The Pesach Hotel
The hotel parking lot right now is ordinary, even boring. But in just a few Monday afternoons, minivans will pull up in droves from the Five Towns, Bergen County, Brooklyn, and even from areas farther down the I-95 corridor and the Midwest. As the vernal sun slowly descends, families will unload suitcases and shift their weight as they wait for bellhops to become available. Program directors will sit behind folding desks handing out Shabbos keys. Kids holding board games will argue over who gets to keep which key when. An older couple who has attended the program for decades will take a welcome basket and flip through the scholars-in-residence packet.
The lobby area on the main floor will empty out for the remainder of Pesach after the first Maariv, but the lounge directly upstairs will be a scene. On the first morning of Yom Tov a few women will read quietly in armchairs, sipping coffee that they just made and slowly working their way through chametz-free wafers from one of the mini dinette areas nearby. There are billiards tables here, but the teenagers who will congregate by them will still be sleeping off the late seder, if not rushing to catch most of davening.
To the north and south of this lobby area are stairwells, leading up to five or six floors of guest rooms. Housekeepers will knock on doors to see if they are ready for cleaning. Most will be -- in others, someone will call out groggily to please come back in an hour. The carpeted hallways will be mostly empty, but for some desk chairs that guests pulled outside of their rooms so that they could read by the light. There will be used dining utensils with remnants of one mom’s shulchan orech. She will have brought up her meal well before the end of the night so that she could tuck in her young kids. As much as they attempted to stay up all night, their eye rubbing and ear pulling suggested otherwise.
Past the second-floor gaming lounge, a long hallway runs to connect the hotel’s two main buildings. By noon of the First Day davening will have concluded. Guests of all ages will vie for the most comfortable chairs in this window-filled hallway that have the best views of the outdoor lake and promenade. If it is a late Pesach, the trees might be in early bloom.
A right turn off the long hallway leads downstairs to one of the hotel’s larger dining areas. On Pesach, this will be designated as a Tea Room. On Yom Tov afternoon, right in between lunch and dinner, waiters will fill tables with kosher-for-Pesach snacks, chips, sodas, fruit platters, chocolate, ices, and much more. In one corner of the room a man will lead Bingo for excitable retirement-aged women, as well as for some less-than-excitable grandchildren of said women. At another table will sit six children ranging in age from nine to twenty. They are siblings and first cousins who for hours will battle to the death in a game of Risk. This will be the first game of the holiday, but it will certainly not be the last.
At the end of the long hallway is a carpeted foyer with large doors that lead to many different rooms. One conference room will be set up with tables. This will serve as a dining room for relatives of the program directors and caterers. Another conference room has rows of swiveling chairs and a podium, which lecturers will use, as well as a projector and screen. A recent Oscar-winning film will play here on the first motzei Yom Tov. Those hard of hearing will be wheeled by their personal aids to sit closer to the screen.
Down a grand staircase is the hotel’s biggest dining area. This room, which can seat over one thousand, will be set with central buffet stations and hundreds of scattered tables all around. On the first morning of chol hamoed the room will not fill up, but by lunch the lines at the omelet station will stretch nearly out the door. Most of the tables seat five or six, but a significant number are much larger, arranged to sit as many as thirty members of extended families. At one of these tables a third-grader will wait for her mom to walk away before she asks her waiter for her second cup of chocolate milk. Her grandparents sitting at the head of the table will labor over the day’s printed schedule, deciding which lectures to attend and when they will take their afternoon walk outside (weather-permitting). Her aunt and uncle who have five children will take their time at lunch, enjoying their few hours when the kids are with their counselors in groups for the day. If they are lucky, Sofia will finally decide on this fourth day at the hotel that it is cool to stay with the bunk until 4 pm.
The area immediately outside the main dining room leads to tennis courts, a basketball court, and a swimming pool. The latter will still be closed in April, so guests on weekdays will instead use the indoor facilities. Different hours of the day will be regulated for men-only, women-only, or family swim time. There is an indoor racquetball court, where a forty-something doctor and his father will whip out the gear and tie their seldom-used sneakers for a good old throwback. The father will take a break to catch his breath. He’ll assure himself and his son that he would’ve crushed twenty years ago.
