Ambassadors on the High Seas
A couple of converts to the joy of cruises discovered, incidentally, a hidden community of landsman. They also found themselves translating Jewish life into (non-Jewish) American idiom.
For many years I dismissed the idea of a cruise vacation with a superior shrug. It would be too sybaritic, too dressy, too food oriented. Sheldon and I camped, traveled to Israel (where we also camped) or, on rare occasions, rented a beach house at an unfashionable shore. And so our first reluctant sea voyage was imposed on us by Sivia and Walter, close friends from Israel with whom we wanted to tour Alaska and who insisted on a cruise through the Inside Passage to Glacier Bay. Hesitantly we consented, but from the moment we set foot on the deck of that majestic Holland America ship in Vancouver, we were instant converts. We were overtaken by the beauty of the ocean, the anticipatory excitement of the voyage with its varied ports of call and, to our surprise, real pleasure in the temporary decadence. What we did not realize during those first heady hours was how being Jewish would add another dimension to our experience.
That became clear on our very first evening at sea. Seated at a table for six, we discovered that our dinner companions were Larry and Beth, radiant young honeymooners from a rural Wisconsin town who had never before left the Midwest. Although Larry recalled a Jewish classmate at college, they had never met any Jews and Israel was not even a blip on their radar screens.
“It’s near Morocco, isn’t it?” Beth asked with bright-eyed innocence. “And there’s lots of trouble with the Arabs, right?”
Gently, we corrected her geography, and over the next several days we learned a great deal about their lives (after all, I had never met anyone from rural Wisconsin), and they came to understand the importance of lsrael in our lives. Beth’s eyes filled with tears when German-born Walter told her how his parents had been killed during the Holocaust and how he and his brother had found a home in the Jewish state. Until she and Larry met us, the Holocaust had been an abstraction, Jewish history enigmatic and of little interest. Seated at dinner, glancing through the porthole where on occasion schools of whales briefly surfaced on foam-topped waves, we who never would have spoken in other circumstances educated each other in small but crucial ways.
On that first cruise, I discovered that conversations among passengers are always launched with that ubiquitous question: “Where are you from?” First names are readily offered while surnames remain closely guarded. Thus, religious backgrounds generally are a matter for conjecture unless a cross, Jewish star or head scarf is visible. I myself wear a damascene hai, which establishes my identity, but for the most part Jews who cruise seem to prefer to remain incognito, a community of Marranos on the high seas.
All that changed on Friday night as we steamed out of the city of Sitka. Sabbath services “for passengers of the Hebrew faith,” the ship’s daily bulletin announced, would be held in one of the smaller lounges. We anticipated a sparse attendance, but slowly the room filled as the secret Jews gathered in the glow of the Sabbath candles and revealed themselves.
We saw with surprise that the aristocratic silver-haired older couple whom I had taken for Boston Brahmins were helping their golden-haired teenaged granddaughter (to whom I had assigned reluctant-debutante status) find her place in the siddur. Two burly men, who seemed to have spent much of the voyage in the casino dashing from slot machines to blackjack tables, were distributing yarmulkes. An elderly gentleman from Omaha, who during a lifeboat drill told me that he and his wife were celebrating their 50th anniversary and their 50th cruise, was intoning the call to worship in loud and fluent Ashkenazic Hebrew. An English couple murmured mildly against the mixed seating and we smiled in recognition.
We were at home among Jews finding fault with their synagogue, as discontented at sea as they would be at their home congregation in Leeds. We sailed into the sunset singing “Shalom Aleikhem” and we made Kiddush and hamotzi as the harbor lights faded into darkness. A large halla had been specially baked for the services and I carried slices back to the dinner table for Beth and Larry, who pronounced it delicious and asked questions about Shabbat observance.
On our last evening at sea we exchanged addresses with our honeymooners—more radiant than ever—cynically convinced that, as with most brief vacation encounters, we would never hear from them again. We were surprised, then, to receive a beautiful card from them on Rosh Hashana and, of course, we reciprocated with a card and letter at Christmas. When a suicide bomb struck in Tel Aviv, Beth called us for reassurance that Sivia and Walter were unhurt. Over the years we continue to write, always sending them a card from Israel.
Of course, after that first cruise we were hooked. A particularly severe winter found us skimming across the Caribbean, soaking up the sun and gaining new insights into how Jews are perceived by those who rarely, or never, have the opportunity to meet them. Our dinner companions included Lorraine and Bill, a lovely couple from Arkansas. They were Evangelical Christians with wonderful, laconic accents who had visited “the Holy Land” and “just loved the Jewish people.”
We had pleasant chats about Israel, Sheldon and I talking about Masada and listening to them rhapsodize about the Garden of Gethsemane, all of us in agreement about the beauty of the Galilee and the courage of the people of Israel. At dinner, after a day spent in Cozumel, Lorraine, who loved jewelry and had shown us with much pride the diamond cross she had purchased in Jerusalem, displayed her Mexican acquisitions. She flourished a beautiful turquoise ring.
“And what do y’all think I paid for it?” (Comparative pricing is an accepted and conventional cruise conversational exchange.)
It was clearly valuable and one of our dinner companions ventured a hesitant guess.
“Well, that’s what he wanted but I jewed him down to $900.” She smiled triumphantly at me. “Didn’t I do good?”
I felt my husband’s monitory pressure on my knee and simply nodded, although my hands trembled and my cheeks burned. There was no point in correcting her, in discussing the origin of jew with a lower case j, invoking Shakespeare, Shylock and the dangers of stereotyping—she was not an anti-Semite and we would be having dinner with her for another four nights. We were not a sea-bound extension of the ADL.
