Don's diary

January 5, 1996

Friday. Ships sails. Have I got all the Hanukkah candles? What about my prayer book? Is the menorah packed as well? I have been engaged as the rabbi on the QE2 Caribbean Christmas and New Year cruise, but I'll never be asked to do this again if I forget my rabbinical gear.

Having packed and repacked three times, we are all set at last! After a mad rush to the train station - our taxi is late - we depart for Southampton. On arrival at the docks, we see the stacks of the ship on the horizon. Eventually we find our stateroom, and I go to meet with the cruise director.

To my horror, I discover that I am to lead the Sabbath service in just over an hour - but where is the synagogue? After a desperate search, I find it just in time. Only customer is an elderly French gentleman.

Saturday. No rest for the rabbi - Sabbath services at 9am. Breakfast is gargantuan.

By 9:05am no one has come to the synagogue. Eventually 12 worshippers assemble. I do my stuff, and no one raises an awkward point of protocol. So far so good.

After the service, I work all morning on my new book in the library. Attempt to do the ship's literary quiz just before lunch. Pathetic effort. Little old lady sitting next to me seems to know all the answers.

After a sumptuous lunch and a vast tea, go to dress for dinner. I eat six courses but am conscious that I need to leave room for the midnight snack. In the dining room wave at some of my "congregants". Feel I'm doing a good job.

Sunday. Today is the first day of Hanukkah. The feast celebrates the victory of the ultra-Orthodox Jews over the slack Hellenisers in the second century BC. Looking over my small flock gathered in the synagogue, I have a sneaking suspicion that many would have been on the side of the Hellenisers! None the less, we do our best. The candles are lit, and we all join together in ragged singing led by my not very musical wife.

Then off to the captain's cocktail party - I wear my rabbinical hat and indicate to the captain that all is going well on the spiritual side. Hope I am right. Sea mercifully remains calm, and we consume a vast quantity of delicious canapes.

Monday. Attend cultural lecture given by one of the ship's visiting speakers. Very interesting subject, but not always easy to hear as lecture is delivered from a script and the speaker does not talk into the microphone. Notice that my next door neighbour sleeps throughout. Make a mental note to speak slowly and clearly to my own students in the future.

Then off to dancing class - need to be taught very basic steps for a waltz. Instead, the dancing instructor introduces a highly tricky rumba routine. Totally lost, and step on my wife's foot. As usual, a sumptuous lunch is served and feel much better.

Service in the evening. We have now got into the routine and the singing is really not bad at all.

Tuesday. Third night of Hanukkah. Ask the head chef if we could have doughnuts and potato latkes plus apple sauce after the lighting of the candles. On arrival at the synagogue find a massive tray stacked full of food. Everyone cheers up and the singing improves still further.

After another six-course dinner go to the party for those travelling on the world cruise -have never seen so many diamonds except in the Tower of London. My picture is taken with the captain and I greet some of my "congregants". Feel stuffed.

Later in the evening go to the midnight feast. It looks like a Roman banquet with swan ice carvings and food piled high. Decide I must take it easy and only eat three cakes. Should I start a diet tomorrow?

Wednesday. Arrival in New York. Get up at 5am to catch a glimpse of the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan.

Feel very moved. My grandmother was a tiny child when she sailed steerage with her parents to make a new life in America away from the anti-semitism of Europe. Am allowed off the ship with the first group of passengers because we are in transit for the Caribbean.

First stop, Fifth Avenue for shopping. Pass a huge bookshop and am gratified to find three of my books in stock. Then get rather cross: why hasn't anyone bought them?

Pat the stone lions outside the sacred portals of New York public library and admire the brashness of it all. The usual commercial Christmas frenzy is in full swing.

Can not decide whether to visit Santa Claus at Macy's or go skating in Rockefeller Centre. Compromise by eating a huge lunch at a proper Jewish delicatessen. Feel I have come home.

Panic at 3:30pm. Ship due to sail at 4pm and streets are icy. Happily New York taxi driver knows the way and has no respect for traffic lights or pedestrians.

Make it back just in time for the fourth day of Hanukkah service aboard the ship. Note with gloom that many new passengers have joined the party and they all seem to be Jewish. My "congregation" may well be more demanding.

As a sensible precaution I order a quadruple quantity of potato latkes and doughnuts for the rest of the trip. Am surprised to find myself hungry for dinner.

Dan Cohn-Sherbok Rabbi and professor of Jewish theology at the University of Kent.

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