Let My People Go to the Buffet
When I was four, we went to Oahu. It was the first time we celebrated Passover away from home. My only memory of the trip is of the ride to the Los Angeles airport. Our neighbor, Mr. Janis, drove a taxi. He loaded up our luggage and we all crammed in: my father up front and my mother in back with my sister Rachel and me. Rachel was then just shy of a year old, as yet incapable of communicating distress in any manner other than a wail. She was wailing as Mr. Janis started the car. We had not yet pulled away from the curb when she vomited explosively across the faux leather seats.
My father apologized. My mother ran back into the house for sponges and Lysol. Somehow we made our flight. I assume we had a good time, because we went back again the next year. What is clear in hindsight is that Rachel was trying to warn us.
For Jews who follow the laws governing Passover to the letter, the coming of the holiday is fraught. While people often think of Passover as eight days without bread, strictly speaking the ban applies to all foods containing chametz, or leaven; Ashkenazi Jews exclude all grains and legumes as well. Nowadays, when virtually every commercial food product contains some form of corn syrup, the ordinary supermarket is transformed into a religious House of Horrors. In preparation for the holiday, homes must be scrubbed and scoured until no trace of chametz remains in a ritual that resembles spring cleaning for the obsessive-compulsive.
Before we began going away, my mother and grandmother would spend days sweeping out the cupboards, unpacking the special Passover dishes, layering the kitchen countertops with contact paper to prevent any conceivable contamination from even the tiniest speck of chametz. The task is so onerous that it is common for homemakers to spend the first Seder night falling asleep in their soup. Unsurprising, then, that a secondary market should have developed to address this problem, a market with an unassuming name: The Passover Program.
Such programs first took off at Borscht Belt hotels in the 1940’s. Catering to well-to-do families, they offered eight days’ worth of accommodation, entertainment, and kosher-for-Passover food. Though I am too young to have attended them, my understanding is that they were but a pale shadow of their successors. Today one can find a Passover program on virtually every continent. Wildly expensive hybrids of old-fashioned heimishness and modern luxury, these second- and third-generation Passover programs speak volumes about the journey of contemporary Jewry. Yes, they murmur, you can have it all. And you can have seconds, too.
As a piece of real estate, the Palm Springs Desert Princess Resort was widely considered a dog. It wasn’t actually in Palm Springs but one stop beyond, in Cathedral City, a working-class town stricken by poverty and gang violence. Out on the fringe of the desert, the area lacked Palm Springs’s leftover 1950’s swank. What Cathedral City did have was wind—hot, dry, sudden blasts of wind that could take your yarmulke off, send it turning across the desiccated plains like a tiny Hebraic tumbleweed. Wind that left you constantly thirsty; that interfered with tennis; that picked up grit and stung your eyes. Surrounded in all directions by exactly nothing, the Princess was unshielded from the fury of these winds, and consequently bore the brunt of them.
The hotel faced constant financial crisis, changing hands every few years as new ownership tried where others had failed to make a leaky business model sound. I later learned that the resort’s most reliable source of revenue was the Passover program we began to attend yearly. Without the guarantee of eight days at 100 percent occupancy, the whole place would have gone under.
The people who ran the Passover program at the Princess were, like many of their customers, New Yorkers, and they had selected the hotel as the apotheosis of Southern California. It was big. It was pastel. It was stupefyingly hot. There was a pool. Sunsets washed the golf course in pinks and reds. To a Flatbush balabusta, it may have looked like the World to Come.
My father was not as moved. “I guess we’re here,” he said the first time we pulled up.
Upon arrival at a Passover hotel, you check in thrice. First you go the normal front desk for your room key. Next you cross the lobby to a folding table staffed by an unsmiling woman in an ankle-length denim skirt. She checks your name against a list of program participants and grudgingly hands you a complimentary canvas tote bag printed with the program’s logo and containing a schedule of events. She tells your mother what time to light the inaugural holiday candles, then directs you to the third check-in, which is for the children’s day care, or more colloquially, “camp.” This table is staffed by a girl no older than sixteen. She, too, is wearing a long denim skirt, although her hostility is latent, concealed by false cheer. Her name is Chavi or, less often, Adina.
