Why Jews Go to Florida

"Why do Jews go to Florida?" I asked my mother as we were driving to Florida from New Jersey.

"Because we're smart!" she answered.

We were going to visit my great-uncle Harry, who lived in a condo in Miami Beach.

I'd never even heard the word "condo." Everyone in our town lived in a house. I assumed condos were a Florida thing, and that you had to be as old as Uncle Harry to have one.

Normally when we went to Florida or anywhere else, we stayed at dive motels with daily rates that always had two numbers, not three. Dad liked to come in around $30, which was a little easier back then.

But mom had swung a deal by agreeing to look at some swampland in the Everglades in exchange for a free week at the Dunes Hotel in Miami Beach. This was a really swank joint with famous people on the marquis. My sister, brother and I were so jazzed at staying somewhere that didn't have 18-wheeler parking that we kept our mouths shut, lest something offensive spill out and our Shangri-La be taken from us.

The hotel felt like a dream. Bellmen offered to help with our bags, to which my mother screamed, "Don't touch that!" -- terrified that someone might steal her sack of instant coffee and canned tuna fish.

Throughout the lobby, I saw lots of what mom called "punams," which I think may translate as "faces," but to us meant "Jewish faces."

I could pick out our people from a mile away. It was mostly because of a general look of dissatisfaction. The idea was to never look too thrilled, lest someone discover you were happy and take it away from you.

So the answer to "How are you?" was never "Great!" If you got a "Not too bad," it meant "Fantastic!"

"Not as good as yesterday, but not as bad as last week," translated as "GOOD."

My mother was the queen of the somewhat-dissatisfied "punam," but she upped the ante with somewhat dissatisfied commentary. When finishing a sublime breakfast at a Southern diner that gave us our favorite triple-carb threat -- home-fries, grits and toast with our eggs -- Mom would answer the friendly waitress' "Everything okay, Ma'am?" with a "Well... fine except the coffee was a little cold, the eggs a little too runny, the butter a little too hard. But that's okay; I'll suffer."

After our swank week at the Dunes, where we rolled around in the plush air-conditioned room, spent hours in the giant swimming pool and luxuriated on private chairs on the beach, we were taken kicking and screaming northward to Panama City.

Panama City later became a huge spring break destination, but in the '70s, it lived up to its nickname, "The Redneck Riviera."

I quickly learned that though Jews may go to Florida, they do not go to Panama City.

The closest we came to kosher food was a tuna melt, hold the bacon grease.

There were beautiful white-sanded beaches in Panama City and a string of honky tonk bars and ramshackle amusement parks, all of which might have been okay, had our standards not been raised by Miami Beach.

My parents had purchased a small plot of land, miles from the beach, on which sat four crappy bungalows. Three were rented out, and the fourth and smallest one was left vacant for our "free" vacation.

There was no air conditioner, no television and an army of palmetto bugs (large, flying cockroaches that could survive a nuclear war) scuttling along the floor.

The only thing remotely entertaining about the bungalow was when local "holy rollers" discovered there were Jews in town and came over to convert us. Clearly they hadn't heard that while Jews go to Florida, they prefer to remain Jewish.

They came to our front porch to sing songs about what sinners we were, and mom screamed at them, "You can't convert me, because I'm a crazy lady!" Then she jumped around and shrieked until they believed her.

Years later, when my dad retired, I assumed my folks would move into a Florida condo like Uncle Harry had. They put their Jersey house on the market and announced they were moving to San Diego.

"What happened to Florida?" I asked.

"Pish posh," my mother said, "Everyone knows Jews go to California."