Family Matters: Passover Getaway
There is a new trend in observing the Jewish liberation from Egypt—celebrating away from home in deluxe accommodations in America and abroad.
In the Book of Exodus (12:11), God enjoins the children of Israel to eat of the paschal lamb “…with girded loins, sandaled feet and staff in hand,” a clear indication that they ready themselves for the onset of a momentous journey. He further mandates that the day of their departure from Egypt shall be celebrated “…as a festival to the Lord throughout the ages.”
Contemporary Jews seem to have accepted the Divine command with alacrity. Accordingly they gird their loins with new holiday finery and make certain that their feet are shod with sandals—or ski boots or hiking shoes depending on destination.
Unlike their biblical forbears, today’s children of Israel have time to plan. Plane and train tickets have been purchased, reservations made and off they go to Seder tables north and south, east and west, at sea and in the jungle, urban and rural, rugged and sybaritic. The choices are dizzying and increase from year to year as the modern leave-taking gathers momentum in the United States, in Israel and Europe, South America and Australia. All these Jewish travelers are possessed of a single determination—emancipation from the domestic servitude the festival of freedom so often entails and the observance of that festival amid family and friends in a relaxed environment. Going away for Pesah, a relatively recent phenomenon, is fast becoming ritualized.
According to arlene lasko of lasko family kosher Tours, generally acknowledged to be the Cadillac of Passover getaways, her family’s enterprise was triggered by a single experience. She and her husband began their careers as Jewish educators. While they always celebrated Passover at home—a celebration that involved weeks of cleaning, cooking and shopping—she was, like most women, often exhausted by the night of the first Seder. A chance invitation to teach at a hotel during Passover resulted in total enjoyment of the holiday.
“For the first time, I was able to focus on my family, to study and teach texts, to chant the Haggada without worrying about the food, the cleanup, the spills and the spatters,” she recalled.
Given that initial experience, the Laskos decided to start their own Passover program. That first year they hosted 330 participants. Over the years they have expanded to six venues at American luxury resorts in Florida, Arizona and New York that accommodate thousands. While the gourmet kosher cuisine is admittedly a draw—the emphasis somewhat ironically being on preparing Passover food that doesn’t taste like Passover food (What did our bubbes know of salmon teriyaki and quinoa kugels?)—equal attention is given to the spiritual and intellectual needs of the guests. There are synagogue services, both Conservative and Orthodox, and lectures by leading scholars, who in the past have included Rabbi Norman Lamm of Yeshiva University in New York, Rabbi Jerome Epstein of The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and Dean Steven M. Brown of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.
The laskos acknowledge that the programs they offer are pricey—they can run to as much as $20,000 or more per family—but they claim their clientele is not limited to the wealthy. Their guests, they insist, prioritize the holiday, some foregoing all other annual vacations in favor of a trip during a season made meaningful by a powerful religious dimension.
Debra Rose, whom I encountered at the Ritz-Carlton Grande Lakes in Orlando in the legendary Lasko tearoom (open 24 hours should anyone experience a burning desire for a slice of apple pie topped with whipped cream at 3 A.M.), acknowledged that if given the choice between a new car and a Passover vacation, she would definitely choose the latter.
“Even if the choice was between life support and spending Passover here, she wouldn’t skip a beat,” her husband, Rob, wryly amended, waving his hand toward a table where the couple’s three children were intent on sampling sundaes before dashing to the pool. A poolside canopied pavilion, of course, offered an elaborate array of additional snacks for those in need of sustenance before dinner.
Irene Shraga, a young New Jersey mother, explained her own commitment to the Passover retreat. During the first years of her marriage, when the holiday was observed at home, she spent weeks preparing her kitchen and planning menus. Repeated trips to the supermarket and the butcher consumed time and resulted in huge expenditures.
“I subtract what I spent on food at home from the hotel bill and that sort of eases my conscience,” she explained, estimating that her small family’s experience at a resort in Mexico under the auspices of Club Kosher ran to $8,000. “I’m a pretty good cook, but the food in Cancun, prepared by a Sefardic chef, was phenomenal.”
