When I was growing up in Montreal, every December, my parents, sisters and I would cram into our old station wagon and drive south for three days, listening to our Walkmans and playing car games, until we finally arrived at a magical place: Century Village, a retirement community in Deerfield Beach, Fla.
At first we went to visit my grandparents, but we kept going after my grandparents died, as my mother and aunt inherited the place. We all loved it. It was not spacious or fancy, just a one-bedroom condo, and we crammed as many as seven people in there at a time. But it was wrapped in the warmth of the Florida sun and familial nostalgia, and provided all we needed from a vacation. My mother explained the appeal of Century Village to my friend, who had traveled through Africa, Asia and South America. “But there’s nothing to do there,” he exclaimed. “Exactly,” she replied.
Of course, that’s not entirely true. Just as Seinfeld was not really a show about nothing, neither is Century Village – the inspiration for Seinfeld’s Del Boca Vista retirement community – really a place without things to do. You can go to the pool. You can swim – preferably the mechaye stroke – or just sit by the pool and read. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can drive 10 minutes to get to the beach. If you want exercise, you can play tennis, preferably doubles so nobody has to run too far. If you golf, you can golf (nobody in my family golfs).
I didn’t really associate Century Village with Jewishness until I saw Seinfeld and heard Jackie Mason routines about Florida that resonated with my own experience. For me, the initial connection to Century Village was Canadian. I knew many people whose grandparents owned a condo there. When we went, I saw friends I could have seen in Montreal. The patrons of the Cavendish Mall food court transplanted themselves for the winter months to downtown Boca Raton.
How did Century Village come to be? Florida grew in population, and in cultural significance, with the spread of air conditioning after the Second World War. Jews flocked south, first to Miami, but later, when Miami grew more expensive, they looked further north up the Atlantic coast. In the 1960s, a few Jewish developers came up with the idea of Century Village, an affordable retirement community near, but not on, the beach, with shared recreational spaces like pools, theatres and shuffle board courts.
Century Village has four locations in southeast Florida: West Palm Beach, Boca Raton, Deerfield and Pembroke Pines. My mother’s parents bought their condo in 1975. Back then, the residents were almost all Jewish, including many Holocaust survivors like themselves. They came from the colder parts of the United States and Canada to escape the weather and enjoy their later years.
There are many jokes to tell about Century Village, but the cruelest is calling it “Cemetery Village.” In truth, Century Village is a celebration of life. It provides an affordable way for middle-class people to retire, not in luxury, but in dignity and comfort, and above all, in community. The amenities are nice, but the real value comes with the kibitzing, the familiar faces and new friends.
The demographics have changed at Century Village. It’s still majority Jewish, but we represent a smaller percentage of the population these days. Quebecois have arrived in large numbers, bringing Habs fans together across religious and linguistic divides. Two benches near the clubhouse were donated by the Century Village Canadian Club, perhaps as a sign of unity. Life goes on. If global warming doesn’t sink Florida, I hope my descendants will enjoy Century Village, too. L’dor va-dor.