This Jewish Life Excerpt

Beginning the New Year at Sea

The Story of Deanna Silver Jacobson

One of the biggest reservations I’d had after learning I’d been accepted into the University of Pittsburgh’s Semester at Sea program was the realization that I would be spending Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur away from my family for the first time in my life. I wouldn’t hear the cantor’s familiar High Holiday melodies or be with my loved ones for our family’s legendary holiday meals. I didn’t even know if I would be with other Jews at all; it was quite possible that I would mark the Jewish New Year in private, by myself.

All my friends and family said holiday homesickness wasn’t reason enough to miss the opportunity of a lifetime. “Go,” my mother said. “You’ll find a way to make it meaningful.” I didn’t know how that could possibly be, but I sent in my deposit anyway, got all my shots and started packing.

There were 400 of us altogether, college students from all across the country. During our three months at sea we would tour Japan, Korea, Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia. Bombay, India; Odessa, USSR (now Russia); and Cadiz, Spain, were also to be ports of call, as were stops in Istanbul, Turkey, and Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia (now Croatia). Leading professors from universities in each country gave onboard lectures. A major goal of the trip was to show us that, beyond the differences in geography and appearance, we would have a lot in common with the people we were to meet. I didn’t realize at the time how much I would also learn about the commonality between Jews.

Rosh HaShanah would fall between Taiwan and Korea, and as it drew closer, my homesickness only grew. Each time we docked, I would seek out a telephone, only to turn away from dialing. The thought of calling home tightened my throat with such longing that I couldn’t speak. I didn’t know how I would make it through. Then, somehow, via that radar we all seem to have, word got passed among the Jewish students that a group was getting together to hold Rosh HaShanah services. This was something I knew I could do. And, for the first time ever, I got involved in High Holiday services not as a passive congregant but as a leader.

At our first planning meeting, Steffie, a student who had her sights set on rabbinic school, took stock of our various skills and aptitudes. She had brought a prayer book from home and had gone on a scavenger hunt that netted us a battered but usable Torah scroll. We decided who had skill enough to read Torah and who would lead prayers. Since the siddur was not a High Holiday prayer book, others were assigned the task of writing prayers appropriate to Rosh HaShanah that would be inserted into the service. I was given the challenge of writing a sermonette and the honor of reading the Torah.

We knew that it was up to us and us alone to make the services meaningful for everyone. We also planned to invite non-Jewish students—we wanted it to be a learning experience for them, as well. Many of our shipmates had never even met a Jew before and it made sense to invite them. The raison d’être of this trip was to learn about other cultures. What better way than this?

Over the course of the week, as we created our service, individual memories of our holidays at home began to surface. Some of us had grown up observing Rosh HaShanah for two days; others for one; still others came from families who observed the holiday only intermittently. We talked of mandelbread and mechitzahs. There was such a free exchange of experiences, I think in part because so many of us were incredibly homesick. Hearing stories about one another’s temples and shuls, trading tales about eccentric uncles and exploded kishkes at holiday dinners helped us through our longings for home.

Magically, that Rosh HaShanah service, marking the Jewish year 5747, was the most meaningful one I have ever attended. We students had barely known each other two weeks, but repeating the Sh’ma joined us; singing the V’ahavta united us. From the first reading to the final Adon Olam, we became a community. Just like that. Not only were we linked to one another, but we felt the presence of all of our families, knowing that on the other side of the dateline they would soon be awakening, dressing hurriedly, and walking to shul or finagling a parking spot in the synagogue’s crowded lot, praying and singing as we had. I had new friends simply because I was a Jew and they were Jews; we had an unspoken agreement that we could turn to one another if we needed to. I was halfway across the world from home, but I realized somewhere between my sermon and the Torah reading that Judaism is my home. Much in the way a turtle carries her house on her back, I realized that I carried my Judaism with me wherever I went. No matter where I am, I thought, all I have to do is link up with fellow Jews and I can be home once again.

That evening, after a festive holiday meal prepared by the Asian chefs on board (yellow tablecloths and lots of rice, but apples, honey, and a challah, too), about 40 of us, some Jewish, some not, went up to perform Tashlich and Havdalah on the sun deck. Water is a big image in Judaism and I thought about Noah, surrounded by floodwaters on all sides, on a journey whose outcome he couldn’t fathom. The Israelites passed through the amniotic waters of the Sea of Reeds to be reborn into freedom. Rebecca and Isaac fell in love at her father’s well. Though 21 years old and 10 time zones from home, I threw my breadcrumb sins into the inky darkness of the East China Sea and felt an entirely new dimension of my Jewish identity come into being.

Havdalah was as electrifying as our morning services. Standing in a circle, we watched the sun slip beneath the waves, leaving behind a horizon of brilliant blue. The ship’s whistle bellowed low and loud, a good enough substitute for the shofar we did not hear this year. We passed around the spice box, then the braided candle whose flame flickered in the wind. We blessed wine, sang songs, and wished one another shavuah tov, a good week, and began to scatter.

Just then Alisa, the student from Mexico, approached Steffie and asked if she could help her find the Kaddish in the prayer book. Several of us within earshot stopped in our tracks and began counting. Just like that. We called others back to be sure we had enough for a minyan. We didn’t yet know that Alisa had just received a wire from home that her grandfather had died, and we didn’t have to know it. She didn’t ask us to stay or ask for a minyan, but we understood and were there for her. Plain and simple, that’s what it means to be Jewish. As we stood around, giving our silent support while Alisa said the words to the Kaddish, I felt an indescribable solidarity with the Jewish people. It occurred to me then why you need ten for a minyan. So that you are not alone. You might feel desolate and grief-stricken, but Jewish tradition has structured itself so that you will not be alone in your grief. Your community will come forward for you.

The semester passed quicker than a black-market deal in Moscow, and before I knew it I was home, attending my brother’s bar mitzvah, celebrating Passover with my family, looking forward to graduation and my first move into the adult world. That was 12 years ago. I’m married now, raising kids of my own. When they dip their apples into honey each year, they leave sticky golden trails on my white tablecloth. Each year when the cantor blows the shofar in synagogue, I hear an echo of the ship’s horn, loud and mighty as Moses. I’ve forgotten Korea’s GNP and how to say “excuse me” in Turkish, but I will remember this forever: am Yisrael chai, the people of Israel will live.