“Are you excited for camp?” she asks. “It’s going to be sooo much fun.”
“She talks like Grandma,” you tell your mother as you head toward the elevators.
“That’s because she’s from Brooklyn.”
You are ten and from Los Angeles. “Where’s Brooklyn?” you ask.
People say that the easiest way to understand a cruise is to think of it as a giant floating hotel. The easiest way to understand a Passover hotel program is to think of it as a land cruise.
Like a cruise, a good program is self-contained; you never need disembark in search of diversion. Nearly every hour of every day is planned. Simply consult the schedule you received in your complimentary canvas tote bag. Mealtimes are regular, as are prayer services. There are daily lectures by rabbinic “scholars-in-residence.” There is always a “Wild West B-B-Q Nite.” Often the schedule will call for a chess tournament to take place in the lobby. Upon showing up, you will discover that this so-called tournament consists of you, a creepy old man, and a seven-year-old Hasidic prodigy.
In Palm Springs, the big draw was Bingo Night. Run by a dour fellow with an enormous mustache, it was easily the best-attended event of the week, and very well may have drawn more people than the Seders. Some would corral as many cards as possible, one on the table and three hidden in the lap. A priggish child, I considered such cheating unconscionable, and I suppose I saw God’s Hand in action when, in His infinite justice, on my very first Palm Springs Bingo Night, He caused me to win a brand-new microwave.
On paper, the day was packed. Really, though, attendance at most events was spotty at best. For many, the holiday ate up the bulk of their annual vacation time, and given the enormous expense involved in attending a Passover program (a family of four can easily spend $25,000, and many families in attendance are far larger), most people simply wanted to relax.
For the devout, this meant days spent praying, studying, eating, and lounging in the lobby in casual dress. Three thousand miles from home, free from the judgment of neighbors, they seized the chance to cut somewhat loose, to “go California.” Shins (ankles, for women) saw the sun for the first time all year.
As my family fell toward the more modern (read: lax) end of the religious spectrum, we more typically avoided services, slept late, read. We played lots of board games, the cherished pastime of the Sabbath and holidays, when the use of electricity is forbidden.1 Scrabble, Trivial Pursuit, Monopoly, cards—in Palm Springs we would hold marathon sessions of six hours or more, our loud laughter drawing glares from bewigged women and bearded men, who picked up their infants or their Wall Street Journals or their Talmuds and moved across the lobby, where they once again tried to unwind in the Presence of the Divine.
Restless, we children wandered the hotel grounds. We swiped golf balls from the driving range. We tossed the Frisbee around. We stood outside the spa and imagined the Oriental tortures therein. We used the entire 200-acre grounds for hide-and-go-seek. We traipsed up and down the employee-only stairwell; we went to the gift shop and stared sadly at the racks of interdictory candy bars. At night we played Truth or Dare by the empty, eerily lit pool, huddling under towels to shield ourselves from ferocious gusts of wind.
My partners in these adventures were, of course, other Passover program kids, friends I made at camp or roaming the halls. At some Passover hotels, Jewish guests share space with regular hotel guests, but in Palm Springs, the entire place belonged to us, ensuring that anybody I met was a Member of the Tribe. It astonished me that there were Jews I didn’t know. These East Coast boys and girls—they opened their mouths and you could tell where they were from. My California accent sounded so flat by comparison; in fact, I didn’t seem to have any accent at all. After a few days I would begin imitating them, the way they said awnt instead of ant and awraange instead of ohringe. I copied their slang. “That’s sick,” I said when they told me they went to school in a Manhattan high-rise. Other kids came from points west, cities with minor Jewish communities: Phoenix, Seattle, San Diego. One year a large family flew in from Mexico City on its patriarch’s private jet. A friend told me they owned “all the banks down there.”
