There we were, safely back on board the Costa Diadema, which would set sail from Civitavecchia at 6PM. For most of the passengers on board, it would be another day at sea, getting on and off the ship at the port of Savona. But for us, the AACI’ers, it would be Shabbat, so, while we could get a tantalizing view of this old and picturesque port from the balcony of our cabin or the decks of the ship, we would remain on board until we arrived at Marseilles Sunday morning. We would have our meals, served buffet style, in a different restaurant on one of the upper decks (either walking or using one of the Shabbat elevators to get there), and the Shabbat prayer services would be held in an area that is normally a disco. And therein lies a tale. In this case, one related by Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, one just too good not to tell his audience, and for me not to tell you.
It seems, he announced, that this was the second time that he was davening on Shabbat in a disco. Well, that got everyone’s attention real fast – as he, the master story teller, knew it would.
A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… Actually, it wasn’t a different galaxy and it wasn’t that long ago, but was, in a sense, a different world: the West Side of Manhattan when I first started living there, when there wasn’t much happening Jewishly. Rabbi Riskin had just begun working at what would become the Lincoln Square Synagogue. Somehow, it’s not clear to me exactly how, he had befriended Rabbi Yitzchak Dovid Grossman, known universally, for good reason, as the “disco rabbi.” And whenever R. Grossman came to New York on business, he would stay with the Riskins.
As our narrator described it, on this particular Friday night, after dinner, R. Grossman asked his host to go with him for a walk – something R. Riskin rarely if ever did, because the atmosphere on and around Broadway seemed at odds with the serenity of Shabbat. Nonetheless, R. Riskin, being a good host, agreed to go. They left the apartment, and R. Grossman, as if he knew exactly where he was going, headed straight up Broadway to 72nd St. – right into a discothèque run by and for Israelis, one open 24/7.
Suddenly, into this mayhem, walked R. Riskin in his Shabbat clothing and the absolutely unmistakable R. Grossman in his Chassidish finery. The musicians stopped playing; the crowd stopped dancing. It was absolutely quiet. Then R. Grossman began to sing. Everyone began to sing. People began to dance – believe it or not, men and women separately. For fifteen minutes, the discothèque was transformed into a holy place. At which point, R. Grossman turned and left, followed by R. Riskin. And once again, the discothèque became a discothèque. The musicians began to play, and the people began to dance – seemingly as if nothing had happened.
However, that’s not the end of the story, because if it was, it would be just another fascinating meisseh to tell around a Shabbat table. In those days, the Lincoln Square Synagogue was no more than a shteibel, and when anybody wanted to join the congregation, that person was asked to fill out a questionnaire asking how he or she found out about the synagogue. For years after that incident, people explained that their motivation for joining a synagogue, that synagogue, was the fact that the rabbis had made the effort to come to them at the disco.
And so, R. Riskin concluded, this would not be the first time he had spent Shabbat in a disco, transforming it, at least for a time, into something holy. I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but I know that, once we finished our Friday night prayers, the place was turned back into what it had been, a place of merry-making, with people sitting at cocktail tables, listening to live music, dancing the night away. And then the staff carefully cleaned up, so that when we reassembled for Shacharit Shabbat morning, the room looked exactly how we had left it. Who knew you could use a cocktail table for a shtender to rest your prayer book? So that is how each of us got to spend Shabbat in a discothèque. You should try it some time.