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Kosher on a non-kosher cruise

If you’re the type of person who doesn’t like attracting a lot of attention to yourself, then keeping kosher on a non-kosher cruise is not for you.

Keeping kosher on a non-Israeli airplane may also invite unwanted attention at times, such as when flying to Thailand through Amman as the stewardess walks up and down the aisles shouting, “Kosher meal, who ordered the kosher meal?”

But that’s nothing like keeping kosher on a non-kosher cruise.

On the airplane to Thailand, there are two meals over 11 hours. On a cruise, there are 21 meals over a seven-day period. It brings attracting unwanted attention to new heights.

It’s kind of like staying as a Shabbat-observant Jew on the 15th floor of an Oslo hotel and trying to explain to the person at the desk on Friday afternoon that when you return to the hotel that night, you’ll need someone to come up to your room and open the door with your electronic key. Then, of course, there’s that awkward moment when you’re in the elevator waiting for the person taking you to your room to push the button to your floor since you can’t do it because it’s Shabbat.

Keeping kosher on a cruise is like doing that — having to explain various religious rituals that seem peculiar to the uninitiated — for a week.

The whole idea — kosher on a non-kosher cruise — might sound like an oxymoron. But it isn’t, especially not on a non-kosher cruise of the western Mediterranean originating from Rome or Barcelona, full of Israelis, including many who adhere to Judaism’s dietary laws in some form or another.

There are two ways to keep kosher on such a cruise.  

The first is to order frozen kosher food, which essentially means eating airplane food as you sail between Sardinia and Corsica while your shipmates are choosing between entrées of duck terrine layered with apricot chutney or pepper-crusted roast beef.

In this case, those dining at the next table over, which on a cruise is often not that far away, will be well into their three-cheese baked ziti while you’re still struggling to get the plastic wrapper and aluminum foil off your baked chicken with peas and then trying to figure out where to put all that cumbersome wrapping — and whether or not to eat those peas.

The second way of keeping kosher on such a boat is to eat a lot of fruit and cold vegetables, some vegan dishes, as well as salmon, asparagus, and potatoes cooked in an oven, but always double-wrapped in aluminum foil.

The Wife and I, on a recent voyage to mark a landmark birthday, initially chose the first option. But when the reheated frozen airport fare turned out to be less than scrumptious, we switched mid-sail to option No. 2 — which worked well, except it made blending into the surroundings awfully difficult.

We identified ourselves to the powers that be in the dining room as kosher eaters, and — as a result —quite the fuss was made over us. Eager, apparently, to attract Jewish passengers, the cruise lines are accommodating to the kosher set — very accommodating and attentive. Sometimes, even overattentive.

After a foul-up with our frozen kosher fare on the first night, the head waiter and his assistant, our waitress and her assistant, all hovered over our table on the second night: checking in, making sure everything was okay, apologizing for the previous night’s blunder, bringing more and more food they thought we could eat, and promising the moon going forward — or at least Moroccan fish cooked in a pan reserved for the kosher guests.

“Tell me,” said an eighth-grade Canadian girl sitting at the table right next to ours with her mother, sister and grandfather: “Are you a food critic?”

Almost choking on a piece of cucumber, I replied, somewhat bemused: “Why in the world would you think that?”

“Because everyone keeps coming up to you and asking if everything is all right,” she said. “Because they are bringing your food specially wrapped up, and you’re eating on special plates. And because you are eating very elegantly.”

This was one very observant junior high schooler.

The waitress and head waiter did keep coming over to us, making it their mission to ensure that our dietary needs were met. One was Mustafa from Mauritius, and another was Niti from Indonesia.

We were not their first-ever kosher-observant guests; indeed, they get them quite often and have developed a good understanding of what kosher guests can and cannot eat.

When it came time for dessert, the waitress said there was ice cream. Thrilled that this was something we might be able to eat, we asked to look at the container to see if the brand was kosher. “Don’t worry,” she said, “the vanilla is kosher; the strawberry is not.” In other words, she’s been down this road before.

Two of our hawkeyed neighbor’s observations were, however, off the mark.

First, she mis-observed the special plates.

What they brought us was not special china to make a positive impression on the food critic, but, rather, paper plates and plastic silverware for the kosher diners. While she was eating on fine china, we were dining on paper plates with plastic silverware and forks that snapped when digging into the baked potato.

And that led to her second mis-observation — that we eat elegantly. 

I’m many things; an elegant diner is not one of them. It took me years to remember which side of the plate the knife goes on, and finally only remembered after being told it goes on the side of one’s stabbing hand.

Our neighbor, it seems, mistook all the attention foisted upon us by the waiting staff as a sign that we were sophisticated diners. Never had a dry piece of salmon cooked inside two pieces of aluminum foil and served on a plastic plate looked so elegant.

Had she only known.

Reprinted with permission from the Jerusalem Post.

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Herb Keinon, a Denver native, interned at the IJN before going on to a career at the Jerusalem Post, where he is a senior contributing editor.

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