It’s interesting how much you could learn from seeing a table setting.
“Titanic, The Exhibition,” is now showing in New York City. It’s been advertised as “a journey through the Titanic’s true story,” further saying, “immerse yourself in an emotional experience.”
I had been meaning to go — and I still plan to. Yet this week a piece of the exhibit already crossed my path in the form of an intriguing photograph.
Of course, most people have always been fascinated by the tragedy of the Titanic. I went through my phase as well. Growing up in the Denver landscape, especially with the IJN offices just down the street from The Molly Brown House on Pennsylvania Street, put the Titanic on my radar.
Somehow, though, I never really gave thought or considered the logistical or service needs that might have been a part of the Titanic’s ocean liner experience for the Jewish passengers.
The photograph I saw was of eggshell white china plate settings on a white damask tablecloth, the plates wreathed in a black scroll design, at the top of the plate, interwoven into the design spelling “White Star Line,” and at the center of the plate three Hebrew letters were printed in black: kof, shin, raish, spelling “kosher.”
Not only was kosher service provided for their Jewish passengers, but with such dignity and elegance.
Somehow, I had just never given it any thought. In my mind, formal kosher service provided in the context of non-kosher social or travel situations, was an American phenomenon.
I was raised on stories of my grandparents remaining dedicated to kosher observance and making do without today’s sophisticated kosher industry.
Even in my parents’ generation, kashrut was more a matter of checking ingredients on a food item’s package, in search of any blatantly treif ingredients, as opposed to today’s world, where we look for a kosher supervisory symbol gracing food packaging.
This photograph catalyzed my interest and I learned that, as it turns out, in 1912, the Titanic had a kosher kitchen (and 24 years later, the Queen Mary). In fact, the Titanic had a “Hebrew cook” named Charles Kennel, who, along with almost 700 other crew members, tragically died aboard the ship.
Sailing at a time when many Jews were fleeing the violence and devastation of pogroms sweeping through Russia created the situation of Jews aboard the ocean liner.
After a large wave of Jewish immigration to England had ended, England still allowed for Jewish Eastern European refugees to pause there as “transmigrants” before fleeing to their next destination.
Many of these Jews passengers landed in steerage, or third class. And the Titanic provided kosher food service to them with dignity.
Even in today’s kosher friendly world, this would be unheard of, so it never occurred to me. If we are blessed enough to have the opportunity to go on a trip from time to time, we all just bring along our dried fruit and nuts, peanut butter and jelly, ramen soups and whatnot, making do with fresh local produce. And shlepping our crockpot or electric griddle along to prepare a hot dinner or warm Shabbat meals.
If there is a kosher meal in fact available, we are accustomed to receiving a wrapped TV dinner of sorts. Yet here was a photograph from over a century ago, of formally marked kosher Titanic dinnerware. And again, not there necessarily to serve wealthy first-class passengers and patrons, but rather refugees, poor, hopeful immigrants relegated to the steerage compartment, the bottom of the ship which often meant terrible conditions.
As I read more, I learned that it turns out there was a kosher kitchen on Ellis Island as well. As waves of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe arrived, sometimes without food, sometimes in terrible condition, there was a kosher kitchen on the premises from which to immediately provide for these refugees.
Clearly, the essence of these events is the sadness and loss of human life or human suffering surrounding them, and of the persecuted Jewish suffering which is a hallmark of these events.
Yet learning of new details in navigating ritual Jewish life from over a century ago is indeed intriguing, especially when all too often the past comes to light furthering evidence of painful persecution. Within this story, there was the grace of this magnanimously thoughtful and respectful detail.
I, for one, am intrigued to learn more when I visit the Titanic exhibit, as well as read more to further my understanding about this period of immigration and transmigration of my people from Eastern Europe.
Like I said, not the tale I expected a china dinner table setting from the Titanic to trigger.
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