"SHARED PAST PUTS US ALL ON THE SAME BOAT"
Jewish All-Kosher Riverboat Cruise On The Danube & Rhine; August 19 – September 2, 2016 with Kosher River Cruises
By Sharon Livingston – Travel writer for the London Jewish Chronicle, published October 2016
We had boarded MS Sapphire at Nuremburg to join a boat full exclusively of Modern Orthodox Jews – around 80 or so – on this 8-day glatt kosher Jewish heritage river cruise along the Rhine.
This 135 metre luxury vessel would be a sailing from Nuremburg to Amsterdam stopping at, Bamberg, Wurzburg, Mainz, Worms, Frankfurt and Cologne in search of Jewish heritage – much of it medieval and some WWII.
Having missed our transfers at Munich airport, we caught the train and just about made it just in time for Kabbalat Shabbat. Everyone was already seated in a dining room already alive chatter.
Malcolm Green, the chef and co-owner of Kosher River Cruises steered us to two empty seats on a table with an Israeli woman travelling with her mother in law. His welcome was as hearty as the gourmet meals he produces and we soon caught up with our new acquaintances tucking into a bowl of chicken and kreplach soup and a large roll of challah before venturing to the buffet.
The boat stayed docked through Shabbat and we were entertained with shiurs and lectures from Rabbi Stuart Weiss, Rabbi Elli Fisher and Dr Rachael Furst – the resident lecturers and special guests Rabbi Marvin Hier and Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The next 25 hours flew by and soon we were wishing each other Shavua Tov. Rabbi Weiss’ voice boomed through the loud speakers. “I’d like to invite you to do Havdalah on the sundeck. We have to start now before the boat reaches the low bridge.”
We gathered – men and women together – under the inky starry sky to serenade in the week as we set sail through the dark but pristinely clean German waterways.
Our first stop on Sunday was Bamberg – a gorgeous, colourful but tiny town but without much evidence of Jewish life. We were told this is where there once stood a synagogue or this was the site of a mikvah – that kind of thing.
Back on board though, the lack of anything meaty to get out teeth into was compensated with a hefty lunch with soup, salads, duck, chicken, tongue, fish and all sorts of vegetables and tantalising deserts.
The other towns were less sparse heritage-wise and feelings were close to the surface when hearing about the decimation of Jewish communities. We visited grand synagogues that once had thriving communities and still in use such as Frankfurt, Worms, Cologne and Amsterdam.
Some were truly horrible histories but there were poignant moments. At Frankfurt we visited the old cemetery on Judengasse (Jew’s Lane). Reading the tombstone of Meyer Rothschild, a fellow traveller, a sprightly lady in her 80s from New York, whispered through smiling lips “you know, my great, great, grandmother was Meyer Rothschild’s cook”. We recited teffilah in the cemetery for the 13,000 that perished in the holocaust and a sombre sense of connectedness and solidarity descended.
It was a stroke of genius to match this cruise with the American-based Simon Wiesenthal Centre – named after the Nazi hunter who tracked down the Nazi, Eichmann. Rabbi Marvin Hier who founded the centre and the Museum of Tolerance together with Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the dean, were sailing with us. The charismatic duo gave fascinating lectures on the spread of terrorism and antisemitism via social media and spoke about how world politics effects Israel. Both were available to chat and answer questions throughout the trip.
Rabbi Hier is also an academy award-winning documentary filmmaker and we were privy to three of his tearjerkers: The Prime Ministers; Winston Churchill: Walking with Destiny and Unlikely heroes. By the end of each there was hardly a dry-eye and the quiet was broken by small sounds of snuffled sniffs.
And of course, did I mention there was food: breakfast, lunch, tea, dinner and just when you thought it was all over, a late night snack. Meal times were always a relaxed free-seating affair which meant you could dine with someone new each time. And food is a great ice-breaker – there were plenty of quips about how they couldn’t take another bite while reaching for seconds.
We were the only Brits on board. Others hailed from Israel and North America and many were regulars. Naturally everyone had an opinion on Trump, Clinton, Bibi, world events, Israel and Jews in the diaspora and Brexit.
There were heated and even controversial conversations and serious subjects were peppered with Jewish humour and often accompanied by the Jewish shrug. And there was plenty of talk of grown-up children, forthcoming weddings and grand kids. Oy!
Slowly we passed scenic verdant banks of the Rhine dotted at times with castles and vineyards. And so it was also delight to zone out on the sundeck under the warming sun.
One evening entertainment was provided by a former opera singer turned Chazzan who turned prayers into operatic extravaganzas. On other evenings we all came together for singalongs with songs famous on both sides of the Atlantic.
On the last night we met for the last time for a sing-a-long in the lounge. We ended the evening with a few Hebrew songs including Jerusalem of Gold and ended with Hatikvah. No-one could resist the impulse to dance. A mere eight days earlier we were strangers. Now we were friends. This was true community – a phenomenon that could only be produced by a boat full of Jews – and fine food.
Note: Kosher River Cruises (www.kosherirvercruise.com) run a variety of glatt kosher Jewish river and heritage cruises. The next one will be Normandy, Seine River cruise sailing October 24 – Jewish Heroism – A Tribute to the Jewish Soldiers of World War I & II and
D-Day Plus French Culinary Program. Prices start from $5890 inclusive, air fares are not included. For a truly exotic experience, June 28th departs the Vietnam & Cambodia Mekong River Cruise. Prices start from $5990 inclusive, not including air.
Sharron Livingston is an award winning freelance travel writer. She ran the travel desk at The Jewish Chronicle in the UK for almost ten years as the travel editor. She runs her own online travel magazine at www.thetravelmagazine.net
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