A Palm Beach Thanksgiving: Fear and Self-Loathing in South Florida

By Adam Hilliard

My family is very un-frum. I am, while very un-frum by the standards of most of the readers of these boards, what my family calls a religious maniac because I keep a kosher kitchen, daven, and manage to light Shabbat candles on occasion.

My brother Aaron and his gentile wife live in Florida and have just had their second daughter in 12 ½ months. Our mother wished to fly down to visit and asked me to accompany her. Hmmm, a weekend in late November spent in Cleveland versus one spent in Palm Beach… OK, I guess I’ll go, Mom.

Friday morning we went to a restaurant for breakfast and I got a good lesson in why the Midwest believes South Florida is peopled entirely with retired transplanted New York Jews: Because it is.

Waiting for a table in a crowded foyer, I found myself surrounded by impatient, heavily jeweled, gaudily attired older whiners, all complaining about the wait or the service or the bill…

“We had to wait over ten minutes for the check. I mean, we’re in here every week.”

“The toast was cold. We should have something taken off the bill.”

One old man was attired in hip-hop style saggy blue jeans and a matching shirt. He and his mummified wife appeared to be breakfasting with their daughter and her husband. “What kind of muffin do you want, Steve?” Pop asked his goyish son-in-law.

“He doesn’t eat muffins,” snapped Steve’s wife with a biting tone that made me feel sorry for his miserable home life. Poor Steve probably hasn’t gotten to answer such a question himself in years.

One heavily gilded older lady with a stiff helmet of blue hair referred my shiksa-in-law to shop at a discount store for baby clothes, where, “they’re in the back, only twelve ninety-nine.” (Like the princess would be caught dead in T. J. Maxx.)

As I took it all in I was feeling superior and then guilty for feeling superior. These were my people, even if they were very over-adorned, tackily dressed, embarrassingly demanding, sending the bacon back because it wasn’t crispy enough (no lie). And after all, I was eating here in a very non-kosher breakfast joint, and I had no intention of observing Shabbat that evening.

Driving to dinner that Friday evening, yes, driving, after dark, we passed a group of black-hatted men leaving services at Etz Chaim; passed them while they waited for the traffic light to change of its own accord so they could cross the wide, busy street and walk home for a Shabbos repast.

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Mom tried to be cute and asked if I had some secret hi-sign I was supposed to flash them. I explained that if there was such a thing, they wouldn’t approve of me speeding past in an automobile. A little less superiority then. And a little more guilt.

And then the story out of Mumbai.

The Chabad House, the only Jewish center in a city of 12 million people, was targeted by Islamofascist murderers, and the news media were befuddled at the ‘coincidence’. These monsters were described as “nationalists who were sending a message that they didn’t want foreigners in their country.” Then they were called “militants”, then “teenage gunmen”. Thus this absurd opening line in an Australian report: “An Adelaide woman in India for her wedding is lucky to be alive after teenage gunmen ran amok…” As Mark Steyn mocked, “Kids today, eh? Always running amok in an aimless fashion.”

The New York Times complied with the cover-up: “It is not known if the Jewish center was strategically chosen, or if it was an accidental hostage scene.” Yes, I said The New York Times.

And then the pictures of the Holtzbergs and news of their murdered unborn baby and of their orphaned son. A lot less superiority then, did I feel, and a lot of shame.

And still the news tells us how little is known about these mysterious terrorists and their incomprehensible reasons for killing innocents.

There’s a lot we don’t know about ourselves too, and events like these can help us to learn more, sometimes more than we care to, about ourselves.

As I reflected on my Thanksgiving weekend, a theme of contrasts, of extremes kept recurring to me, and I reminded myself of what I like to answer to people who ask me why do I bother to observe some mitzvot, or why don’t I yet observe more. And I say that I’ve learned that Judaism is on a scale, a range with two ends. Wherever you find yourself on the scale of Jewish observance, you’re bound to find people on both sides of you telling you you’re doing it wrong.

Every once in a while I take notice of where I stand on that scale, and I notice that I have progressed slightly towards a more observant life. To keep moving in the right direction is all we can ask of anybody.

9 comments on “A Palm Beach Thanksgiving: Fear and Self-Loathing in South Florida

  1. Adam Hilliard said:

    The New York Times complied with the cover-up:

    “It is not known if the Jewish center was strategically chosen, or if it was an accidental hostage scene.”
    This illustrates one of the many reasons why no Jew should ever buy or read the New York Times.

  2. My understanding of the Torah’s instruction on matters such as these:

    We should judge all favorably absent evidence to the contrary, and even then, that judgment should be aired publicly with great caution.

    Additionally, if a cultural stereotype that we fit is made public in a loathing manner, we would find it hateful. Therefore, we should refrain from doing so regarding others.

  3. gary – commenting on cultural stereotypes that turn out to be real doesn’t mean anyone is being judged. only Hashem can do that.

    i didn’t feel that this post was judgmental, only reporting how the author felt when he encountered this, and we can all relate to that real well.

  4. I’ve been sitting on the following thoughts since I first read this posting, and Steg’s brief comment was my stimulus to share it:

    I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that some of the “older whiners, etc.” have paid a lot of Jewish dues.

    Some might be holocaust survivors; some might have been American serviceman who were called various anti-Jewish epithets by their colleagues, and blamed for the “Jewish war”; many of them may have had a harder time getting off from work on Yom Kippur than we B.T’s had when we told our bosses we would be leaving early on Fridays, and wouldn’t be available for work on any Saturday and at least 13 other holidays.

  5. Wonderful post, Adam! Was that the Eitz Chaim in Century Village that you passed?

    Your visit to FL reminded me so much of the ones I used to have to visit my mother, who, on each subsequent visit, complained about how I was becoming “more and more religious”. It wasn’t a compliment. And your visit to the restaurant reminded me of the early bird specials I used to go to with her!

    Yes, life is a lot like a ladder, and as you’re well aware, take one rung at a time, that’s the safest way to climb upwards.


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