When most people go away on vacation, they spend the week before they leave worrying about packing, making sure the neighbors will pick up the mail, and deciding on the sights they want to visit once they reach their destination. I spent the week before I vacation worrying about how I would celebrate Shavuot.
Out in the middle of the ocean, aboard a cruise ship, I wasn’t sure what my options would be. Talk about bad timing: as I looked online at some of the all-night celebrations and study groups and concerts being offered in JCCs and synagogues in and around New York City, I felt like I was leaving just as the party was getting underway. But most of all, I knew that I would miss being at home in my own congregation.
Not that I was unhappy about going to Bermuda with my mother. It would be the first trip we took after the loss of my dad last March, and we were both looking forward to getting away to an island we all loved. But having converted, and having embraced the idea of standing in the presence of the Holy One to receive the Torah at Mount Sinai, Shavuot has always been high on my list of important festivals. And of course, Shavuot is also traditionally associated with the story of Ruth and Naomi–read by many people as the first conversion story.
Knowing that the drama of Sinai was pretty far, both geographically and emotionally, from the pink sands of Hamilton, I felt as if I needed to look for ways to connect with my Judaism amidst the diaspora of tourism. A friend suggested taking my prayer book and tallis to a secluded beach one morning at sunrise; I dismissed it as too solitary, too isolated for a holiday that celebrates community. I then searched on the Internet for a Bermudian synagogue, to no avail.
My mom and I had planned our trip aboard a Celebrity ship. I searched the company’s website to check up on religious services and whether or not they would be offered. What I found came as a surprise: through a collaboration with an organization called the Apostleship of the Sea U.S.A., the official Ministry of the Catholic Church in the maritime world, all of the ships in Celebrity’s fleet had a priest on board. Furthermore, a Catholic Mass would be celebrated on board every day, but there was no rabbi on board except to conduct services on the High Holy Days, Hanukkah and Passover.
I picked up the phone and dialed my mom’s number.
“Mom, guess what?” I asked. “You can go to Mass every day on the ship, but there’s no rabbi on board.”
I could hear her sigh, half-amused, half annoyed. “And where did you find this out?”
“On the website,” I told her.
“Ann,” she said, “we’re going on vacation. What are you so worried about?”
“It’s going to be Shavuot while we’re away,” I told her. “I need to figure out how to celebrate it.”
“Is it a big holiday? Will there be other people on the ship celebrating it?”
I smiled. I thought it was a great question. Clearly she was making a distinction between the “big” holidays like Passover and Hanukkah that she saw other people celebrating, versus the other holidays like Sukkot and Simchas Torah, which she only really heard about from me.
“I don’t know,” I told her. “I mean, yes, it’s a big holiday, but I don’t know if it’s big enough to merit a rabbi being on board. Probably not. But there are all these rules about studying Torah, about eating dairy … there’s a lot to think about.”
“Well, just do what anyone would do. Say a prayer, have some ice cream. Stop worrying.”
“All right,” I told her, and we hung up a few minutes later. But I slipped a yarmulke into the pocket of my luggage, thinking that–just maybe–it might come in handy.
No one was more surprised than I was on Friday morning when the daily itinerary of shipboard activities left in our cabin listed a Shabbat service to take place that evening at 5:15 “celebrated with your fellow passengers.” At 4:15, I left the pool deck, where I had spent the morning with my mom, both of us reading novels in the sun as our ship headed back to New York. At 5:15, wearing a dress, heels and my yarmulke, I entered the piano bar that had been transformed into a room for prayer.
I had no idea whether or not anyone would show up. On the bar were two loaves of challah, candlesticks, about a dozen dusty Union prayer books, wineglasses and a lovely kosher vintage. Sitting in the comfortable seats around the fireplace were three elderly couples. And judging from the conversation, no one knew what to do.
“Good shabbos,” one of the women said as I walked in. “You’re awfully young.”
I grinned. “Shabbat shalom, and thank you.”
The three men nodded at me, and then turned back to one another, resuming their conversation about golf. Another one of the women shook her head as she looked through one of the prayer books. “I can’t figure out where to begin.”
I took a book from the bar and paged through it to the beginning of the Friday evening service.
The first woman sighed heavily. “Does anyone know where this service starts? I guess we’re not getting a rabbi. Even though it’s Shavuos.”
I bit back my shyness and spoke up. “I’ve led services before. Would you like me to get everyone started?”
The three couples nodded. I touched the purple and silver yarmulke on my head, making sure it was securely anchored. I then took a deep breath, stood in front of the fireplace and began to sing “Shalom Alecheim.”
Having done a couple of summertime stints as a cantorial soloist, I saw the delight and surprise on their faces as I kept singing and as they finally joined in. It felt so good to finally be worshipping, to finally be acknowledging the holiness of Shabbat and the sanctity of community, that my voice rang out in total joy.
After the first song I turned the page. “Would someone like to continue with the candle blessing?” I asked.
Six heads shook. “I think you’re doing just fine,” one of the men said, chuckling.
At the end of the service, we all had some challah and wine together. We had been joined about halfway through by two more couples. As we talked, and as they asked me about where I had learned to lead services, I was truly amazed: for the first time, I had worshipped with people who didn’t know anything about my conversion. I was so used to feeling as if I had an asterisk next to my name like Roger Maris that it was a new feeling for me to be accepted as someone who was, quite simply, Jewish. And all at once, my favorite verse from Deuteronomy came back to me: the covenant was made with those who stood before God on that day, and those who were not yet there on that day. I may not have been at Sinai, but the people with whom I shared community on the ship recognized me nonetheless.
That night, as we all left to go to dinner, to the show, or to the casino, we encouraged one another to have ice cream or cheesecake for dessert in honor of Shavuot. And for the rest of the cruise, whenever I ran into the people who had been at the Shabbat service, we greeted one another like old friends. Which was, of course, not all that surprising. Because even though we were out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, as far from Sinai as we could get, we all knew in our hearts that we had stood together before.