One thing you can expect without fail on an AACI cruise is a scholar-in-residence. It might be a ‘scholar,’ as in college professor, but, more likely, it will be a rabbi (who might also be a scholar). Aharon Adler is a rabbi, a scholar, a musician, and a regular good guy. He also manages to get around. He leads groups to the Death Camps in Poland and can be found as a main attraction at some Israeli hotel over the various holidays. I’m sure he has a ‘trunkful’ of prepared talks, from which he can pick and choose the right ones for any occasion. But sometimes he’ll be asked a question that needs to be dealt with right then and there. I was Johnny-on-the-spot with a question about Birkat Cohanim (the priestly blessing), which he was more than willing to address and provide some much-needed clarification. If nothing else, I needed to know if I would be on-duty or off-duty as we sailed the wine-dark seas.
Rabbi Adler suggested we take a step back and ask a more fundamental question. It says clearly in the Torah that we priestly guys are supposed to get up and do our thing every day; so how is it that is not what happens in the lands of the Ashkenazim? It seems that back in the Middle-Ages, there were some self-styled Hasidei Ashkenaz (having no connection to present-day Hasidim); their shtick was to have their Cohanim dunk themselves in a mikvah prior to davening. This practice became impractical during the chilly winters in northern and eastern Europe. There may not have been a mikvah nearby, and the death rate from pneumonia would have decimated their priestly fellows. So instead of abandoning their humrah and having the guys just wash their hands like normal people do, they threw out the baby with the mikvah water. No more daily Birkat Cohanim for the Ashkenazim!
Things are different here in The Land. All Cohanim – regardless of remote ancestry or current affiliation – can get up and strut their stuff at Shacharit and Mussaf (assuming they’re in shul at the appropriate time). But what’s the deal once the ship leaves the confines of Haifa Bay? When we were on a similar cruise ten years ago, we were led to believe that since we were on an Israeli ship, it was as if we were in Israel, and we would act accordingly. Well, that’s not exactly how it should be done.
When someone is leaving Israel, whether by ship or plane, that person remains ‘in transit’ until reaching a destination with a ‘Jewish community,’ at which point, our weary traveler is now – at least temporarily – a galutnik, whereby the rules of the Exile kick in. In our specific circumstance, the other Cohen in our group and I were on duty until we reached Venice, whereupon we could rest up until our ship returned to Haifa. This bit of information is not just relevant to members of the priestly persuasion; it applies in other circumstances (second day of Hagim, when a fast would end, etc.) Of course, if you never leave The Land, you never have to worry about such details. But then you would never get to join us on a cruise.
Now that we had clarified this point of interest, Barbara and I had to decide what to do on Day 2 when the Crown Iris was sailing the Mediterranean on its way to Crete. There was only so much time we could spend in the dining room or at one of Rabbi Adler’s talks. One thing we could do to keep us trim and out of trouble was head up to the walking track on deck seven. Four times around, the sign said, and you’ve done a mile. We weren’t the only ones heel-and-toe-ing it around the deck. A fair number of us were weaving our way through and around the less energetic folks sprawled out on lounge chairs, some of whom were taking advantage of the you-can-smoke-here areas. Walking around the ship was much like being in Israel: lots of climate zones in such a small area. The side in the sun was warm, the other side much cooler. As we neared the stern (rear) of the ship, it became very windy. The bow (front) was calm and pleasant. If one slowed down a bit and stopped to look, there was a bronze plaque on the bow, with the legend of where the ship was built and when: 1994. The ship has been through several different owners before being acquired and refurbished by Mano. What they did with their previous ship, I have no idea.
It does get boring after a while, going around and around, seeing the same people huffing and puffing, the same people reclining, the same people getting their nicotine fix, the same deck. After a few miles we called it quits. What else is there to do?
Cruise ships do provide ways to while away the hours: exercise classes, cooking classes, places to hang out and have a drink or some very decent coffee. There were a number of white baby-grand pianos strategically placed on deck five, and there were a few men and women paid to sit there and play. But one of the highlights of our trip was listening to two Russian ladies taking turns at a piano placed right next to the coffee bar where Barbara and I would head for our daily cappuccino with soy milk.
There were, I’m told,1400 passengers aboard, many of whom were Israeli citizens from the Former Soviet Union. Now if you have 400 Russians in a room, it’s almost certain that, in their midst, will be a few pianists. These two were quite good, mixing in some classical music with some Russian favorites, to the delight of those assembled. Coffee and Chopin, you can’t go wrong with that.
I figured I would have lots of time to get in some reading while we were away. To get me in the mood for our journey on the wine-dark seas, I had acquired a new translation of The Odyssey (by Emily Wilson, if you’re at all interested. Highly recommended.) And there we were, heading due west in the Mediterranean towards Crete, towards where the Greek gods and the goddesses played in by-gone days. But that would be the next day, when we would finally reach Chania (pronounced today like Chanukkah. In Homer’s time, it was Cydonia – as in ‘Some ships were hurled to Crete, to River Jardan/where the Cydonian people have their homes.’). We weren’t exactly being ‘hurled,’ which was fine as far as I was concerned – landlubber that I am.