On the last day of chol hamoed, the tennis courts, patios, and parking lot will transform into a makeshift carnival. A mediocre but energetic singer will play on his keyboard as children moon bounce, ask their parents if they can have cotton candy, and feed the goats and horses in the petting zoo imported for the occasion. Counselors will run around with cameras to capture the scene. Before the end of chol hamoed, these pictures will go up on one of the walls for everyone to see.
Right above the large dining area, a bit farther down the hallway, oak doors lead to an auditorium with stadium seating. This will be the shul, but will also serve as the theater for a magic show and a music concert on chol hamoed nights. Tables will be arranged right outside the auditorium for candle lighting by the time the Second Days come around. As the chazzan calls out barchu in the classic Yuntiv tune, men (and a few women in the upstairs balcony) will sit mostly where they’ve sat until that point, but new faces as well who just joined the program will look for their own seats. Folks will recognize each other after nearly a week together, but they will still congregate with their families and friends from back home. Someone will announce davening times for the next day, as well as the charity organization designated as recipient for the auctioned-off aliyah bids. As people leave some will murmur, wondering if the ad hoc 8:00 speedy minyan will take place as it did during the First Days. A suave fellow with gelled-back hair will nod confidently, guaranteeing one clique that he’ll take charge as gabbai.
The open area outside of the auditorium will be arranged for a post-Shacharit kiddush the next morning. Larry and Frank will reminisce over potato kugel about their years in YU in the 1960s. “Remember how Dave used to fall asleep every day in Rabbi Lifshitz’s shiur?” Larry will ask. “You bet I do,” Frank will lie. They’ll both chortle. Frank has recently retired. Larry still works as a lawyer, but at the kiddush he will be preoccupied by a grandchild tugging at his pants asking him to join for an umpteenth game of war. Larry will join. By the schnitzel station, an elderly woman with a doily will sit in a wheelchair. A granddaughter will yell over the crowd asking her if she wants anything to eat. The elderly woman won’t hear, but she’ll still smile and say thank you.
Directly upstairs is another conference room which will be made into the Children’s Dining Room. Little kids will be dragged here for 6 pm early dinner on the second-to-last night. Toddlers will eat a few bites of chicken nuggets, while moms and babysitters will spoonfeed younger ones in strollers. Later that night, on the same floor, older children will attend night groups. Different rooms will be arranged for different ages.
On the last full day, these children will nervously go over their dance numbers and routines for the end-of-Pesach talent show. Their parents and grandparents will fill the auditorium to laugh as adorable three-year-olds sing “Pharaoh in pajamas,” and to cringe as not-so-adorable middle school boys crack awkward jokes as their performance. Some of these boys will head to the Tea Room after the show as a posse for a last round of snacks (only drab potato chips will be left) and soda (only off-brand Coke will be left). They’ll discreetly look-without-looking at a group of girls sitting at one of the tables. One of the girls will notice and they’ll giggle. The boys will try to gather the courage to walk over. They probably won’t.
Back in the main dining room, a spontaneous “L’Shana Haba’ah” will break out during the last dinner as hundreds dance shoulder-to-shoulder between the tables. Some of the waiters will join in. They’ll more-or-less pronounce the words correctly. At one small table, a middle-aged couple there by themselves will clap along while staying in their seats. At another, a family will sing with the crowd and then continue the music with some of their own niggunim that they sang at the seder.
Some families will run out of the hotel immediately after Havdalah. Waiters and groups counselors will hang out by the hotel lobby, hoping for tips. Most will be very pleased by the guests’ generosity. The main dining room will be cleared already the next morning, but the Tea Room will be set with some bagels and real cereal for the few guests who didn’t leave yet. One of the boys from the middle school posse will fight back tears as he leaves the hotel and wheels out his mini suitcase to the parking lot.
But right now that boy is counting down the days until Pesach. The hotel currently looks like any northeastern Hilton or Crowne Plaza, but in his mind he sees the cozy guest room and his cot. He sees the ping pong tables, the long hallway where he’ll sit and talk with his grandmother, and the couches in the Tea Room where he’ll play Settlers of Catan with his cousins. He sees the dining room where he’ll take eggs and ice cream for lunch, and order chicken and ices for dinner. He has been going to the hotel his entire childhood, and he is sure that this Pesach will again be one of the best weeks of the year.