Monday, April 6, 2009

Once Upon a Passover

Robert Guillaume and I at a seder in Israel.
The photo appeared on the front page of The
Jerusalem Post twenty-five years ago.

Imagine an ethnic mix of six African-Americans, six white Anglo-Saxons, two ultra-assimilated Jews, two Latins and one Asian in Israel for Passover—all eight days of it. Food items they’d never dreamed of set before them on a dining table—not for eating, mostly for show. Symbols, like lamb shankbone, bitter herbs, salt water, charoses. And this above all: no bread in their hotel restaurant or lounge. No bread anywhere near at hand outside the hotel or on the street. An out of body-politic experience.

My partner in escorting celebrities to Israel, Shalom Elcott, and I took a host of performers to Tel Aviv to perform at a week-long children’s park festival called Medinat Hayeladim, “the children’s state.” Our incongruous troupe of entertainers consisted of Robert Guillaume (famous in Israel for TV’s “Benson”), Albert Hague (noted composer and “Fame’s” Professor Shirofsky) and his wife, actress Renee Orin, vocalist Jeree Palmer Wade, a troupe of dancers, the man and wife team responsible for the Macy’s Day balloons (that’s another story) and two necessary musicians.

One of those musicians was Robert Guillaume’s drummer, who arrived angry and left angrier. Bread—the lack of—was only the beginning of his unleavened feelings. Bob and I agreed that he couldn’t decide whether he wanted to be a drummer or a terrorist. The other musician stayed out of sight, shacked up, I suspected, with a loaf of rye.

Robert Guillaume is a good man and a gentleman. He came prepared to sing a handful of songs in Hebrew—and to sacrifice the wheat, flour and yeast. He was fine with things as they were and accepting of the things that weren’t.

Someone made the mistake of telling him he was actually fortunate because, in Israel,
Pesach (Passover) was only seven days. [The reason for the eighth day was initially the Diaspora. Given that Jewish holidays start at sundown, people far away from Jerusalem could not be certain of the day the holiday started or ended. Consequently, an eighth day was added to be sure Jews across datelines and time zones wouldn’t break leavened bread again (and wolf it down) too soon.]

So, Bob came down to breakfast on the eighth day expecting BREAD. But the hotels in Israel cater to visitors, particularly American visitors, who don’t know from seven days. “
Pesach is eight days—it’s always been eight days!”

The Israeli breakfast is famous. It consists of endless buffet tables laden with all you could ever want for breakfast, brunch, lunch, dinner, tea time and bedtime snack, plus a
nosh here and there for the rigors of the day. Without so much as a glance at the buffet tables, Bob sat down at a dining table expecting BREAD.

Guess who he was joining? Yours truly. I may have missed his “good morning,” but not his booming declaration of how much he was ready for BREAD. It fell to me to break it to him. He lost it! Completely exploded. Seven days on and off a stage in a park under the hot sun didn’t do to him what one more morning sans bread did.

Suddenly, this staid, dignified, reasonable man couldn’t separate the wheat from the chaff. He brought up grievances and frustrations I had heard nary a word of during the trip—because he never mentioned them before! Conditions at the park. Conditions in the hotel. Conditions between the park and the hotel! I tried to reason with him, but he grew hotter and hotter,
quietly fuming because, as I said, he’s a gentleman.

At this delicate point, a short, over-stuffed-looking, classic British bore of a man stopped at our table, interrupting us. He fawned all over Bob, repeating superlatives about him and his performances as he exhausted the first round of them. Robert was patient. I was barely patient—but I wasn’t jumping in the middle of this, not while someone was complimenting an actor! Finally, the man lumbered away. As if the intruder had never existed, Bob immediately turned to me and resumed his tirade. Note that neither of us has yet had a bite to eat. And there’s no
bread basket on the table.

I catch myself looking for a charitable interpretation of his tantrum. If it’s not the petite dancer from last night who was immune to his charm, I’m telling myself, it’s his blood sugar. As he’s going on and on… and on… I see none other than The British Bore, bearing heaping food dishes lined up along both outstretched arms, heading… don’t tell me!… in the direction of our table—and I know he can’t bring himself to pass it. Stopping, oblivious to the tension in the air and the glaring indication that he is intruding and unwelcome, he interrupts us again … to say to the actor—his actor of actors—“I’ve never actually seen you, but I’m sure you’re wonderful.” And continues on his way.

It changed the tune! I told Bob the line would make a great title for a book containing all the stupid things people say to celebrities (because they can’t resist talking to them and have to say something!). And we began warmly swapping stories.


  1. I am duly chastened and will never again complain about ANYTHING at Passover....

  2. I was fortunate enough to celebrate Passover a few years back with my friend and her Israeli family. It consisted of her immediate family (all from Tel Aviv) and around 20 young men (all from Tel Aviv, as well) who ran her mother's art shows. I, being only used to my super-Americanized Passover seders, created by my Catholic mother (long story), was slightly overwhelmed by both the size of the presentation of food (more food than I have ever seen to this day) and the casualness of everbody (seders have always been an exggagerated torture of hours upon hours of reading before diving into delicious fistfulls of food, while this seder seemed like the most enjoyable party I had yet to attend). Everything was great until they placed in front of me something I could not remotely figure out...but there were blueberries on top of it. So I used my best logic and decided blueberries on anything must mean it is sweet and delicious.
    It was liver, one of my biggest childhood edible fears.
    Of course, the rest of the evening was absolutely fantastic.

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  4. My sister was once in Italy several years ago as part of a tour my uncle offered his students at NYU. Once of these students was a successful underwear model the group had dubbed 'Golden Boy' that all the girls and even some of the men in the program were completely gaga over.

    Naturally, my sister had no courage to speak to him until several days into the program. After carefully planning out her words, she approached him, smiled, and asked: "Do you feel pressured to be an interesting person?"

    Golden Boy was taken aback by this comment. "Well, I think I am an interesting person."

    "Oh." My sister disappeared into a hole for the remainder of the tour. It was probably the stupidest thing anybody I know has ever said to a celebrity.

  5. Unrelated to Passover but related to bread-crazy people - this reminds me of the time my very Orthodox Jewish father walked into a kosher Chinese restaurant in Jerusalem and wondered why there wasn't any bread on the table so he could make the traditional blessing over bread before meals. We tried to tell him Chinese food and bread don't mix. He stood up and yelled "What kind of a restaurant is this that has no BREAD!!??" but then sat down afterwards to eat his meal, still sulking, but quiet. I don't think he ever wandered into a Chinese restaurant again.