Let My People Go - on Vacation for Passover

Tired of cleaning? Dreaming of checking into a kosher for Passover hotel? Here’s the inside story - the good, the bad, and the fattening.

Freedom? Liberation? It may not be building a pyramid, and it may not be full-on slavery, but those who take Passover seriously, preparing one’s home for the holiday and hosting all of the festive meals is lot of work.

We’re talking about weeks, or even months scrubbing down the house so that not even a crumb of leavened bread could sneak in, and then preparing and serving multiple meals for ten, or sometimes twenty guests, not just for Seder night but throughout the full week of the holiday.
For decades, that was my mother-in-law’s annual routine.

And then, a few years ago, she and her husband decided to break their chains. My in-laws - Orthodox Jews who live in Jerusalem - never made an official announcement that they were retiring from Passover activity and travelling abroad to a kosher-for-Passover hotel, but effectively, that’s what they have done. Every year, they lock the door, head for the airport to a resort destination - usually on a Greece or Cyprus, but the destination varies.

We joined them last year in Provence, France. I’ll never forget the look of happiness on my mother-in-law’s face the day before Seder night, as we strolling in the mountains with a gorgeous spring landscape in front of us.

“Now this is the way to spend the day before you sit down at the seder!” she said, positively glowing.

My in-laws are clearly not alone. All one has to do is look at the ever-mushrooming number of hotels and resorts that are Passover-izing themselves to get a piece of the market - designed to suit every budget and are on nearly every continent, scrubbing themselves down top to bottom and getting rid of all their “chametz” - so you don’t have to. It’s not for everyone - many Orthodox Israelis look down on the decision to spend the holiday outside of Israel from a religious perspective. It sort of defeats the purpose of the Exodus, after all. How can they leave the Holy Land on the holiday that is supposed to be all about celebrating the fact that Moses and his crew arrived there? What about “next year in Jerusalem?”

For wealthy Jews who don’t live in Israel, get to have the whole package and book Israeli hotels for their Passover vacation. For the natives, that drives up the prices. Prices of hotels in Israel skyrocket so high during the holiday that even with the flights it costs the same - or even less - to travel to Europe, and join European Jews in kosher hotels on the continent.

There are Passover hotels on nearly every Greek island, across the continent in France, Italy, Croatia - this year, you can even have your seder on a ship cruising down the Danube River with stops in Vienna, Budapest, and Bratislava.

In the United States, Passover hotels have gone far beyond the old standbys in the Catskills or Miami Beach to luxury resorts across the country and in the Caribbean and Central America. A recent article in the upscale website Epicurious featured the priciest options. For a mere $15,000 per person - double occupancy - you can check into the Andaz Peninsula Papagayo Resort or the St. Regis Monarch Beach Resort in California.

But for some, even the fanciest resort experience doesn’t trump the joys of a seder at home. I’ve tried it both ways now - and so here, for the confused or undecided, is my list of pros and cons for those who are on the fence.

Why try a Passover hotel?

1. No pre-Passover cleaning.

2. No pre-Passover cooking.

3. Seder night. What is great about seder night in a hotel is that it is perfectly egalitarian. Nobody waits on anybody else - or rather, only those who are getting paid do the serving and cleaning up. The entire family sits around the table for the entire ceremony and meal - full equality - no kitchen slaves (who are usually, let’s face it, primarily of one gender) running in and out of the kitchen and not fully participating in the event.

4. Comfort and fun - in a hotel it is possible to have a really big extended family gathering without squeezing into insufficient space, and without people in bad moods from nights spent on the floor or on a lumpy sofa bed. Going to a new destination is a bonding experience in a beautiful vacations, a great way to see the world while saving yourself labor. You make great memories, like our family’s travelling around France, picnicking outside the palace of Monaco on matzah and chocolate spread.

Why stay home?

1. The expense - while there is a range of pricing, obviously no holiday comes cheap, and not everyone has enough vacation days to spare. And family politics can come into play if some members can afford the travel, and others can’t.

2. Seder night - It’s great that someone’s doing all the work, but it also means that the staff of your hotel sets the pace of the seder. In a dining room full of families celebrating their seders, the course don’t always come exactly when you are ready, and you can end up at the table for a lot longer than you would at home. Also, it’s a bit distracting when everyone around you is at a different spot at the ceremony. (Although it can be sociologically fascinating to get an inside look at the traditions and family dynamics of others as they conduct their seders around you.)

3. The people. Speaking of sociology … If you’re lucky, the kosher resort you choose for what amounts to quite a long holiday will be wonderful people. If you’re not - as on a cruise, you’re stuck vacationing with a group who you might not want to choose to spend so much time with - and in the case of a kosher Passover hotel, there is a whole spectrum of observance which you need to respect in public spaces. If your hotel is in a rustic destination and you don’t rent a car, any touring and excursions will happen together. If you’re not a joiner, or if hanging with a crowd that can be a lot more or less observant than you gets you down, it can be rough.

4. The food. Even if you choose a place where the food is gourmet quality, the hotels usually go to the strictest common denominator when it comes to Passover rules. That almost always means no kitniot - so if you are a kitniot eater at home - you are out of luck. But worse, many of the hotels also have a no “gebrocht” policy. “Gebrocht” is a strict interpretation of Passover restrictions in which allowing matzah to absorb liquids means that it is being “leavened.” That means enduring Passover food restrictions without the joys of Matzah Brei and Matzah balls, which feels like Thanksgiving without turkey or Hannukah without latkes. A serious bummer.

5. The food again. And again. And again. At these hotels, the food never ends. Not only are there lavish spreads at the meals, but, particularly on the Sabbath and holidays, there is a buffet of snacks between breakfast and lunch, and lunch and dinner. If your level of willpower and self-control isn’t seriously high, you are in trouble. Count on returning from your vacation carrying both beautiful memories - and a whole lot of extra weight.