Some of the people I met at the Princess lived in Los Angeles, and a few were even schoolmates to whom I never talked back home. Seeing them in Palm Springs was different from seeing them in L.A., as though our journey into the desert had remade us. Displaced in space, displaced in time, we shed our regular identities for a few days and constructed ourselves anew. Girls who normally intimidated me became approachable. Boys I had nothing in common with would invite me to play four-man football. On the last night we would all trade addresses, writing once or twice before forgetting about one another until next year.
But where, you may ask, where was the festival itself? Where the Mah Nishtana? Where the parsley and the bitter herbs? Where the backbreaking preparation that so plainly evokes our former servitude? Where the ritual, the tradition, the Judaism? Where, in short, was the Passover?
Of course, there were Seders, which my family held in one of the hotel’s conference rooms, waited on by polite men and women in bowties and vests. These private rooms were highly sought-after and cost significantly more than the default option, which was to have one’s Seder in the main dining room among dozens of other families leading their Seders, everyone singing and chanting at full volume, trying to drown out their obnoxiously loud neighbors.
Sometimes I took a break from our meal in Canyon Suite C and went to visit my unfortunate friends stuck in the Oleander Ballroom, among the hoi polloi. The noise always gave me a shock: the clatter of 800 dishes, the shouts of busboys, the pernicious competition to see whose rendition of “Dayeinu” would reign supreme. In the distance, I saw my friends, looking bored, waiting to deliver their prepared “words of Torah” before sinking back into the clangorous silence. I felt guilty going back to our quiet little piece of property; guilty, and relieved that we could read the Haggadah aloud without having to shout ourselves hoarse.
But even with the added privacy, and even as I began to forget what it was like to have Passover at home, I could never manage to convince myself that Seder in a conference room was anything but a simulacrum. Sometimes I complained to my parents: Without that backbreaking preparation, how were we to appreciate the freedom that comes with the fourth and final cup? It all seemed too easy.
Of course, I’d never been the one to vacuum the house, polish the flatwear, grind the horseradish. Resenting my parents for taking me on a lavish vacation—especially when the alternative placed such a heavy burden on my mother—was the height of ingratitude. Yet my sense of unease persisted as I slipped back into Canyon Room C, persisted and grew as I got older. Every year we went back to Palm Springs. Every year I had a good time. And every year I could not escape the feeling that something was not right.
I wanted Passover to be harder. Then, as now, what I felt was more than just nostalgia for some imaginary Old Days, more than just Jewish Puritanism, the belief that pleasure without corresponding suffering yields decadence. What I felt was a symptom of something much more unsettling: an awareness that the raison d’être of Passover hotels is to make it seem as though you are not celebrating Passover at all.
A good Passover program is, from start to finish, an act of forgetting, and that’s what makes it so seductive, so sybaritic, so American. Such willful amnesia presents a deep irony, insofar as Passover, more than any other Jewish holiday, celebrates collective memory. On Passover, the past is supposed to barge in on the present, disrupting routine in every conceivable way. Some Sephardic Jews, for example, physically reenact the enslavement and the Exodus, whipping one another with leeks and tramping around their Seder table with packages on their backs. We Ashkenazim, less theatrical by nature, nevertheless spend the night steeped in over-the-top symbolism. The charoset we eat stands for the mortar used by our forefathers to build Pharaoh’s cities; the salt water in which we dip our vegetables stands for the tears of the oppressed.
It is no accident that this night is different from all other nights. Those differences are designed to awaken us to what is rich and novel and compelling in our own history, because without such insight we would doubtless seek novelty elsewhere. Without Passover, our national identity would shortly disappear. It is a holiday that calls attention to itself: profoundly disorienting, profoundly unmodern. “Look,” it says. “Look at yourself. At your people. At your strange, retrograde ways. Look—and wonder.”
To spend Passover pretending that everything is business as usual—to ask Why is this vacation different from any other vacation, and then to answer It isn’t—is to flout the purpose of Passover. Which is precisely what successful programs do. The successful Passover program works very, very, very hard to obscure the holiday and its intrusions, and it achieves this in two ways: by overwhelming the senses and by engaging in sleight of hand.
Which brings us to the buffet.
