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Away for the Holiday

How Passover vacations became big business—until coronavirus made people rethink their plans

Jenna Weissman Joselit
March 27, 2020
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Jeffrey Greenberg/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

It’s beginning to look a lot like Passover as we know it might not take place this year—especially if it involves travel. The current rash of coronavirus-related cancellations—of classes, meetings, religious services, trips, performances, conferences, and celebrations—is sure to affect Passover 5780 for many American Jews. For those who observe the holiday by holding one Seder, or two, with out-of-town family and other guests, travel and other health restrictions may make such gatherings difficult, if not impossible. For those intent on going away to a hotel for the entire eight days of the festival, the yontef will be radically reconfigured: scaled down and contained. Those American Jews who had set their sights on spending Passover anyplace but home will now be hunkering down for the holidays as destinations in Europe, Israel, and the U.S. have increasingly become off limits.

For some time now, Passover, that “prince of holidays,” has encompassed the taking of a family vacation. The practice is most closely associated with the Orthodox segments of the American Jewish population for whom the festival is no limited nocturnal affair of one or two nights’ duration, as it is for the majority of American Jews, but a lengthy eight-day experience during which the kids are off from school and offices are closed. In pre-COVID-19 America, the transformation of a yontef into a getaway made perfect sense.

Logic isn’t the only element that fuels this phenomenon. Demography has even more to do with it. These days, many Orthodox families are multigenerational. It’s also not unusual for family members to live at a far remove from one another, with some calling London home, others Jerusalem, and still others the Big Apple. Consequently, a Passover holiday en famille that enables everyone, from the great-grandparents to the newest arrivals, to be together at the same time and in the same place—and under relaxed, pleasurable circumstances—is highly prized. Deep pockets and increasing affluence make it possible, while the opportunity to network and perhaps to find prospective mates for one’s adult children renders it socially acceptable.

Going away for Passover is nothing new. As early as the 1920s, it had become a “custom,” especially among New York Jews, prompting critics like those writing in the Advancement of Judaism Review not only to take note of what they called this “latter-day Exodus,” but also to condemn it roundly as a symptom of American Jewry’s “distintegration,” its increasing privatization. Even so, those on a Passover “pilgrimage” back then were most likely headed to a hotel in the Catskills or in New Jersey, not to a posh, five-star, exotic establishment in Mauritius.

The Indian Ocean resort is just one of 135 destinations—among them, Brazil, Greece, Italy, Mexico, Morocco, Portugal, Spain, and Uruguay—where a heavenly holiday was, until recently, well within reach. The only thing that’s hard to find on this wide-ranging list of luxury vacations is a cruise. Most of the year there’s no shortage of kosher cruises, but few have been scheduled for Passover in recent years. The prospect of being cooped up on a boat for over eight days with little ones in tow doesn’t quite lend itself to indulging in this maritime pastime for this particular holiday.

One exception—although it’s unlikely to appeal to an Orthodox Jewish crowd, or to a Jewish clientele, period—is the Royal Caribbean’s 2020 Passover and Resurrection Cruise, one of whose featured highlights is a Messianic Jewish Passover Seder. “Whether this is your first cruise or you have sailed the seas multiple times,” trumpets its advertisement, “you WILL be blessed like never before on this very special voyage.” But not quite yet: It, too, has been “rescheduled.”

Whatever the Passover destination, a cornucopia of amenities once awaited—so many, in fact, that the roster of things to do at the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island, Bahamas, the “most luxurious and extraordinary Passover resort on Planet Earth,” runs to well over 20 pages: day camp and infant care, a 141-acre waterscape, golf and tennis, a spa, pottery classes, “world-class” shopping, and even an archaeological excavation called “The Dig.”

If that weren’t enough to whet your appetite, the resort circulates a promotional text that makes use, in its own fashion, of the traditional “Dayenu,” to tout its wares. “Staying in Paradise for the retreat, seeing the sights and experiencing the magic would be more than enough—Dayenu. But that is only the beginning,” it reads. “Kosherica’s [the sponsor’s] warm hospitality, and the fantastically delicious, Kosher for Passover gourmet food, will turn even the pickiest eaters into serious foodies. That’s another Dayenu. Then, even if the resort wasn’t in paradise and the food was not as devastatingly delicious…you’d still have the time of your life…Everywhere you look, every hour, every minute there is something fascinating happening to bring us excitement. Dayenu? Not quite.”

I could go on, as Atlantis does, but you get the picture. Hyperbole plus variety carries the day. Not to be outdone, other venues boast of their “fantastic” or “spectacular” lineup of scholars-in-residence, of their multiple minyanim and Torah classes, and of their “delectable,” “exceptional,” and “haute gourmet” cuisine.

All that exemplary bounty doesn’t come cheap. Most Passover packages cost a pretty penny—several thousand dollars per person at a minimum. But, as I’ve been told on more than one occasion by those who customarily venture far from home, the “joy of being with your entire family” far outweighs any and all fiscal considerations. “Even though you’re spending six figures, we had four generations together last year—you can’t put a price on that,” one observant guest recently told a New York Post reporter.

Not everyone within the contemporary Orthodox community, though, is enthusiastic about the prospect of spending yontef at a hotel. Some, like the members of the Chicago Rabbinical Council, worry lest the dietary laws, which are even more demanding at Passover than they are during the other 51 weeks of the year, will not be scrupulously maintained. Accordingly, they encourage those inclined to go away to take precautions like these: “It is important to learn about the operators of the program. Do they prioritize kashrus or are they only looking at the financial bottom line?” Be sure to find out about the qualifications of the mashgichim (ritual supervisors). And while you are at it, cautions the Chicago Rabbinical Council, make a point of finding out more about the atmosphere outside of the kitchen. “Is the swimming pool situated in a place that can be properly obscured for tzinus [modesty] purposes?”

Still other Orthodox rabbinical authorities go even further, potentially incurring the wrath of their parishioners by encouraging them to stay home. Writing in 2008 in Mispacha, an Orthodox Jewish family-oriented magazine, Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum inveighed against the Passover resorts’ “week-long orgy of eating and fun-activities,” characterizing it as a “contradiction to the freedom from materialism that the Chag [Passover] celebrates.”

It didn’t take long before the rabbi received a “larger than usual number of responses,” underscoring the extent to which the notion of spending Passover at a resort hotel had become a “hot-button issue.” Several of his readers sought to make the case for going away, while others, at the other end of the spectrum, suggested a ban be placed on the practice. Situating himself in the middle, Rabbi Rosenblum argued for the importance of instilling an “understanding of Pesach so deep and uplifting that Cancun cannot compare.

Online and on the street, American Jews at the grassroots also weighed in from time to time, adding their two cents. Some preferred to stay put for the holiday, insisting that “THERE IS NOTHING like staying home!!!” Others, placing more of a premium on practicality than on sentiment, allowed how they’d much rather cook than pack. And still others claimed that the indulgent, luxurious atmosphere of a hotel ran counter to the Passover spirit, noting that “for the life of me, I couldn’t imagine myself going out of Mitzrayim [Egypt] when at a Seder in a hotel.” Now and again, a couple of honest souls confessed to being envious of their coreligionists who went away, indicating that if they had the resources, they would, too. “For people who can, why not?”

A good question. In the spirit of improvisation that typically characterizes the contemporary celebration of Passover, perhaps it should be added to the traditional recitation of the Seder’s Four Questions. Maybe next year.

Jenna Weissman Joselit, the Charles E. Smith Professor of Judaic Studies & Professor of History at the George Washington University, is currently at work on a biography of Mordecai M. Kaplan.