Chanukah on The Ovation of the Seas

January 19, 2017 by Rabbi Chaim Ingram
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Once again this Chanuka, it was my delight and privilege to be invited, together with my wife, by Royal Caribbean to be rabbi-in residence on a cruise voyage, this time on the new gigantic addition to its fleet, Ovation of the Seas…writes Rabbi Chaim Ingram.
I could write about our memorable first-night public Chanuka service and celebration – replete (as every night) with actual candles (for which I secured special permission, not easy these days on a ship) lit in a dedicated room – which drew a crowd of over a hundred, most but not all Jewish (a video link is included at the foot of this essay); or about the kilometres I clocked up and the kilogrammes I thankfully lost traipsing to and from our stateroom at the front of the ship to almost everywhere else we needed to be;  about the warm hospitality we received from friends in Hobart and Auckland; about the ports in New Zealand we visited and those we didn’t due to the stormy weather; or indeed about the Shabbat challenges we faced and, thank G-D, overcame.

But I choose instead to reflect on a well-known but oft-overlooked aspect of the human condition which came to the fore during our cruise.

The Ovation of the Seas Photo: Henry Benjamin/J-Wire

Let me commence by saying that Ovation can carry nearly 5,000 guests and a further 1,500 crew. The guest-capacity is an easily-obtainable statistic; not so the crew-capacity although the crew are the unsung heroes of the ship (more on that later.). Although I was officially an ‘enrichment lecturer’, my status and certainly my wife’s, I am glad to say, was that of a guest which means I didn’t have to attend all the drills, wear a special uniform or sleep below sea level – although in some ways I was akin to crew inasmuch as I was not allowed to gamble at the casino or play bingo (see my essay Rank Insiders, Yitro 5775) nor was I permitted to request an upgrade from our allotted interior stateroom (which had a virtual balcony and window with which we were ecstatic).  So you could say I had a foot in both camps and therefore identified with both of these very diverse groups of voyagers.

As is my wont, I sally back and forth around the ship with a white shirt and a black kipa (rather than a cap) on my head so that I am easily identifiable. This way I get to converse with a large number of passengers which helps identify members of the tribe but also can make for kiddush haShem as the non-Jewish passengers get to see that orthodox Jews are not creatures from outer space.  As the cruise progressed, I started asking fellow-guests (a) if they were veteran cruisers and (b) if they were having a good time. Almost everyone answered yes to question (a). However I was not prepared for some of the responses I received to question (b) especially from the older generation (who weren’t generally into rock-climbing and capsule skydiving).   While many replied with an enthusiastic yes, a sizeable number were dissatisfied. This dissatisfaction expressed itself mainly through disappointment with the cuisine and the quality and scope of the entertainment on offer.  Of course as veteran cruisers they were able to make comparisons with other cruise liners and cruise lines and those that did left me in no doubt that their culinary and leisure expectations were extremely high.  One gentleman (thankfully not Jewish) related to me how he had tried all eight or so gourmet restaurants on board and had detested them all whereupon in desperation he tried the main casual eatery and finally found bliss in a juicy pork chop!  I felt like telling him he might have preferred our ‘gourmet’ airline kosher meals, but restrained myself!

Which brings me to my second category of research.  The crew.

Rabbi Chaim Ingram

The crew members with which we had the most contact were the dining-room wait staff.  These were the people who served our kosher meals each day.  But there were also the stateroom-attendants, the general maintenance staff and the full-time activities staff.  As on previous cruises we found their dedication, their personability, their energy-levels and their willingness to go the extra mile inspirational.

But what we found most stunning of all was their radiant and cheerful demeanour in the face of what I can only describe as a superhuman workload and extremely basic berthing conditions. They were on duty seven days a week, early morning to night with a brief afternoon break for a seven-month stretch for a well-below-average wage by Western standards with two months unpaid leave and no sick pay.

Had I been a left-wing social justice advocate, I might have organised a protest anti-slavery march around the top deck of the ship! However the facts are that these individuals are not slaves.  They chose to apply for these jobs from various first-world as well as third-world countries. The competition apparently is fierce. They knew very well what their employment terms would be.  They are doing the jobs they do because they want to – after all, working on an ocean liner and seeing different countries is exciting – and they are free to quit any time. Most choose to stay. Many are doing better financially than they would in their home countries.  Nevertheless they are worked to the bone!  Yet without having ever studied the sayings of Shammai or Rabbi Ishmael or Ben Zoma in Pirkei Avot about always radiating a cheery face and being happy with one’s lot,  nor Rabbi Nachman’s exhortations to be tamid be-simcha, always joyful, that is exactly what they succeed in doing day in day out even while admitting to frequent exhaustion.

I found myself wondering: do the veteran-luxury-cruiser complainers I spoke to ever engage the overworked-and-underpaid-but-always-happy crew members in real conversation?  Do their two ever-so-different worlds ever collide or impact each other?
I would imagine if they did, the repercussions might be titanic!

There is of course no comparison between the tough conditions of the workers described above and the inhuman slavery of our ancestors in Egypt.  Nevertheless, Sefer Shemot which we start to read this week provides the first historical record of a nation – our nation – thriving when she is beleaguered (the Torah records [Exodus 1:12] that the more the Egyptians afflicted our nation the more she flourished) and complaining when she is fed manna from heaven.  The more materialism we have the more contentment we appear to lose.

A story older than our people.   A story as old as the world!

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