What I could do was demonstrate by word and demeanor my own pride in my Jewishness and indirectly mention the insensitivity of racial and religious slurs, no matter how unintentionally meant. This I did, navigating my way into a discussion of the origin of the expression gyp (a verb right up there with jew, derived as it is from Gypsy), but not, I admit with some shame, until the very last night of the cruise.
For my husband’s 70th birthday, we daringly invited all our children and grandchildren, 13 in all, to join us on another Caribbean cruise, this one sailing on Christmas eve. The ship, of course, was festooned for the holiday with wreaths and mistletoe, beautifully decorated trees in all the main lounges, Christmas pudding and venison on the menu and, on Christmas day, a jolly Santa seated on his throne, dispensing gaily wrapped packages to small children dressed for the holiday. Somewhere in a corner there was a menora and “latkies” (their spelling) and brisket were dinner choices.
Our five grandchildren, all of them Jewish day school students with rather insular backgrounds, living as they do in predominantly Jewish sections of Cleveland and London, gazed at the festivities in wonderment. Pangs of regret seized us.
We wondered if the voyage was ill-timed, if it would prove traumatic, if they would feel left out. They went off happily to the ship’s day camp and returned at lunch with construction-paper wreaths. We dutifully admired them and worried some more. We needn’t have. They danced back from the afternoon session with clay menoras in which cardboard candles were placed.
“How nice of them to have an activity for Jewish children,” I murmured.
“It wasn’t only for Jewish children,” Ruthy protested. “All the children made them. Gila and I taught them how to do it. And we taught them the dreidel song.”
So we did not worry when all five of them scurried off to sit on Santa’s lap and claim their gifts—cruise bags on wheels, which they announced they would save for next year’s Hanukka vacation.
Friday night services on that Christmas cruise were unusually well attended, and I was pleased that they were led by a young man we had met at a synagogue in Vermont, just as my son-in-law was pleased to accept his yarmulke from a Cambridge classmate he had last seen in Jerusalem. Jewish geography was effortlessly played on wind-tossed seas with Jewish prayers muting the carols being sung in a neighboring room.
During a particularly brutal January we booked passage on a ship sailing to Jamaica and the Cayman Islands. (Sheldon and I are in agreement that the journey is more important than the destination and we make our arrangements to suit our pocketbooks and schedules.) We shared our dinner table with Gwen and Hank, a pleasant middle-aged couple from a small Iowa town. On the first evening Hank declined my husband’s offer to share a bottle of wine because he and his wife belonged to a church that frowned on drinking.
“Baptist,” he said, and we nodded politely.
On the third evening we found the vegetarian and fish choices unappealing and asked for kosher meat meals, which our travel agent had arranged in advance. (This is not really necessary because most ships routinely stock them, but I take no chances.) Hank and Gwen watched with interest as we unsealed the aluminum-foil wrapping and then Gwen, somewhat hesitantly, asked me to explain what kosher meant. I talked about ritual slaughtering, the need to separate milk and meat, animals and fish that were forbidden and, mindful of her Bible-based faith, that all these strictures were rooted in the Torah.
She listened with great interest.
“So you keep kosher because you’re obedient to God,” she said.
“Not exactly.” And then I went on to talk about the sociological, emotional and cultural importance of kashrut, how it was observed differently by different Jews, how my observance might not be sanctioned by those who were Orthodox and how even among the Orthodox there were varied levels. (My husband, fortunately, stopped me before I could launch into an explanation of glatt.)
Gwen turned to Hank. “If the Bible says it’s right maybe we should keep kosher,” she said.
“Now, Gwen,” he said reasonably, “there are no Jews anywhere around us. Where would we find a kosher butcher? And besides, did Jesus keep kosher?”
“I don’t know,” we said in unison and busied ourselves with our veal (which was glatt and awful) as Hank went on to recall that there was indeed one Jewish family in their town, and they both wondered how they managed to find kosher meat.
The next day Gwen had additional questions. She wanted to know how Jews felt about the afterlife and Jesus. She seemed satisfied when we told her that we recognized a historical Jesus who was indeed a great teacher but whom we did not accept as the messiah, and that while Judaism had a concept of an afterlife, it was most concerned with this life.
“We’re not that far apart then,” she said contentedly, adding that our explanations had led her to want to learn more about Jews and Judaism. We exchanged affectionate farewells, each of us aware that our encounter could only have taken place on a cruise ship.
Not all such meetings on the high seas are amiable. There are, of course, moments of discomfort. On one trip, at an open-seating breakfast, we found ourselves beside an older woman who told us that although she lived in Savannah she was originally from Germany, the Black Forest region—a community that had enthusiastically embraced Nazism. The Holocaust memoir I was reading rested on the table between us. I saw her glance at it and blush hotly.
“When did you come to the States?” I asked.
“In the 50’s.”
I calculated her age, late seventies, old enough for her to have been in Hitler youth or worse—an unkind, unsubstantiated calculation that came unbidden. We said nothing more to each other but the air was heavy with the words left unspoken. I saw her several times on deck during the course of the voyage but we did not acknowledge each other.
Waiting for our luggage at journey’s end, my husband and I fell into conversation with another couple. The woman told us that they were Armenian and the one unpleasantness of their cruise experience was that their waiter was a Turk.
“It was hard for us,” she said. “Of course, he was much too young to have had anything to do with the genocide, but just because you are on a cruise doesn’t mean you leave your history behind.”
I nodded in agreement. We, too, did not leave our history behind. We hug our Judaism, our Zionism, ever closer as we set sail in the company of strangers. We are conscious that we are, at once, inadvertent ambassadors, seagoing teachers, Jews who cruise, proudly carrying our precious history and heritage onto the graceful liners that transport us across tranquil waters.