Killing it in Mexico

I confess that I’ve felt a little guilty luxuriating in a Mexican resort during this Passover holiday instead of finding ways to connect with the long and painful journey of my ancestors. But I did spend the first part of the holiday in freezing Montreal, so maybe that compensates somewhat. 

I was invited by Presidential Kosher Holidays to give a few lectures at a resort near Cancun, where several hundred mostly Orthodox Jews have gathered from across the country, and … how could I say no?

It’s as if there’s an unwritten message floating here that says: “Maybe our people suffered for 5,000 years so that we won’t have to.”

But lest you think it’s all fun and games, there’s plenty of serious stuff, too: Daily prayer services (Ashkenazi and Sephardi minyanim), Talmud learning, Torah sermons and, of course, the speakers.

This year, one of the speakers was former Ambassador and Middle East expert Dennis Ross. His lectures covered the unraveling Arab Spring, the comatose Israeli-Palestinian peace process and the continued nuclear threat from Iran.

In the comedy business, when you do very well, they say you “killed.” Well, at the lectures I attended, Dennis Ross killed.

He killed not only because he is so knowledgeable (he may have done more Middle East diplomacy than anyone alive), but also because his insights have the ring of truth.

A rabbi friend once told me that the ring of truth is even more powerful than truth itself. That’s because the ring of truth is familiar. It’s plausible. It’s already inside of us. A good speaker will help us uncover it. 

In his lectures, Ross uncovered many insights that rang true. One of them: Don’t play nice with bullies or they’ll walk all over you.

Of course, he used more diplomatic language: When dealing with dictators, the key is to always show that any hostile action will carry a price. When that price becomes too costly, that’s when bullies back down. 

He used the example of Syria. Millions of people have been displaced and nearly 200,000 people killed because bully-in-chief Bashar Assad has hardly paid a price for his bullying. 

Whether in Syria or elsewhere, Ross concluded, America has lost leverage and influence precisely because it has failed to enact a high enough price for the misdeeds of rogue regimes. Whatever your ideology, that seems to ring true.

Ross’ sober lectures were a sharp counterpoint to the lighthearted mood you feel in a vacation resort. It was geopolitics one hour, hot stone massage the next — a dose of reality in a place of fantasy.

Thank God, then, for comedian Elon Gold. 

Just when the gravitas of Dennis Ross was starting to weigh on us, Gold rescued us with a Saturday night performance that, well, killed.

And just as Ross moved us with the ring of truth, so did Gold.

He kicked off his show by pointing out that here we were, a group of Jews memorializing the enslavement of our ancestors by enslaving a slew of bus boys, waiters, cooks and hotel staff.

In 3,000 years, Gold said, maybe they, too, will gather for a special meal to celebrate their freedom from vacationing Jews.

He had us in stitches when he performed a precise, hypothetical talmudic debate over how Jewish scholars might handle a Christian ritual like getting a Christmas tree. (“Do you make the blessing on the tree before or after you bring it in the house? And what if one foot is in and one foot is out? Our Sages had a major disagreement about this.”) 

Gold is an observant Jew, but he’s also an observant comedian, especially when it comes to observing his people.

“Jews love to leave events early,” he said, “because the best part of the night is the car ride home when you can gossip about other people.”

Even though his show came right after a lavish dinner, he couldn’t ignore the Jewish obsession with food and the constant anticipation of more food. That was a running gag — “Let’s end this show already, we’re all starving.”

The ring of truth echoed in the howls of laughter when Gold channeled his inner Dennis Ross and weighed in on politics: “Questioning the Jewishness of Israel,” he said, “would be like questioning the Asian-ness of China.” 

After six eventful days in Mexico, I can tell you there was no questioning the Jewishness of my Passover vacation: Too much food, angst about Israel and the Middle East, a few good laughs, a search for truth and, of course, that ever-subtle feeling of Jewish guilt that never quite leaves you.