The phone rang at midnight on Sunday; my good friend Lev, was calling from Montreal. "Hey man… It's dad's Yahrzeit tomorrow. You coming?" It's minus 33 degrees in Montreal, I might have just about made it back home to London alive - as a human block of ice.
"Lev, you people live for six months underground. You disappear in November and come up for air in April in time for Passover."
"So are you coming or not?".
"Let me think about it," I said.
"We're doing it in Miami Beach."
The only Yiddish word that I knew was lobus
"I'll be there." I said.
Next morning, I took the first flight out of Heathrow.
"But why," I hear you ask, "would you fly at a moment's notice from freezing cold windy rainy London to 80 sunny degrees Miami Beach?"
For a combination of factors: death, weather, friendship and food. How could I not go? His father was a fine man; although I admit Lev's invitation to dinner afterwards at the legendary Joe's Stone Crab restaurant was the clincher.
"Did you know that Joe's Stone Crab is the second highest grossing restaurant in America - $35.3M in turnover in 2013! -" Lev asked as he picked me up at the airport. Lev likes to eat. So, last Monday evening, it's 80 degrees outside and I'm sitting sweating in an Orthodox shul in Miami Beach surrounded by dozens of big-bearded rabbis: black-brimmed baseball caps with long black coats over shorts and trainers: clearly the Lubavitch-look du jour. Everywhere, elderly men in long black coats were talking in Yiddish to each other and themselves. Five different services seemed to be going on at once.
"Lev, who's the rabbi?"
"I have no idea," he said.
"Any minute now they'll be calling me," he said.
An old man in the row in front kept turning round and talking to me in Yiddish. I just smiled back; finally I remembered one Yiddish word I'd heard my late grandmother always use when I was a kid whenever she spoke about her brother, although I had no idea what it meant. But to be friendly, the next time when he stopped talking, I smiled and said, "lobus".
Seeking spiritual enlightenment, I passed the time looking for signs. I counted over two dozen: the sign in the courtyard as we came in said it was donated by Herschel and Miriam Herschelberg. Inside, the electronic Torah - a nice, modern touch - was donated by Jacob and Naomi Rappaport. Even the signs themselves were donated. "This sign was donated by Jack and Irene Frumberg" read one: it didn't point to anything, it just existed as a sign.
Harry and Zitka Schlumberger donated the yamulka sign by the box full of yamulkas; what else could they be? Little black-cloth drinking cups?
After an hour, I had to go to the men's room, where I noticed my urinal had been "donated by Yossi and Magda Schlivervitch". I muttered a silent prayer to Yossi and Magda- "I don't know what I'd have done without you."
Whether you believe in God or not, a man's got to believe in urinals. When I returned, Lev said: "They're going to call me any minute now." An hour later, Lev finally got to read a quick Kaddish for his father, and after a few more farewell lobuses on the way out - we headed for dinner at Joe's Stone Crab.
It turned out it was a lot easier to get a seat in the shul than to get a table at Joe's.
"How's our table coming along?"I asked Lev after two hours' waiting in Joe's courtyard, which didn't have a single "donated by" sign.
"They'll be calling us any minute now," he said.