Jews who cruise: I’m now a member of the floating faithful

Now I know I’m getting old: I finally took my first cruise. And I liked it. No more dissing cruise ships as floating geriatric wards with duty-free shops. Never again will I look down on the overfed masses strolling the teakwood decks. My trip to Alaska turned out to be more fun — and more Jewish — than I expected.

The Noordam is the crown jewel of the Holland America line. Robyn and I boarded her in Seattle and departed for Alaska’s Inside Passage. She’s a fine ship, nimble on the open sea. Not that I’d know. I was too preoccupied with the taco bar and the towel folding classes.

On day three, dodging whales and icebergs, we sailed into Glacier Bay. A wall of sky-blue ice girded the face of Margerie Glacier, its fanciful minarets doomed to calve by nightfall. I had never seen anything so magnificent. Huddled in the drizzle, we sipped hot cocoa and cooed.

My pleasure reading for the week was Michael Chabon’s “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union,” set in a mythical Jewish homeland in Sitka. Docked in the real Sitka, I tried to imagine it as Chabon’s dark and crowded metropolis. Instead I found it airy and beautiful. The only thing Jewish about Sitka was the spawning salmon dying in the creeks: All that lox going to waste.

When we docked in Juneau, I skipped the touristy waterfront, and instead met with Becca Braun, leader of a small Reform congregation, Sukkat Shalom. Becca moved there 13 years ago to write for a local paper. Now she counts herself among the frozen chosen and was happy to show me Jewish Juneau.

Housed in a former daycare center, tiny Sukkat Shalom is a prime example of Jewish determination. Even in Juneau, accessible only by sea or air, Jews have thrived, as Becca proudly noted.

Back on ship, we signed up for the weeklong trivia contest, a daily dose of 20 questions hard enough to give Alex Trebek the bends. We randomly sat next to a young couple and asked if they’d form a team with us. Mitch and Batsheva of Kansas City agreed. Turned out they were Jewish. Hello, Team J.

We were unstoppable. We knew what “nictating” meant (blinking). We named the last female singer over age 50 to land a No.1 single (Cher). By week’s end, we won Holland America T-shirts plus the glory of finishing first among two dozen teams.

On Friday night, the Noordam gave us a room for Shabbat services. The crew provided siddurs, wine, challah and, God bless ’em, gefilte fish. More than 20 people showed, including Jews from Australia, Israel and across the United States. Also there, Uzi Cohen, an Alameda resident and veteran of Israel’s Six-Day War. In perfect Hebrew, he led us in prayer. It wasn’t a polished service, but it couldn’t have been more heartfelt.

At week’s end, back in Seattle, we said our goodbyes. I know I will never see these people again, but that’s the nature of cruise vacations. Instant friends; quick goodbyes.

Alaska is now a fading memory, a haze of buffet lines and sea mist. But after a week home, it dawned on me: My grandparents once took a “cruise” too.

I have the Ellis Island records to prove it.

My Latvian-born grandmother Tillie sailed out of Glasgow, bound for New York. She was to reunite with my grandfather, who had come to America a year earlier. On Sept. 16, 1912, she walked onto American soil. My mother was born 11 years later; I was born 34 years after that.

All that week on the Noordam, it hadn’t occurred to me how different my voyage was from my grandmother’s.

As playwright Tony Kushner put it in the opening scene, set at the funeral of an old bubbe, in “Angels in America”:

“She carried the old world on her back,” says the rabbi in his eulogy, “across the ocean, in a boat, and she put it down on Grand Concourse Avenue. You can never make that crossing she made, for such Great Voyages in this world do not anymore exist. But every day of your lives, the miles of that voyage between that place and this one, you cross. Every day. In you that journey is.”


Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.