April 6, 2006
A Passover Surprise in Patagonia
"So, where are you doing the seder?" asks my mother, on the other end of my computer's crackly speakers.
I had just arrived in Patagonia, a beautiful region of Argentina, blessed with sparkling blue lakes, snow-capped mountains and forests on fire with the colors of fall.
My plan was to find a shul and hopefully meet someone who would invite a wandering Jew home for Pesach. I had tried to do something similar in La Paz, Bolivia, but the homely service at the highest synagogue in the world did not lead to any home-cooked chicken soup.
Here in the town of Bariloche, I did not have to go far looking for a seder. It found me.
There are hundreds of young Israelis traveling throughout South America; so many in fact, that many hotels and restaurants cater specifically to them. Hebrew signs can be found in many tourist areas, and some youth hostels are known in traveler circles, unfortunately, as Israeli ghettos.
All the Israelis I have met regret such a situation exists, but it is nevertheless a reality. One of these was Shahar from Tel Aviv, and it was she who told me about what must be one of the most remarkable seders anywhere in the world.
The five-star Llao Llao Hotel and Resort outside Patagonia is widely regarded as the best hotel in Argentina. Nestled against the dramatic mountains of the Andes, adjacent to a lush natural reserve and a crystal lake, the Llao Llao (pronounced Shau Shau) attracts an elite, international clientele.
Ma Nishtana? Because on this night, the Llao Llao invited more than 400 traveling Israelis, and a handful of other traveling Jews like myself, for a service and complimentary seder.
"You have to fax through your passport," Shahar explained, and then call to confirm. She had found out about it through an Israeli travel Web site. This was the seventh year the Llao Llao had opened itself up for the well-traveled, jeans-clad, unshaven, but very enthusiastic guests.
There were still a few days before the seder, so I promptly faxed off my passport and called as instructed. The woman on the phone was abrupt: "No cameras, no bags, be here at 7." Then she hung up.
As more Israelis arrived, there was genuine excitement in the air, enough to attract several non-Jewish travelers to the idea of a free meal at an exclusive resort hotel. I would have liked to invite everyone in the spirit of Pesach, but considering there are thousands of backpackers in Bariloche, I can understand that the hotel sets limits for its free seder. It was, I would later find out, the most expensive seder in all of Argentina, and I guess charity does have its limits.
The temperature had plummeted when we arrived by bus at the hotel. The sun was setting behind the granite-spired mountains, casting a mirror reflection on the lake. I arrived with the first group of Israelis, together with a Jewish girl from North London.
We showed our passports to guards at the first checkpoint, walked past another, and found an X-ray machine, guards with wands and officials checking our passports against a list. No doubt security was tight, a sad reality even in such a beautiful setting as this.
Through the necessary hurdles, we entered the magnificent hotel. For eight days, the hotel becomes fully kosher, catering exclusively to a Jewish clientele from around the world. Inside the rich, wooden interior were religious families, black-hat Lubavitchers, smart-dressed couples -- and all were about to be invaded by hundreds of backpackers speaking Hebrew.
"Seven years ago, I was hiking and came across a group of Israelis," said Eduardo Elsztain, chairman of IRSA, Argentina's largest real estate company, and the man responsible for this most unusual event. "I invited them back to the hotel for seder, but they didn't believe I was Jewish. I threatened to pull down my pants and prove it."
The following year there were 25, then 50, then 150, until today there are more than 400 Israelis finding surely the largest seder anyone here has ever been to. Besides myself and Jackie from London, there was only one other non-Israeli in the room, a girl from the United States.
The sheer diversity of attire -- hiking boots and leather shoes, piercings and ties -- created a surreal, but very moving religious service before the seder, which featured siddurim in both Hebrew and Spanish. Singing, dancing and clapping, the men snaking through the converted hall, dreadlocks followed by tzitzit followed by Savile Row.
At the conclusion of the service, we exited the hotel's theater, which in 45 minutes was converted into a makeshift dining hall. A seder plate lay on every table, together with grape juice and matzah.
The seder was led by a young, highly enthused rabbi, and a representative from each of the 30-odd tables stood up to read a portion of the haggadah. Hearing a chorus of hundreds of excited -- not to mention hungry -- travelers singing "Ma Nishtama" and "Dayanu" induced goosebumps.
Rumors that whoever found the afikomen would win a free night at the hotel proved unfounded, but it didn't matter -- spirits were high.
We started our meal at midnight, which is normal in a town where locals usually eat out at about 11 p.m. Smart-clad waiters served up salad, soup and chicken.
Seder sponsor Elsztain stood and announced to the crowd: "Your energy is vital for this hotel, for it is just a building. Our guests are all commenting that your presence has made their Pesach extra special. It is my wish that this energy you bring tonight will return with you home, and perhaps one day there will be seders like this all over Israel."
One kosher-observant backpacker stood up, unable to contain his gratitude: "I haven't eaten any meat for months!"
I stood up to offer my own thanks, to Eduardo, and to the Israelis for traveling so prolifically.
"If it wasn't for you," I said, "I wouldn't have found this amazing seder. And that, let me assure you all, must make my mother very happy!"
Robin Esrock, travel columnist for the Vancouver Sun, is wrapping up a year spent traveling to 24 countries on five continents. Follow his adventures at www.moderngonzo.com.