by Leibel Baumgarten
“Paging passenger Daniel Eleff, please report to the police department in the main terminal immediately.” Eleff, more widely known in the Jewish world as “Dan” from his famed travel and deals site, dansdeals.com, began sweating profusely.
Together with Moishie Hersko of Kosher Horizons, Dan was leading a 51-person expedition on a cruise to Antarctica. The cruise would leave from the port in Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost tip of South America, which has highly restrictive rules about the food allowed to be brought in – no fruit, vegetables, or red meat. When checking in, however, airline officials informed Dan that no matter what rules were stated on the official website, they would not allow any food at all on the flight to Ushuaia. After moving the food to a different passenger’s bag who checked in without incident, they figured they were in the clear.
But then came the ominous page.
The group was to be in Ushuaia overnight before boarding the cruise ship. The trip cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and had been two years in the making. Starting off without food for the first day would be a disaster. Nervously, Dan made his way from the gate area to a restricted security area where he was sternly informed that the milk in his suitcase would be confiscated.
Though inconvenienced, Dan breathed a sigh of relief that the rest of the food was safe, and thusly the trip kicked off in Ushuaia on the last night of Chanukah where the group lit the candles while enjoying latkes and applesauce.
Antarctica had long been a bucket list destination for Dan and Moishie, but always seemed out of reach, even for these seasoned travelers. Dan has seen the volcanoes in Hawaii, enjoyed over-thewater bungalows in the Maldives, and snorkeled with the jellyfish in Palau, while Moishie has led photography trips chasing auroras in Iceland, polar bears in Svalbard, and photo journaling Havana, Cuba. But the logistics of keeping kosher in Antarctica were altogether different.
The only way for Shabbat observant Jews to see Antarctica is by cruise line, and passengers are not allowed to bring their own food and are certainly not able to use kitchen space and equipment to cook, reheat or refrigerate food. Realizing that the only way it could be done was with a large enough group that a cruise line would facilitate kosher catering, Moishie sent Dan a message asking what he thought about leading a kosher cruise to Antarctica. Within seconds, Dan was emphatically on board.
Still, putting the trip together was a daunting challenge. They’d have to find a willing cruise line, navigate an almost endless list of halachic challenges – when does Shabbat start or end in a place where the sun doesn’t set? – find a caterer, and sign up enough passengers willing to spend thousands of dollars on the once-in-a-lifetime adventure.
In the two years spent planning the trip, only one cruise was scheduled to depart and return to Ushuaia on a schedule that would allow for keeping Shabbat. Luckily, that cruise was willing to host a kosher group, and the project was underway!
Kosher cruising presents a very unique set of kashrus challenges, including kitchens and dining rooms on separate floors of the ship. With so many passengers, kitchens and dining areas, it is very difficult to ensure that ingredients and utensils are not inadvertently mixed up. The organizers felt that cooking in a shared kosher and non-kosher kitchen would prove to be too problematic and sought out a caterer to pre-cook and freeze gourmet meals worthy of the trip’s price tag.
They likely didn’t realize how prescient that thought was. In December of 1998 a tour operator arranged a kosher cruise to Antarctica by way of Cape Town. They enlisted kosher supervision, and my father, Rabbi Yossi Baumgarten, Principal Rabbinic Supervisor for more than thirty years, served as the mashgiach. The trip was fraught with kashrut challenges. For one, after receiving assurances that there would be a separate kosher bakery oven, it turned out one level of the eight tier oven was designated for kosher use, which was completely unsuitable for kosher baking.
The ship’s home port was Canada, and so for practicality’s sake they needed a Canadian caterer. Highly recommended, Dan reached out to a Montreal based caterer, Shua, with the message, “How adventurous are you?”
“Shua thought of everything,” said Dan. “Besides for fantastic food, the little things really enhanced the experience, like mini dairy chocolates for the Chanukah party.”
The food was prepared in the caterer’s kosher kitchen, and on the cruise a friend of Dan and Moishie, was enlisted as a fulltime kosher supervisor.
“Before the trip, I sat down with my personal Rabbi, who is an expert on kosher supervision. He went through everything I would have to look out for and the various challenges that could crop up.”
The kosher group was given brand new cutlery and crockery for the trip, as well as a separate kitchen and dedicated crew members for service and cleaning. Even so, on a ship out in the South Atlantic, there aren’t many options, if any, for an emergency contingency plan. While a kosher coffee station would usually make do with disposable spoons and coffee stirrers as it is used after passengers have eaten meat or dairy, the eco-friendly ship did not carry disposables at all.
When the cruise was set to depart, there was a fuel shortage in Ushuaia which sent cruise lines scrambling for solutions. The captain opted to divert to the Falkland Islands. While some passengers fretted over losing time in Antarctica, the diversion proved fortuitous for the kosher group, as the mashgiach was able to go shopping for disposable spoons and other kosher food and supplies, and passenger Levi Benjaminson printed a Tanya while on the ground.
Another issue could have been running out of supplies, but thankfully the only occurrence of that was margarine, which left the mashgiach emptying dozens of single serving margarine packets until he had scooped out enough for the meal.
The group was made up of observant Jews of every stripe; Chabad, Gur, Bobov, Skver, Satmar, Yeshivish, Yekkish, Modern Orthodox and others. “Shabbos in Antarctica was one of the most beautiful in my life,” says Moishie. “As we began the Shabbat prayers, a light snow began to fall. The juxtaposition of praying of all kinds of Jews and looking out to see stunning glaciers in their splendid grandeur was breathtaking.”
Keeping Shabbos on the cruise had numerous challenges. How does one light Shabbat candles in a flame-free environment? The passengers used electric incandescent candles, and the organizers would neither confirm nor deny that one of the women on board lit candles in her room on behalf of the other passengers.
On the 1998 cruise they couldn’t rely on electric candles for Chanukah. The captain allowed for menorahs to be kindled on the deck for a maximum of 30 minutes but assigned no fewer than four crew members to stand guard with fire extinguishers at the ready. “There were about 40 passengers on the kosher cruise,” said Rabbi Baumgarten. “But for the menorah lighting we had 500 people join us, a number of whom were Jewish but not part of the kosher cruise.”
The 2018 cruise also sought out Jewish passengers who weren’t in the kosher group, putting on Tefillin with some of the men, including the cruise line owner who is Jewish and was on board. Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was on the cruise and was glad to meet the kosher contingent and proudly wore the cruise yarmulke he was given as a gift.
Though it took two years to arrange and the challenges were numerous, including a 25 hour fast on the 10th of Tevet while passing through the infamous Drake Passage, one of the roughest stretches of ocean in the world, by all accounts, the trip exceeded expectations.
“Somewhere along the way, a group of strangers became a family,” said passenger L. E. Nizhnikov. “I could write hundreds of pages about the untamed wilderness we explored and the wonders we encountered. The true
beauty of this journey, however, was in the holiness and unity that our group brought to every port of call.”
Editor’s Note: It is extremely difficult to certify a cruise ship that is not completely dedicated to kosher. There are numerous kitchens and dining rooms and very little space is reserved for the kosher preparations. The limited supplies and busy dining rooms make it very difficult to prevent mixups and devise new plans.