The Internet tells me that while the buffet was first developed in 18th-century France, it was not taken to its logical conclusion until the 1940’s, when a Las Vegas hotel manager named Herb MacDonald introduced the concept of “all-you-can-eat.” The Passover hotel constitutes, by itself, a third stage in the world-historical development of the buffet. If the French originators were Aristotle to MacDonald’s Nietzsche, then the architects of the Passover programs are the Foucaults and Derridas of the buffet world, for whom satiety is not a physical state but a psychological construct. Feeling full is only the first step. The real goal of the Passover buffet is to clog the mind, and so merely setting out a huge spread will not suffice.
In general, keeping kosher demands lots of time spent scrutinizing labels and monitoring kitchen standards, and on Passover an already onerous task becomes Herculean. Rules upon rules upon rules! But for good reason: eating on Passover is not just eating. It is eating in a specific religious and historical context. Every time we feel a craving for real bread, every time we submit to lousy fake condiments, we’re supposed to remember that we were once enslaved and are no longer.
At a Passover hotel, though, these exertions are not your responsibility. You pay for the right to avoid checking labels or watching pots. You pay for the right to avoid adjusting your recipes; pay for the right to avoid cooking at all. You pay, in short, for the right to avoid thinking about Passover, and by extension, to avoid thinking about your history as a slave.
To the contrary: On a Passover program, you eat like a king, assuming that that king is Caligula. Even the meals served tableside include some form of buffet component, be it a stir-fry station or ice cream sundae bar. More important, that a meal is brought by wait staff does not, in any way, imply a limit on the number of items one may order. It’s quite common to see people ordering two and three and nine entrees, either because they didn’t approve of their first choices or because they’ve finished and are still hungry. Some people simply order all the available entrees right at the outset, thus guaranteeing that they get to taste every single dish on offer. In effect, the served meal is simply another form of buffet, except that you don’t have to get up and walk across the ballroom.
I always reach a point, usually halfway through the holiday, when I make a grumbling remark about the last days of the Roman Empire. Then I ask to try the lamb.
If you’ve ever seen an institutional kitchen, you’ve probably been startled by the scale of the equipment, the cauldron-sized mixing bowls and walk-in freezers most New Yorkers would be happy to live in. There’s something nauseating about seeing a lot of food in one place at one time. In Palm Springs I discovered that there’s also something dangerous about it. One year a waiter in a hurry slipped while dashing past a huge pot of cholent, the traditional Sabbath stew. Usually cholent consists of meat, potatoes, and barley, but on Passover grains are off-limits, leading to a slightly thinner consistency than usual, one that provides little resistance to a full-sized man plunging head-first into its depths. It sounds funny until you learn that he got third-degree burns. Then it’s funny in a different and awful way.
As I mentioned earlier, every program worth its salt features a barbecue. Weather permitting, the event is held outdoors, on the patio overlooking the putting green, or adjacent to the pool. The theme is always “cowboy.” Tiki torches frequently make an appearance; these cowboys, it seems, are Polynesian.
And what do they eat, these hula-hula buckaroos? Well, it seems that they eat hamburgers and hot dogs and schnitzel breaded in a non-chametz crust. Sweet-n-sour chicken and lamb and various kinds of sausage. Beef tips. Peking duck. Carving stations, so many carving stations: pastrami in schnauzer-sized chunks; smoked turkey breasts; artillery shells of roast beef. Given the limited number of kosher animals—Jews seldom eat anything other than beef, lamb, turkey, chicken, and duck—it’s frankly staggering how many permutations show up in the chafing dishes. And it never ceases to amaze me that, having gorged themselves for days, people will get into a line forty minutes long for steak.
The watchword is quantity; but what truly commands awe is the presentation. Because the list of acceptable ingredients shrinks so dramatically on Passover, Jews have, from time immemorial, striven to make certain foods look and taste like other foods, foods to which the original ingredients bear no resemblance whatsoever. This never, ever works. As long as Jewish mothers have sought to make cake out of potato starch and matzah meal, their children have been there to inform them that it tastes like Astroturf. Cooking well on Passover thus requires a Bach-like capacity to push a restrictive form to its limits. It requires, in a word, magic. And it is here, in creating the illusion of normalcy, that Passover programs shine brightest.
