It was my first time, and I fell in love. It wasn't love at first sight but it was, indeed, passionate. Let me tell you how it happened.
Almost a year ago, I decided to change my diet, not to lose weight but to become closer to God. If this sounds odd, let me explain.
I was raised Jewish but not entirely observant. After moving to New York City four years ago, I gradually became not only more interested in my Jewish roots but also more knowledgeable about my religion. I learned that keeping kosher was part of Jewish law, and so I started doing so.
Basically, keeping kosher means I have to separate milk and meat when I prepare and eat food. The laws also require eating meat only from animals that chew their cud and have a split hoof -- no pork -- and have been ritually slaughtered in a way that gives minimal pain to the animal. Keeping kosher also means eating only fish that have fins and scales -- no shellfish -- and other products that have been prepared under rabbinical supervision.
Though I'd been sailing on cruise ships since 1989, it never occurred to me to order kosher food, or, for that matter, to sail on a ship that served kosher meals as part of the program -- until I saw an ad in a Jewish newspaper for a kosher cruise called the Festival of Jewish Music at Sea.
The next thing I knew I was giving my credit card number to an agent. She told me I wouldn't be sorry, that it was a trip of a lifetime that would bring me indelible memories. Who hasn't heard that before?
Ignoring all the usual travel advice, I packed my favorite garment bag until it bulged. What would be the right clothes to wear on a kosher cruise? Everyone knows what to pack for a standard cruise -- resort wear, bathing suits, T-shirts, sandals, a strapless evening dress or two. But I couldn't wear those on this cruise. They would not be tznuis, the Hebrew word for modest.
"Bring everything," an observant Jewish friend advised. "It's not like you are going to be carrying it."
"Suits," the travel agent recommended, saying that's what women passengers on a kosher cruise would probably wear for Sabbath meals and on formal evenings.
So I packed a suit along with several summery dresses to be topped with silk cardigan sweaters, a hooded cotton zipper jacket and a black Max Mara skirt that covered my knees.
My excitement began as soon as I boarded the ship last February in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Celebrity Cruises' Millennium, the line's flagship, was one of the sleekest cruise vessels I'd ever seen. Not everyone on the 2,032-passenger ship was aboard for the kosher cruise, and the ship continued its usual programs of entertainment, including Broadway-style shows, and meals for them. It gave us 300 Jews, who came from the United States, Canada, Mexico, Venezuela and Israel, the best of both worlds -- secular and Jewish.
It would be far too simplistic to say the kosher cruise was about Jewish music or food, turning strangers into friends, attending lectures and discussing issues. It was a different experience for every Festival of Jewish Music at Sea passenger.
For me, it was the music.
At one show I attended, vocalists danced about the stage, arms raised high above their heads, words spilling from their mouths and into the ship's darkened theater. The audience clapped and cheered.
It resembled a typical cruise ship performance, but it wasn't. The words to the songs were mostly Hebrew, and the musicians were members of Oif Simches, a rock-pop group from Israel. The band was among the headliners of the kosher cruise, which offered a variety of music from opera to religious to rock 'n' roll.
But it was the voices of the hazans (cantors and religious leaders who chant and sing prayers in Hebrew) that stirred me most deeply. The melodies were sung almost exclusively in Hebrew, and whether I understood them or not, I found myself inspired and awakened to my Jewish heritage
To further our religious education, the women were offered Hasidic and Israeli dancing classes. I also attended talks by rabbis and professors on topics such as "Judaism and Islam: Their Historic Relationship," "Judaism, Islam and Israel's Crisis with Terrorism" and "Five Centuries of Jewish Life in the Caribbean" and on the Torah.
Many of the men prayed three times a day -- morning, afternoon and evening -- in some cases, rushing through the 6 p.m. dinner to gather for prayer just outside the dining room.
But there was more than chicken soup for the soul on this cruise. We had soups, and fancy ones: roasted tomato bisque, chilled rhubarb, vichyssoise, melon and mint, black cherry. The glatt kosher cuisine was prepared by Gourmet Kosher and supervised by Chabad Lubavitch of Florida. All I had to do was sit down, read the menu and begin ordering. If I wavered, deliberating between two appetizers or entrees, the waiter would suggest a choice or offer to bring one of each. Each dinner was a five-course, two-hour event, during which I conversed with other kosher cruise passengers.