Her husband, Alex, had originally missed conducting his own Seder, but now agrees that there are compensations for that deprivation.
There is a communal Seder at Lasko resorts but separate tables are arranged for families who want a more intimate experience. During my own family’s holiday in Orlando, my children felt that the hotel Seder was too impersonal. They missed our traditional celebration replete with my mother’s Seder plate, my husband’s battered Kiddush cup and the “bag of plagues” laboriously constructed during arts and crafts sessions over the years. (“I want my green felt frogs,” my elder daughter, a mother of three, moaned plaintively.) Their complaints receded as their children raced off to camp and they luxuriated poolside, but we agreed that on future getaways we would opt for an individual Seder and stow the family “heirlooms” in overhead bins. At home or away, Passover remains a time when objects used only once a year evoke memory and guarantee continuity.
Similar Seder arrangements are available at many locations, some of them extremely unlikely. On Cape Cod, sea-loving celebrants can dash from the bima to the beach under the aegis of Pesach Time Tours, which commandeers the Four Points by Sheraton Hyannis Resorts. While “non-stop entertainment including clowns, jugglers and animal shows” is on offer, a caveat advises that there will be separate swimming only—a somewhat cryptic indication of the level of Orthodox observance.
Advertisements, such as the one from Pesach Time Tours, offer clues, but the savvy Passover trekkers ask whether other guests will be Orthodox or very Orthodox, Conservative— right wing, left wing or centrist—or Reform. Choices are also often determined by the program’s menu inasmuch as the dietary restrictions for Sefardim and Ashkenazim differ.
In maryland’s historic cumberland Valley, Elite Dimensions Passover Tours offers kosher gastronomical delights, synagogue services and scholarly presentations at the Rocky Gap Lodge & Golf Resort. Should learning sessions pale, horseback riding, cycling and boating on the 243-acre lake are available.
Those who yearn for the glory days of the Catskill Mountains where, in days of yore, the Concord and Grossinger’s piled Haggadot on tables laden with boxes of matza and trays of sour tomatoes and pickles, will find their nostalgia rewarded at the Nevele Grande in Ellenville, New York.
Of course, the past cannot be entirely replicated. It was at Grossinger’s that I heard Seymour Silbermintz’s All Boys’ Choir sing the Four Questions one miraculous Seder night. Each boy’s voice changed and broke at the crest of the third question, evoking rueful laughter. Alas, there will be no chorus of fresh-faced boys edging toward puberty at the Nevele, but the pickle dishes will surely overflow. Can tummlers be far behind?
Should these offerings fail to entice, more rustic arrangements are available. South of the Mason-Dixon Line, the Center for Southern Jewry at Ramah Darom this year will welcome 120 families to its beautiful campus in the North Georgia Mountains with, among other offerings, programs for preschoolers as well as elementary school-aged children and varied activities for teens. A similar experience, albeit for a smaller group, is available through Camp Ramah California at its own mountain campus. And the financial obligation at both locations is less onerous than at a hotel, ranging from $850 to $1,875 per person.
More exotic than a camp locale is an escape to Costa Rica with Kosher Expeditions at the Ocotal Beach Resort on the country’s northern Pacific coast. Between services and Seders (there is an on-site synagogue for daily minyanim), guests can enjoy white-water rafting at the foothills of the Rincon de la Vieja volcano, trekking through the rain forest or bird watching. “I never thought I’d lead a Seder with a chorus of howler monkeys in the background,” one participant observed.
Multigenerational families, singles and synagogue communities have opted for spending Passover at sea under the auspices of Kosher Passover Cruises. Embarking from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, passengers aboard the MSC Opera will soon gain their sea legs as the deluxe ship sails into the Caribbean, calling at Puerto Rico, St. Maarten, Grenada, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Thomas and the Dominican Republic. Seders aboard ship are led by a rabbi, a cantor and a scholar-in-residence. Lectures and supervised activities for toddlers to teens sweeten the package.
