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Around the Jewish World: Kosher Cruises Offer Chance to Be Observant During Travel

It was Friday evening, and the sun was setting over the gentle blue waters at a beach resort complex on the Greek island of Crete.

Lamps glowed on pathways and one or two resort guests still swam in the crystal clear pool just off the beach itself.

In a cavernous terrace taverna overlooking the idyllic scene, an American tour group sat down to dinner — not a typical tourist Greek dinner of stuffed grape leaves and retsina, but a strictly kosher Shabbat meal complete with fresh- baked challah and kosher wine.

The 88-member group, almost all of them highly observant Jews, were taking part in a rare experience: a luxury cruise in the Mediterranean that was “frum- friendly.”

The weeklong cruise on the Orient Lines ship Marco Polo featured a gourmet kosher chef working closely with an on-board “mashgiach,” a kashrut supervisor; regular minyans three times a day in a ship meeting room; and special lectures about general Jewish issues as well as specific Jewish history in the Mediterranean region.

Before the Shabbat meal in Heraklion, the group leader, Rabbi Marvin Tokayer of Great Neck, N.Y., led services in a hotel meeting room, and the women in the group lit dozens of Shabbat candles.

To avoid disembarking on Shabbat, the group left the ship Friday afternoon in Heraklion, rather than sailing on to Athens with the rest of the Marco Polo’s 800 passengers and having to leave the ship Saturday morning.

Instead, they spent Shabbat in Heraklion and flew to Athens on Sunday.

“It’s very different from ordinary tours,” said Hortense Rosen, of Brooklyn, N.Y.

The Marco Polo cruise was the latest collaboration between Tokayer and Lotus Tours, a travel agency in New York’s Chinatown.

Tokayer served as a rabbi in Japan from 1968 to 1981. For the past 15 years, he has collaborated with Lotus Tours in leading Jewish tour groups to the Far East and elsewhere.

He takes them to mainstream tourist sights, but also includes an educational aspect, describing Jewish history in often surprising places.

“I lead tours, but I have to make sure that they are available to observant Jews, that whatever we do and wherever we go, we are not penalized for being observant,” he said in an interview.

Ordinarily, Tokayer said, his tours travel by plane and go from hotel to hotel, where kosher food is available.

But two years ago, he said, the Marco Polo was docked at Shanghai when he was there with a tour group. On a whim, he met with ship officials and asked whether they would consider hosting a Jewish tour group on a cruise.

“I told them about the logistical problems, that it would have to entail a kosher chef and kitchen,” Tokayer said. “They said, fine, as long as we brought our own chef and team — and as long as we made sure that it would be first class.”

Tokayer arranged for the services of Matthew Blass, the Great Neck kosher caterer who did Tokayer’s son’s wedding, and mashgiach Henri Valier-Grossman, a family friend who is administrator at the Bevis-Marks synagogue in London.

More than 70 people signed up for the first kosher cruise last year — what Tokayer called “a dreamy kosher cruise from Singapore to Bangkok which exceeded even our best dreams.”

Blass and Valier-Grossman again oversaw the kosher catering on this summer’s Mediterranean cruise, and a number of the kosher cruisers were repeat travelers from last year’s cruise or Tokayer’s other tours.

For almost all the members of the group, the kosher cruise represented a unique opportunity.

“It’s really the only way we could have traveled on a cruise like this,” said Lilly Schwebel of Kew Gardens, N.Y., who was on the cruise with her husband. “We’ve actually traveled a lot on our own — but it always entailed bringing along our own food in cans or eating frozen kosher TV dinners.”

Said a man from Buffalo, who was traveling with his wife: “It was an opportunity to travel and to be Jewish. We davened every day — and there was so much communality among the group.”

“We didn’t know anyone in the group before,” he said. “But we made friends – – we all shared the same concerns about Jewish continuity, Jewish values and so on. And many of us are involved in Jewish community work.”

The 88 kosher cruisers made up about 10 percent of the total number of passengers aboard the Marco Polo. They boarded the ship in Cannes, France, and meandered through the Mediterranean, with stops at the Italian ports of Civitavecchia, Sorrento, Taormina (Sicily), the Greek island of Santorini and Heraklion.

Whenever possible, shore excursions included an emphasis on Jewish history. In Cannes and in Madrid, where they spent Shabbat before getting on the ship, they met with local Jewish communities.

The group sat together in the ship’s main restaurant, at tables next to the captain’s. Each glass, plate and piece of silverware was marked to indicate its kosher status, and whether it was for meat or dairy.

Each meal was three or four courses — appetizer, soup, choice of entrees, and dessert — all presented with suitable garnishes. Kosher wine was available. Kitchen assistants worked through the night to bake kosher bread and pastries.

“I design the menus day by day,” Blass, who is not Jewish, said in an interview. “Each meal usually includes a choice of a meat, chicken and fish entree.”

Among the most popular dishes were roast duck, sauteed sweetbreads and poached salmon.

Before the group embarked, Blass and Valier-Grossman worked for hours to kosher the cramped kitchen facilities allotted to them by the ship.

“This year we had a separate kitchen that is usually used for the crew, but we only had one oven and one stove top,” Valier-Grossman said. “The ship people were very nice — they even bought all new pots and pans, and the kitchen personnel who helped us were very respectful and interested.”

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