Monday, August 11, 2014

Interfaith Amid T-Shirts, Boutiques & Bars: Praying for Peace in the Middle East, in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, South Florida

            This past Sunday afternoon, I parked my car in a metered lot near the beach in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea, South Florida. I have lived here since 2009, having moved down from New Hampshire. It is August; the heat is close to 100 degrees, and I do not bear heat well. Still, one survives, moving from air-conditioned car to air-conditioned office to air-conditioned temple; one adapts. When the heat dips below 84, people scramble for sweaters and hoodies, and shiver on street corners. I call it Planet Florida. I love it here: Diversity reigns: we have all cultures, colors, and tribes of humanity.
            I have come to Lauderdale-by-the-Sea for an Interfaith Prayer Service for Peace. A young minister I have never met invited me. Mine is a fairly event-packed weekend, but, with crises in Israel, Iraq, and Afghanistan, spurred on by the importance and idealistic promise of Interfaith, I graded all of my English papers yesterday, and so was free this Sunday to speak at a church in the morning, and marry a couple in the evening, besides this service.
            Driving slowly down South Commercial Ave., the main artery, I look sharp both ways for possible parking. Meters get snapped up quickly here. One comes open, and I slide behind the small Toyota which is leaving, patiently awaiting my turn. Bathers dripping sea water walk slowly toward their cars; the refreshing ocean breezes and remains of ocean coolness wear off quickly as they enter their vehicles, where the solar-scorched interiors of plastic, metal and leather can exceed 150 degrees. It takes them a while to pull out of the spot, but I am patient.
            I have a small handful of change for the meter, but a quarter is already sideways-jammed in the slot, and my little pocketknife will not coax it to move. A tiny sticker on the meter tells me to either call a number or download a phone app to register my car and charge my parking in the spot to a credit card. I call the number; a mechanical woman’s voice responds. I am able to key in my cell number and VISA card number, and all proceeds swimmingly until the Voice delivers a litany of esoteric codes for uploading my car license number. I try again and again; the torturing, repetitious voice tells me that my “number is invalid; please try again.”
Finally, five minutes after the hour the service is scheduled to begin, I give up. I take my CLERGY sign from its door pocket, toss it onto the dashboard, and lock the doors. Impulsively grabbing my shofar—I had blown it for the church congregation, to demonstrate the Jewish High Holy Days—I march off toward the ocean. On the way, folks lean out of their car windows and call out, “Cool shofar!” It is South Florida, after all; we Jews live here, in force.
            It’s not hard to find the crowd of about fifty people; I stand out in my dark-blue chinos and white shirt, and the blue-and-white Israel-supporting yarmulkeh I have donned for the occasion is a giveaway, as well. My colleagues greet me, and we wait until a few more people arrive.
            One of the ministers has brought a bullhorn. It strikes me as being, perhaps, a bit more “The building is surrounded. Come out with your hands up” than, “Let us pray,” but he seems to believe we need it, and I really don’t mind. We take turns offering prayers and personal observations.
            When my turn comes, I contrast the 1967 War with the current one, and how the Israelis were then the Good Guys, and the Arab nations the villains. Today is more nuanced, I say. We have to come out of our tribes, I say, and try to understand one another. Then, I read a translation of the Sim Shalom Prayer.
            The crowd appreciates our efforts; all, but a somewhat shabby-looking, apparently inebriated fellow, who disagrees.
            “It takes all kinds,” I say, and we move along.
            The minister calls for laypeople who wish to share their thoughts. Some people come up to speak. Suddenly, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn, to see the green uniform of a County Sheriff’s Deputy. He quietly signals that I should follow him, off to the side. I do, still clutching my shofar, like an anxious Old Testament prophet, fearful of a ticket. Has the deputy been speaking to the Mechanical Parking Meter Lady Voice?
            Off to one side, the Deputy—his nametag identifies him as “W. Smith” (not his real name) says, “Who’s in charge of this meeting?”
            I point out the minister who had contacted me, but add, “I’m happy to be listed as one of the organizers, if there’s any issue about this.”
            The other minister, seeing us speaking together, comes over. The Deputy asks for his name and birthdate, which he supplies, and which the Deputy writes down.
            The Deputy speaks on, in earnest, but a little embarrassed.
            “Are you folks going to be doing this on a—regular basis?” he asks.
            “No,” we both assure him, “This is a one-shot, pray-and-leave thing.”
            “Because,” he says, “You need a permit for this. There’s been a complaint.”
            “Complaint?” we ask, “About what?”
            Again, the Deputy looks embarrassed, but he must Do His Duty, as a Public Servant.
            “The bullhorn,” he says, “the bullhorn.”
            We are standing there, midway between two bars—which are doing an amazing business; folks getting mellow in the heat, sitting and talking at top volume, both indoors and out—and one of them has a Jimmy Buffett tribute singer who is doing his best to imitate the Master, in his loudest voice—and they’re complaining about our bullhorn?
            “OK,” we say, “No more bullhorn.”
            “So I guess,” I say, “Blowing this ram’s horn is out of the question.”
            “I guess,” the Deputy says, looking at it, dubiously. He then stares past us, pointedly. We turn, and see that the Inebriated Gentleman has joined us.
            “Can I help you?” asks the Deputy.
            “I’m here to protect these two fellas,” slurs the Gentleman.
            “We’re OK,” we assure him, and he leaves.
            The minister and I go back to our group. We bid our farewells, promise to get together for more interfaiths, or, at least, a cup of coffee, and the crowd gradually breaks up, all of us happy and smiling. Love and Peace (and, certainly, not a little Alcohol) reign over Lauderdale-by-the-Sea.
            When I get back to my car, I see that I have not received a ticket. The Mechanical Voice-Lady has not turned me in to the Authorities.
It is a fine afternoon.