Well, it's time for the annual review of the state of the hotel-hopping Jews. See here and here for previous reviews.
I might have foregone the exercise this year if my good friend Jonathan Rosenblum hadn't posted the following:
I will never forget an address by Rabbi Ephraim Wachsman at an Agudath Israel of America convention on the topic “Living a Life of Ruchnios amidst Gashmius.” I had never before heard Rabbi Wachsman, and I practically jumped out of my seat when he thundered: This topic represents a fundamental mistake. There is no ruchnius amidst gashmius. To the extent that a person is living in the world of gashmius he is removed from ruchnius!
I was reminded of those words recently on a recent trip to Los Angeles, where I had a rare opportunity to speak with a rav whose wisdom has always impressed me. In the course of our conversation, he asked to me, “What would you say is the greatest threat to Yiddishkeit today?” I leaned forward eagerly, confident that he would mention one of my favorite subjects. But I must admit that his answer would not have been on my top ten-list.
“Pesach in hotels,” turned out to be the winning answer. And my friend’s central criticism was similar to that of Rabbi Wachsman: the Pesach hotel industry takes what should be one of the ultimate spiritual experiences of every Jew’s life and encases it in a thick wrapper of materialism. Read the advertisements, he told me: “No gebrochts” right next to “24 hour tea bar;” “Daily daf hayomi” next to “Karate, go-carts, and jeeping for the kids.”
“Olympic-size pool,” “state-of-the-art-gym” (to work off all the extra pounds from the non-stop eating), “five-star accommodations” and famous singers are de rigueur for the full Pesach experience. And many throw in exotic locations – Hawaii, Cancun, the Bahamas, and an eighteen-hole golf course. What exercised my friend the most was the way that well-known rabbis, and even roshei yeshiva, are impressed into service in the advertisements, as if to put an imprimatur of ruchnius on the festivities.
My friend was raised in a particularly biting style of mussar, and he was just warming to his subject. He described the wailing when the dessert table runs out and the rush forward when the hapless waiter comes with refills and is almost trampled underfoot. Hotels have to put security guards around the 24-hour-tea rooms, lest some poor soul from the hotel down the road, where the dining room closes at 10:00 p.m., cannot make it to breakfast without a late snack.
This year's Pesach visit to the Dead Sea was no vacation. It was a research expedition in the name of science. What could we learn from the natives about myth and kinship? Have they maintained the rituals described above or would there be signs of acculturation? Without experiential immersion as a participant-observer, there would be no way for me to know. On chol hamoed, I headed off with my kin to the hotel I'll call Tristes Tropiques.
First some theoretical issues. No Ruchnius amidst gashmius. There were no disembodied souls in evidence down at Tristes Tropiques, nor have I ever encountered any previously (except maybe in Bat Ayin). So the venerable Ephraim Wachsman (EW) must have had something else in mind. Maybe he simply meant that people who just eat and loaf get fat and lazy. But that near-tautology hardly seems thunder-worthy. And neither I nor EW need to visit a five-star hotel to confirm its truth; there's plenty of evidence for it in any one of Monsey's many kollelim. So, while I don't doubt that EW's sound and fury signifies something, I leave a full deconstruction to future researchers.
As for my empirical research, it seems the Jews are in decline. At TT, there was no 24-hour tea bar, no karate, no go-carts, no jeeping, the pool was not Olympic size, the gym wasn't state-of-the-art, the waiters might have been hapless but none were trampled, no 18-hole golf course. Bekitzur, lo ishim velo asham, lo badim velo blulos.
So it might be that the nameless Californian rabbi (NCR) was misled about the facts and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Lipa Margolies remain bigger threats to the Jewish People than my travel agent. But even if NCR's hypothesis was not quite right, there was no shortage of data there in search of a unifying theory. The crowd was, for want of a better word, mixed. There were women there who covered every hair on their head and there were women who cavorted in bikinis. (Best of all, there was at least one woman there who covered every hair on her head AND cavorted in a bikini. I thought she carried it off quite well.)
Some of these people would force there way onto the elevator without waiting for people to exit. Some smoked in the lobby where smoking was both forbidden and annoying. Some stuck their plates in the food servers face while he was trying to serve the person in front of them. Some kept half a dozen people waiting while they filled a huge netillas yadayim cup from a slow faucet to the tippy top. I could go on but I don't want to bore you. You know these people.
The anthropologist in me thinks the observed data points to a correlation between a tendency to the above modes of behavior and a tendency to certain forms of conspicuous piety. But the Jew in me is resistant to hackneyed stereotypes. So let's just tentatively conclude as follows. No ruchniyus amidst gashmiyus? Doubtful. No manners amidst frumkeit? Could be.