It certainly wasn’t your average Friday night Sabbath.
Here I was, aboard the Queen Mary 2, arguably one of the most famous passenger ships in the world. (The original Queen Mary ferried bygone passengers, like Cary Grant, the Duke of Windsor and Bing Crosby.) It was a sunny Friday morning, and I sat in my room, flipping through the daily program of activities. And there it was, buried on the bottom of the third page, just after the 5:00 p.m. Friends of Dorothy gay gathering and the Wildcard Blackjack Tournament: Sabbath Eve Services (unhosted). The words jumped out at me like a letter from my past.
I rarely attend Friday night services these days, yet I have wonderful memories of walking with my grandfather, hand in hand, to our majestic neighborhood synagogue in Brooklyn.
Now, like many Jews, I search for Jewishness when I’m in a strange place. I have found it in China during a tour of a synagogue in Shanghai by the Chinese shamus; in Turkey in the form of a hidden synagogue in Izmir, and in India during a Sabbath dinner at a restaurant called Menorah in the town of Cochin, just to name a few of the places. And now I found it here, on a trans-Atlantic crossing filled with more than 2,200 people.
One of the stops was Hamburg, Germany. I must admit, the presence of many Germans made me feel uncomfortable and decidedly Jewish at the same time. There was a certain irony in having such a German presence on the ship. During World War II, the original Queen Mary was used as a troop carrier, and after the war, many refugees found their way to the United States aboard it. I was here because I had been asked to give a lecture on media and the future of news.
The room for the services was a sparse, secular space filled with 30 chairs and a collection of yarmulkes and prayer books alongside a sheaf of stapled Friday night prayer selections. Braided challah, a few bottles of wine and two-dozen servings of gefilte fish, accompanied by two bottles of horseradish, sat on a table opposite a lectern set up at the front of the room. There were nine people there. And as it turns out, we weren’t all Jews; three of the attendees were German Seventh-Day Adventists who wanted to see a Jewish service. So here we were, six Jews on a ship that set sail from the Brooklyn cruise terminal. Not even enough for a minyan. “Why don’t you conduct the services?” someone asked me. I got the honor, I figured, since I was the only man wearing a suit.
Now, as a retired reporter, I do a lot of public speaking. I have been on radio and television. But I never had conducted a Friday night service, and I had no idea where to start. Don’t get me wrong. I know many prayers by heart, but I was encountering some unfamiliar Hebrew. I stumbled my way through some of the prayers, reading the transliterations. I felt like I was cheating but. I was uncomfortable and self-conscious, repeatedly hesitating on unfamiliar words. Then a thought struck me: Why not have everyone share the reading, just as we do at Passover Seders? And so we did. The Seventh-Day Adventists were transfixed — more out of politeness, I think, because it was a scraggly reading.
When it ended, I sighed, somewhat out of relief, but realized that this had been a moving experience for everyone in the room. I cut the challah. I said the prayers over the wine and bread (by heart).
I kissed my wife, Roz, and wished her “Good Shabbos.” Of course, she could not light candles as she usually does: Open flames are not permitted on such ships. But I had run a Friday night service — somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
My grandfather would have kvelled.
Gerald Eskenazi, a retired New York Times sportswriter, lectures on the news media, pop culture and sports.