Every magician knows that the best way to cover an awkward movement is to create a distraction. Look at my left hand, holding my top hat, and you fail to notice my right hand moving to my pocket. Watch the cloud of smoke and you miss the trapdoor.
Passover programs have got this routine down, from the ornate decoration that accompanies theme meals (sombreros and tricolors on the Mexican station, Asian chefs preparing mock sushi with quinoa “rice”), to the plating (a five-pound mass of whitefish molded in the shape of a five-pound fish), to the raucous carnival atmosphere that pervades (mariachi music).
The attempt to subjugate the senses through sheer quantity finds its purest expression in a place called the Tea Room. The name conjures up an English seaside inn, with scones and cucumber sandwiches and Earl Gray in a strainer. But at the Passover hotel, there is no tea in the Tea Room; or, if there is, you can’t find it, obscured as it is by soaring heaps of nuts, dried fruits, and kosher-for-Passover chocolate. Open at all times save during official meals, the Tea Room makes it possible to spend every waking moment of a Passover program eating.
In recent years some programs have begun setting up more than one Tea Room, putting, for example, a satellite Tea Room out by the pool. And the menu has grown. Where they once offered only junk food, many Tea Rooms now feature meat grilled to order, Viennese tables, full bars stocked with non-grain alcohol, and more mixers than a high-end stereo emporium.
For those who “want to get their money’s worth,” the Tea Room becomes a kind of challenge. You can pick and pick and pick at the piles of stuff—and they’ll keep on bringing out more. You may never reach the top of the mountain, but that’s never stopped anyone from trying. If all else fails, you can take a plate back to your room.
My family eventually departed the sunny climes of the Palm Springs Desert Princess, entering a period of wandering that continues to this day. I have since celebrated Passover in Kona, San Diego, Los Angeles, Scottsdale, New York City, Fort Lauderdale, Lake Las Vegas, and Palm Beach Gardens.
Some of my nomadism is attributable to my wife. I knew soon after we met that we had to get married, because she was the first person I had met who had spent more time at Passover hotels than I had. She has never celebrated Passover at home, not once. To me she is the veteran who has done four tours of duty in the swamps of Vietnam before returning home to work in inner-city Baltimore teaching English as a second language to the disabled. I worship her. She told me that her family had gone to the same program in Florida for sixteen years running, with one exception, when they tried out the West Coast.
“Where did you go?” I asked.
“The Palm Springs Desert Princess,” she said. “Nineteen eighty-nine.”
My first year there. I was ten. She was eight.
We never met.
These days we trade off, one year at a hotel with my family and the next at a different hotel with hers. Though the location may change, there is an essential sameness to these holidays. The Jews in shorts. The all-you-can-eat midnight dessert extravaganza. The meat hangovers. The jogging in penance, the hours spent in hot tubs, boiling like flanken, futile attempts to sweat out toxins. The vows to go light at lunch, just some fish and egg salad and perhaps a tiny tiny tiny slice of cheesecake. And fruit.
When I am honest with myself, I will admit that there is something I love about these programs. I love them in the same way that I love Las Vegas, the same way that I love the movies: as a hyperreal expression of the American Dream. Often I swear I’ll never return, declaring that next year, we will stay home. A few times we have even made good on this promise, and though these Passovers are delightful and private, they never happen two years in a row. They exhaust my mother or mother-in-law. We can’t handle them anymore, anyway. Our systems have been reconditioned, weakened; our tolerance for endless matzah with jam, all but atrophied. Where’s the buffet? we ask. We may sing about next year in Jerusalem, but by the following April we have reverted to form, boarding a plane ten hours before Seder night, bound for another grand hotel, our bags crammed with sunscreen and neckties, our hearts full of longing and dread.
1Of Passover’s eight days, only the first two and the last two are considered holidays. One is still required during the four intervening days to eat no leaven, but otherwise these are regular working days.