Crossing yet another ocean, a European Passover experience beckons in Stresa, Italy, on Lago Maggiore where the Regina Palace Hotel welcomes an international and largely Orthodox contingency. At the Swiss Alpine Eurotel Victoria hotel in Villars-sur-Ollon, Haggada readers can look out at the breathtaking mountain scenery. For those in search of Riviera glamour, there are also venues in Monaco and Cannes.
Many families disregard organized Passover programs and opt for renting large houses or apartments in attractive locales and self-catering the festival. Having rented a house for the holiday in Scottsdale this year, I am puzzling over how to explain a cooler packed with dry ice, two briskets and three roast chickens to the Homeland Security agent at LaGuardia Airport in New York. (A sudden famine in Arizona? A paucity of supermarkets in Phoenix?)
Of course, the logical destination for the seasonal traveler is the Promised Land itself. And to Israel, descendants of those wandering tribes flock from all the lands of their dispersion to observe the holiday. Five-star hotels, such as the King David and the Regency as well as more modest establishments, await tourists in Jerusalem, where at Seders the traditional Passover promise, “Next year in Jerusalem,” is amended. Glasses are raised to the chant of “Le-Shana Ha-ba’a Bi-yerushalayim Ha-benuya—next year in a rebuilt Jerusalem!”
There are Jerusalem caterers who accommodate Sefardic traditions and offer dishes with rice and legumes. Similar arrangements prevail in Tel Aviv and Haifa, at resorts at the Dead Sea and by the Kinneret and, appropriately, in Eilat, the coastal city on the Red Sea where the Passover story began. Singing “We were slaves in the land of Egypt” only miles from the Egyptian border is an affirmation of ancient yearning and persistent fidelity to the ideals of Zion.
Kibbutzim and moshavim throughout the country welcome pilgrims. In Israel, too, arrangements can be made for self-catering. (It was a friend from Ramat Hasharon who rents a house in the Golan for her own scattered family each Passover who clued me in to the dry-ice solution for my brisket.)
“During all of Passover, schools in Israel are closed and many work places opt for a vacation schedule, so there is a block of time for a real holiday,” said Hana Ben-Tzvi, explaining why her family elected to leave their Tel Aviv home to spend the holiday at a hotel in Haifa.
“My parents live in Jerusalem, my brother and his family live in the Negev and my sister and her family are on a kibbutz in the Jordan Valley,” she said. “Passover is the only time all the cousins can meet and the grandparents can be with the entire family.”
The situation of that israeli family is not unlike that of Jewish families throughout the world. In our global universe, it is not uncommon to have one adult child living in California, another in Chicago and yet another as far away as Australia and New Zealand. (I have one brave friend who is traveling to Auckland with a case of horseradish.)
So that the Pesah holiday may be celebrated with parents and siblings, the getaway is an attractive option. A financial ease not enjoyed by previous generations and the availability of air travel admittedly contribute to its prevalence.
With logistical problems solved, families enjoy the wondrous experience that Arlene Lasko discovered at her first Passover away from home—an opportunity to celebrate the festival stress-free and with an added dimension of excitement and relaxed togetherness.
Matza brei may have a different flavor when eaten on the high seas or in the Swiss Alps, and the Haggada read in the Judean Hills or within view of the Edomite Mountains deepens the significance of the holiday that has indeed been “a festival to the Lord throughout the ages.” The Passover getaway is, in fact, a homecoming of sorts as family and religious traditions are revitalized in new and exciting surroundings.
Trips and Tours
- Camp Ramah California:
- Club Kosher: www.clubkosher.com
- Kosher Passover Cruises:
- Elite Dimensions Passover Tours: 800-228-4525;www.passovertravel.com
- Kosher Expeditions (photo above): 800-923-2645;www.kosherexpeditions.com
- Lasko Family Kosher Tours: 800-532-9119;www.laskotours.com
- Leisure Time Tours (with packages in the Nevele Grande): 800-223-2624; www.leisuretimetours.com
- Pesach Time Tours: 866-PESACH-07; www.pesachtime.com
- The Center for Southern Jewry, Ramah Darom: 405-531-0801; www.ramahdarom.org
- www.TotallyJewishTravel.com: The site lists many Passover vacation packages, including those in Europe and Israel.