at the time.
It was at this point in his life that he asked the Lubavitcher Rebbe for a berachah and received one. He planned to spend a few weeks in Bolivia and Costa Rica. He then met his wife-to-be in Bolivia. Her family was in the textile business there. They tried New York, but his wife wanted to live in South America. He’s been there now for 44 years. One of his sons, he said, lives in Miami Beach and he spends all the yomim tovim here.
What’s Jewish life like in Costa Rica? Well, according to Jack, not much. He thinks there are about 2,000 Jews living in the country, with only a small fraction of those frum. I asked him how he lived like that all these years, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said, “You live.”
Back to how these three-day events have a special and distinct way of confusing people on the outside. For example, we stayed in a hotel near our Florida mechutanim, Orly and Jeff Stern, and close to all the shuls, but our room—with a magnificent terrace overlooking the now calm Atlantic Ocean—was on a high floor.
We consulted our rabbinical authorities on how to deal with the elevator situation over yom tov and Shabbos, and for the most part that worked out rather well. The matter was still a challenge considering that we were on the 16th floor and that the hotel staff was utterly confused. But some nice and interesting things happened because of these nuanced situations as well.
A segment of the hotel staff here in South Florida is from the islands, and many are from Haiti. One of these men saw us waiting on yom tov for security to escort us down to the hotel lobby, and he decided to press the elevator button for us on his own. While we were waiting for the lift, he said in a heavy Caribbean accent that he used to work for Jewish people and that they treated him very well. He added that the man he once worked for before taking a job at this hotel even allowed him to drive his new car, which he apparently enjoyed and appreciated.
As we waited, I thought that this was intriguing—a Jewish man treated this individual nicely some years ago and now, seeing us, he is recalling that experience and in his own way expressing gratitude or paying forward the favor.
Also, before yom tov I traveled to shul in one of those yellow taxis that are usually parked outside the hotel. I put a $10 bill in my pocket with the knowledge that the short ride to shul would not cost more than $5 or $6 at the most. The cabbie was hoping for fare to the airport but was obligated by taxi law to take us even if it was only a short distance.
We could not understand him that well, but before he dropped us off he said something about Jews not traveling on the Sabbath, which was interesting considering that this was Wednesday afternoon. Then, even though the meter said $4.85, he asked for $10—which I just happened to have since I was going to give it to him anyway as consolation for the short ride.
Being in Florida for part of Sukkos was quite a departure for us. It might sometimes be warm in New York on Sukkos, but down here it is always warm—or hot. On chol ha’moed, we ate in two sukkahs that were beyond overheated, which brought to the fore that we may have been permitted to dine outside the sukkah by virtue of the near-torturous discomfort. Being that it was mostly New Yorkers in the sukkah, no one moved.
That reminds me of one more point. It is customary after Sukkos to wish one another “a gezunten vinter,” a good and healthy winter. There is something disingenuous and even weird about wishing someone “a gezunten vinter” when it is 93 degrees outside and the winter temperatures will rarely dip below 70. I saw a few people mouthing those words, but also with a smirk, knowing that it will be a good and warm winter.
We landed in JFK on Monday night and while waiting for my son to scoop us up, for the first time in a week we stood outside in a real pre-winter chill. As we waited, I thought, This is the beginning of the true and genuine “gezunten vinter.”
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