Is Club Med kosher?

Written by Rabbi Colin Eimer — 27 August 2019

Film buffs among you might remember a film from the 1960s directed by the French director, Alain Resnais, called L’année dernière à Marienbad, Last Year in Marienbad. It was very influential, part of the nouvelle vague of European cinema. I was reminded of it because I had texted one of my colleagues with a question about a rabbinic text, which I couldn’t understand. He’s the ‘go-to’ guy for that particular sort of query. He texted back saying he was on holiday in Carlsbad, in present-day Czech Republic. 150 years or so ago, Carlsbad, together with Marienbad and Franzensbad, was one of three spas that became the fashionable destination for those wishing to take the waters, or simply enjoy the amenities those places provided. By the 1880s, a high proportion of visitors were Jewish, from the ultra-Orthodox to the secular. Shops, hotels, restaurants, theatres catered for the Jewish clientele who came from all over Central and Eastern Europe. Reading an account of them (Mirjam Zadoff, “Next Year in Marienbad” Pennsylvania University Press, Philadelphia, 2007) they sound not dissimilar from Jewish Bournemouth after the war, or the Catskills in upstate New York. Like them, these spas were places to see and be seen, for matchmaking and business deals.

We’re well into summer holiday season. Kids from the synagogue have gone on various summer camps and Israel tour. Traffic is lighter on the roads, life generally seems a bit less-stressed than at other times in the year (let’s not mention Brexit….) There’s still work to do for us rabbis: death and illness, for example, never go on holiday; and, at this time of year, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur seem alarmingly close in terms of preparation for them.

Browsing through some old photo albums this week. I came across one for a holiday we did in Provence. Some beautiful Baroque churches, though I’m always struck by the goriness of some of the depictions of Jesus on the cross. A lovely 18th century synagogue in Carpentras near Avignon. It had a little Jewish museum attached to it. Among other artefacts, to my surprise, there was a short cat o’nine tails, used for self-flagellation. In different times and places, Jews did sometimes practise mortification of the flesh. If they felt they had been sinful they would fast for many days; whip themselves or be whipped by others; roll naked in the snow in winter; in summer, sit naked, smeared with honey so that bees would sting them.

On that same holiday we saw lots of partially or completely naked people, smeared, not with honey but only with Ambra Solaire. Contrasting life-styles then: Jewish and Christian places of worship, on the one hand, and the beaches, on the other; between asceticism and hedonism.

Religion isn’t always great at dealing with pleasure. There is the ascetic view which tries to maintain a distinction between body and soul. The body is the seat of carnal pleasures and instincts. Placing any emphasis on physical pleasure is seen as blocking the progress of the soul. Abstention and self-denial are very important in this approach: holiness can only be achieved through denying the flesh any pleasure. While such a view has never been totally absent from Jewish teaching – witness those ascetic practices I mentioned – it never became the mainstream view.

Another approach isn’t as extreme. It sees no conflict between body and soul but ascribes no importance to physical pleasure. So the prime purpose of sexuality, for example, is procreation.

There is a third approach that Rabbi Louis Jacobs called one of “thankful acceptance.” Our bodies are part of God’s gift to us – physical pleasure is part of that. So sexual activity and the pleasure that comes with it is neither sinful nor shameful; and it’s not just about procreation. Indeed, a major Talmudic saying has it that when we stand in judgement we will have to justify why we had the possibility of enjoying something but chose not to.

“Tradition” is one of the foremost journals of serious modern Orthodoxy in the USA. I remember reading an article long ago with the intriguing title: “Is Club Med kosher?” It seems that the author, a serious Orthodox Jew, had booked into a Club Mediterranée village in the Caribbean. A friend had asked him whether Club Med was kosher – not in terms of the food – but in the real sense of the word ‘kosher.’ Was it kosher, he was asking, was it appropriate, correct for an Orthodox Jew to go there – given that there was mixed swimming, semi- or completely naked bodies, activities and entertainment that might be questionable and so on? That article looked at different approaches to how a seriously-Orthodox Jew might try and find the right balance between a halachic life and a life lived in the midst of society. While we might share some of their concerns, that feels like it’s more an issue for them than it might be for us in this community.

But the question did start me wondering if there was a Jewish attitude to going on holiday? Holidays are a relatively new phenomenon – Jews going to those Central European spas in the 1880s might have been in one of the early waves of Jewish holiday-goers.

Until recently, of course, the average person would have had Sundays, religious festivals and statutory holidays off, with maybe a few days throughout the year. Going away on holiday is a relatively recent phenomenon. Historically those who travelled were the wealthy who did so, as part of their education, on the Grand Tour. Going abroad for your holiday became more middle-class between the wars and by the 1960s, everybody it had become classless.

There is no such thing as a Jewish ethic of leisure. Classical Jewish teaching couldn’t really get its head around that idea. If one had leisure time, at all, part of it was to be devoted to study. Leisure, if it existed in the past, was seen in the context of the religious calendar: in particular, there was a weekly leisure day called the Sabbath. It might have been a day of leisure but a particular sort of leisure.

I don’t know what classical Jewish teaching would have made of that Club Med holiday, or simply a holiday lying on a sunny beach. What characterises a holiday is that it is a time when we are free of the ‘tyranny’ (in inverted commas) of a daily routine of work or study.

In the religious view, rest is something more than leisure – it’s about reaffirming ourselves as human beings; coming back into contact with our spiritual essence; not doing nothing but a different sort of activity; recharging depleted batteries; restoring spirit and life to troubled minds and hearts. Maybe what characterises it is that it is a time when we can be more concerned with ‘being’ than with ‘doing.’

So “Is Club Med kosher?” Judaism would not say there is anything intrinsically wrong with a holiday spent lying on the beach. But it might see it as an incomplete holiday if there is only physical renewal without renewal of the spirit, of our essence as human beings. Physical refreshment is usually quickly forgotten as we tumble back into the routine of work. Spiritual refreshment is certainly longer lasting because it has the potential to give us a different view of ourselves, of what we do with our lives, relate to others, fit into the universe and soon.

So if you’ve been on holiday, I hope you came back refreshed in all ways. If you’ve not yet been, I hope you manage to recharge both bodily and spiritual batteries. Frankly, entre nous, just between these 4 walls, if the past 3 years have been enough of a challenge to those physical and spiritual resources, I fear the coming period will, sadly, not be any holiday at all!!…..