It was the end of a long but spectacular nine days. No, not those Nine Days; it was the last nine days of what was school break for many and a kind of winter vacation for others. We, as I explained last week in a piece written from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, wanted to see and experience what a kosher cruise was like, what it is that so many who have gone before us find so exhilarating and rave about.
So let me start at the end, which was this past Sunday morning. We were up on the 12th and uppermost deck of the ship, as this floating city slowly, very slowly, sailed into New York Harbor. The captain had nonchalantly announced that we would shortly sail beneath the Verrazano Narrows Bridge (quite a sight) and then off to the right would be lower Manhattan’s Freedom Tower—on the site of the pre-2001 World Trade Center.
Then there was also the green lady with her towering torch, her beacon of light that for so many has signaled the arrival to these shores over so many years. I bring up these points because as we floated by these historic sights, I thought that they would be interesting, but would mean little else. Yet I found that I could not resist conjuring up images of some of our parents and most of our grandparents and great-grandparents who sailed through these very waters at a time when there was no bridge from Brooklyn to Staten Island and a less spectacular sight to behold when passing lower Manhattan. When I locked my sights on the almost-completed Freedom Tower pointing high above the rest of that skyline, I could not help reflecting on what had occurred at that site on 9/11, the extraordinary loss of life and the emotional trauma it caused to the American psyche. There is perhaps no other day in modern history that has so changed the world we live in.
I imagine the immigrants of yesteryear fleeing tyranny, persecution, and death in the European ghettos and seeing a glimmer of hope as they set their eyes on the New World. On those ships of old, everything about the passengers’ lives may have been broken except for whatever was left of their spark of humanity and their faith in G‑d. I looked around as we sailed into New York and I guessed that I just may have been the only one cognizant of the fact that this was International Holocaust Remembrance Day. But I just parked that information somewhere in the recesses of my mind because these were the concluding few hours of a spectacular journey filled with learning experiences, daf yomi classes, incisive lectures and shiurim, much fun, and exorbitant amounts of food.
There were 3,000 people aboard our ship, the Norwegian Gem, and probably about 1,000 Orthodox Jews—300 with Yehuda Shiffman’s Kosherica program (including us) and the balance celebrating intersession or winter vacation in the warm environs of the Caribbean Islands including Puerto Rico, St. Martin, St. Thomas, and Samaná, Dominican Republic.
Of course I’ve heard and read about Kosherica, their cruises and other programs, for many years. Fortunately they have been clients of ours here in the 5TJT for a long time and consider our readership to include their prime target market. But reading or hearing about it and then experiencing it are very divergent experiences. More than a week at sea, including two Shabbosos, was quite an excursion.
There were people on board that have traveled extensively by sea over the years. As for Mr. Shiffman himself, he said that prior to this trip he had just returned from a two-week cruise of Australia and New Zealand, was on this cruise down south, and then the afternoon of our late arrival in New York had to catch a flight to Florida where he was leaving on another seven-day cruise that evening.
Of course, my wife and I did some reading and studying about life on the high seas in preparation for this journey, and we both were well prepared. We filled our bags with all kinds of remedies for seasickness, just in case. I mean once you embark on your seaward nine-day journey, there is no such thing as, “This thing is not working out so well; I think I’d like to get off at the next stop.”
But that is not entirely true either. The fact is that the non-Kosherica customers were not at all happy with the airline-type packaged cuisine offered by the cruise line. So dissatisfied were they that 40 people disembarked in Puerto Rico and either stayed there for a couple of days and eventually flew back to New York or flew back directly. I guess there is a small margin of error in every business, even this one.
That was not the case with us and our separate dining room, for example. Considering what the majority of the kosher-consuming passengers experienced and were griping about, by contrast I would have to categorize our food service as over the top, if not opulent.
As a result, there was some discussion about people who book such a jaunt at a third of the price of the more upscale program and hope and intend to partake in the more expensive program throughout the nine-day adventure. I did meet some people whom I knew from before who were with their families on the no-frills dimension of the cruise and who had no idea that the Kosherica group would be on the same trip. But there were probably a greater number of people who believed that they could piggyback in some fashion on the Kosherica program with their discounted price.
This experience fortunately was not only about food. We were privileged to hear from one of today’s most inspiring and intellectual orators, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Jacobson. The man paints colorful mental images that listeners to his lectures can both see and touch. He is the former rabbi of a shul in Crown Heights and is now on the speaking circuit and traveling the world delivering extraordinary insights into Torah concepts, and inspiring as well as moving crowds of people wherever he appears.
He delivered a powerful presentation on the subject of child abuse in the Orthodox Jewish community and the need for openness and transparency so as to protect the children. He said that he has spoken with and observed far too many adults who cannot get their lives on track, and very often, Rabbi Jacobson said, there is a common denominator—they were abused as children.
On the issue of those who have been exposed or prosecuted by the government of late and the reaction in some communities, he said, “Torah is strong enough to survive and prevail without benefiting from any cover-ups.”
On the flip side, our group was entertained by Avraham Fried, Lipa Schmeltzer, and Dudu Fisher, as well as cantors Yakov Motzen, Simon Cohen, and Colin Shuchat. Frankly, we were pretty busy around the clock.
On this nearly 1,000-foot-long ship, one is rarely aware that we are sailing the high seas, though at times you are very much aware of where you are. When you are sailing 3,000 miles round trip up and down the East Coast it is not always going to be exactly smooth sailing. And we had our rough spots, but at least we didn’t have to buckle our seat belts and bounce around 35,000 feet in the air for a change. There were a few moments there—mostly at night—when the ship tried to do its best imitation of a roller coaster. The fashion in which these many thousands of tons can be nudged around by the power of the sea is just an additional tribute to the waters’ strength and its fearsomeness.
It wasn’t lost on many of us that as we sailed on this last Shabbos morning we also read the Torah portion that included the details of the splitting of the sea and how that was the escape route of the Jewish nation from ancient Egypt. Of course that took place somewhere in the Middle East, while we trudged along perhaps 25 miles or so off the South Carolina coast. But as you stare off into the horizon, you soon come to the realization that water is water and that the world is dominated and even subservient to it on so many levels.
As we sailed past the Statue of Liberty on a bright and clear Sunday morning, I recalled part of the poem inscribed on its base. It says: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free . . .” And somehow, though the great passage of time, some of those lines remain valid and true. After all, we were tired from nine days at sea and way too much eating and, for some, drinking. Some were poorer, either from overstaying their welcome in the ship’s casino or perhaps from too much shopping offshore.
But were we huddled masses? In a sense we were huddled, as we prepared to disembark and make a dash for our luggage. Were we yearning to breathe free? Of course we were. It was a fabulous nine days, but as the end drew near it was indeed time to take a deep breath, gather our strength, and head home. v
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