Thursday, April 12, 2007

Pesach at a Kosher Hotel: Aren't you hungry yet?

Passover's past, and we have returned from our blissful escape from reality into Endless Foodland, aka, one of the explosively popular Passover Hotel retreats. Nine days of bounteous meals, each beckoning largely because they would be too expensive to cook at home. Every day, toque'd servers sliced huge hunks of meat...all sorts of meat. Turkey carcasses, briskets the size of a buffalo head, prime rib slabs comparable in girth to a microwave oven, veal roasts. Followed the next day with new jumbo chunks and yesterday's showpieces now cleverly cut into Chinese dishes, meat salads and skewer'd kabobs.
Breakfasts....the omelet bar, chefs sprinkling mushrooms, peppers, and cheddar; the smoothie bar, where blenders whirl fruit with yoghurt and honey to order; tables of cheeses and puffy brown inventions, in wild imagination the shape of bagels and croissants, but in texture and taste--matza.
Soups and salads and theme meals--the ubiquitous Western Barbeque, with huge grills wheeled outside to sear steaks, burgers, chicken, hot dogs. Checked tablecloths, free ten-gallon hats, fake Sheriff stars to clip to your chest pocket. The amounts of food are obscene, the calorie consumption astronomical.

And ME? Well, I don't bother with breakfast. I like to mix lettuce with Israeli salad, egg salad and guacamole for a big lunch treat. I eat what I like of the dinners. I admit to liberally sampling the chocolate-covered almonds in the Tea Room.
Ahhh yes, the Tea Room, the piece de resistance of Passover retreats. When comparing Pesach locales, one gains prestige if there's a "24-Hour Tea Room," which means that if you haven't had enough at the six meals of the day (breakfast, kiddush, lunch, kids' dinner [aka hot dogs for old and young], dinner, night buffet), you can come to the Tea Room at, say 3 am, to grab some potato chips, cellophane-bagged cotton candy, matza-meal-based cake or any of the fifteen kinds of sweets laid out in multi-level'd platters and bowls. Mmmm-mmmh! Mix with a Sprite chaser, and you have....digestive difficulties.
Let's face it, Pesach has its own digestive challenges from the get-go. The first seder features cardboardy flats of shmura matza, punctuated by quickly gulped goblets of red wine. A cube of potato, a leaf of romaine, a little sweet charoses....and more of that dry, tasteless cardboard. I personally know celebrants who spent more than the usual time in the, uh, lavatory over the next several days. Hard-boiled egg, anyone?

Aside from the gastronomic extravaganza, Passover retreats offer their own entertainment. When our family partakes in these events (every year for the past 17), the entertainment consists largely Lecturing. Few surprises there. But there's always a comedian (this time an oversized African-American named Saleem who had converted to Islam--a joke in itself with our humorless Pesach crowd). We had a Jewish rapper (not joking) whose unintelligible lyrics were made all the more engrossing by the corn-row'd black gentlemen on either side of him seemingly making Kohain finger splits in weird directions while jerkily spasming. There was Casino night, where the game tending staff exceeded the number of patrons, and the ever-popular Jeopardy rounds. Karaoke was fun to watch, but in a frum crowd, the ladies abandoned the scene to the teens, one or two of whom could stay on key.

And yet, and yet, Pesach at a kosher hotel is a wondrous thing. As they celebrate the release from slavery, people bond. They make friends, thrown as they are into a type of shared isolation. They have time to talk, waiting for the doors of the dining room to open...relaxing, allowing themselves to open up. And they learn and daven and have the time to give some thought to the meaning of being born--or choosing to be--a Jew. The rabbis who lectured at our retreat were excellent. Intriguing topics, discussed by inspiring people. Most important to me was time together as a family, reaffirming the centrality of our connections. A daughter from New York with her charming friend, now also a member of our clan. Zayde from Erez Yisroyal; a brother and family who live locally but chose to stay in the hotel for the shared experience. And we enjoyed visits by friends, in leisurely conversations that renewed closeness. The regular world was left at home--this was an eight-day excursion for refurbishing the heart. I hated to see it end, when, at 4 am, we boarded our cab for the airport.

Then, at home, I remembered where we'd left off: The world had stood still--or at least the mess left behind. I was immeditely confronted by
the SUITCASE JUNGLE--and I needed a machete. Our guestroom was strewn with all sizes of old backpacks, souvenir canvas bags from conferences, broken-zipper duffels, ripped side-compartment carry-ons, first-grade name it, if it was a rejected valise, it was on our guest room floor. And the suitcases we'd actually used weren't even unpacked. I first hacked my way through the Target bags, tugged-off tags, new-shirt cardboards, and sticky-edged cellophane... The detritis of packing. Then I stacked all the canvas totes and, like Russian nesting dolls, folded them inside each other to form a big surprise roll with new joys to be discovered with its unwrapping.

The other delight: Nine days' worth of everyone's laundry, which was enhanced by the discovery of FOURTEEN TOWELS still damp on the floor of teens' rooms and bathrooms. Did you know that an eel can live in a damp towel for SIX MONTHS? I was truly tempted to start my very own eel farm.
But now that I've been home 30 hours, I'm downloading my photos, and about to re-hang all the wrinkled skirts from my suitcase-- and feeling nostalgic about the days just passed. They zipped by, and as we count the Omer toward Shavuos, there's a warm-fuzzy feeling as I think of those luxurious meals, the endearing and funny people, and the intense hours in shul. The world around me is blooming, and as the sun charms the earth, I continue to be warmed by Chag Aviv.


  1. Oh goodness, I am so hungry. I miss the veal, lamb, brisket, wine, omelets, salads, turkey, salmon, white fish, etc. Yum yum yum. Mostly, I miss the relaxed atmosphere, the break of school and work, the speeches, and of course - the company.

    Thanks to you we have intangible memories in our minds and tangible memories in the form of pictures on our computers.

    Good luck with the post-pesach laundry and make sure you continue to be warmed by Chag Aviv.

  2. Funny - I think I recognize someone in the back right... ;)

  3. That's funny, Ezzie. I see him, too!

  4. Wow, Ez, you're more perceptive than I am...I would have never noticed that!


  5. I saw that little face in the back, what good eyes you have! And what fun Pesach memories I have!

  6. I love Pesach.... all the happy memories and luxurious foods! your blog is making me hungry! :) and did you know that In English, the holiday is known as Passover. "Pesach" is also the name of the sacrificial offering (a lamb) that was made in the Temple on this holiday. The holiday is also referred to as Chag he-Aviv Chag he-Aviv (in Hebrew), (the Spring Festival), Chag ha-Matzot Chag ha-Matzot (in Hebrew), (the Festival of Matzahs), and Z'man Cheiruteinu Z'man Cheiruteinu (in Hebrew), (the Time of Our Freedom) (again, all with those Scottish "ch"s).