What the Movie ‘Titanic’ Taught Me About God


As Tolstoy might have observed, every secular Jewish family is secular in its own way.

When I was a baby, my parents chose to settle far from the neighborhood where the synagogues were. “Why,” my father asked, “would we choose to live in the Jewish ghetto?”

On the other hand, each spring my father led a brief seder from the Maxwell House haggadah. Each fall I asked for a Christmas tree and was refused. And, I had a bat mitzvah.

I always will be grateful for my loving, supportive, open-minded, secular Jewish parents. They didn’t flinch when I announced my career choice: poet, with a backup plan of musician. And they had no issue with my dating non-Jews, or women for that matter.

But it was a different story when, in my early 20s, I found myself falling in love with the most unlikely partner of all: God.

How did this happen? I blame it on a combination of two things — a semester-abroad program and the movie “Titanic.”

It happened in my senior year of college in New York City. I recently had returned from a semester “abroad” on a schooner in the middle of the ocean. This was a surprising turn of events. I had never been on a sailboat before and, in fact, I was frightened by deep water. But I had always been drawn to what frightened me, so when a friend casually mentioned a semester-abroad program on a tall ship, I signed up.

Those six weeks at sea were full of wonder. We learned celestial navigation — aiming sextants at the moon — and took turns cooking dinner for our shipmates in the tiny galley. Some nights, dolphins trailed the boat, braiding their green bioluminescent streams through the water. Recorded music was not allowed, and when I played my violin on the deck beneath the stars, my shipmates gathered around me in silence.

I returned to New York for my senior year with arms like Popeye’s and a new perspective on the miracle that is our planet. It was from this place that I took the subway to 72nd Street and bought a ticket to the newly released “Titanic” movie. With sea air still clinging to my clothes, the story may have felt more real to me than to some of my fellow New Yorkers.

So when the Titanic hit the iceberg, splitting her hull like a banana, and when half of the ship began to sink rapidly, pulling the other half after it, I was beyond terrified. It was all too easy to imagine myself on that deck, knowing the freezing water awaited.

I watched, unable to move. On the part of the deck that had not yet sunk, a string quartet played. Beside them, a preacher cried out: “Save us, God!” Shaking, shivering, screaming, holding his arms to the sky: “Dear God, save us!”

I knew with utter clarity that in the moment of my greatest fear I would have put down my violin and gone to that preacher and prayed with him.

When I left the theater, I walked back uptown on Broadway, that river of taxis trailing red lights behind them. A light, cold rain fell.

I was full of questions.

I wouldn’t be seeking a miraculous rescue.

Who was this God I would be calling out to? I wouldn’t be seeking a miraculous rescue. It was about something larger than myself. My impulse to call out had to do with accepting the power of the sea, the vast sky we had sailed beneath, night after night. And it had something to do with relinquishing my own sense of self, joining something beyond me.

But if my instinct was to orient myself to this mystery in the most heightened circumstances, I thought, why wait for a disaster? Why not call out to God in joy? And for that matter, why not think about God in even the most casual moments, like walking home from a movie?

And so it was that I began to fall in love with God. I did not know what that meant. All I knew was that I was at the beginning of a new voyage.

Twenty years after that rainy night on Broadway, I’m still on that voyage.

And I’m still in love.


Alicia Jo Rabins is a writer, musician and Torah teacher who lives in Portland, Ore.

‘Titanic’ composer dies in California plane crash


Hollywood composer James Horner, who scored the Oscar-winning film “Titanic” and its mega-hit theme song “My Heart Will Go On”, died in a plane crash in southern California on Monday, U.S. media reported.

The aircraft came down in the Los Padres National Forest, north of Los Angeles, triggering a fire that charred more than an acre of brush, local fire authorities said.

Star actors from Russell Crowe to Kirstie Alley took to Twitter to pay tribute to Horner, after trade publications The Hollywood Reporter and Variety reported he had died in his private plane.

Director Ron Howard wrote: “Brilliant Composer James Horner, friend & collaborator on 7 movies has tragically died in a plane crash. My heart aches for his loved ones.”

Horner, 61, won two Academy Awards for his work on “Titanic”, one for the score and one shared with lyricist Will Jennings for best original song – “My Heart Will Go On”, performed by Celine Dion.

Horner also composed the music for “Aliens”, “The Karate Kid”, “Braveheart” and a string of other major films. His scores for “Avatar”, “A Beautiful Mind” and “House of Sand and Fog” earned Oscar nominations.

His attorney Jay Cooper told Reuters he had not heard from Horner since the crash, but could not confirm whether he was on board at the time. “He's an experienced pilot, but I know nothing else,” Cooper said.

The Ventura County Fire Department said the plane crashed at 9:30 a.m. (1630 GMT Sunday) and there were no survivors. The cause of the crash was not immediately known.

Availability of kosher food aboard Titanic sheds light on immigration via England


Of the 2,225 people aboard Titanic on its maiden voyage, 1,512 perished in the frigid waters of the North Atlantic when the ship went down in the early hours of April 15, 1912.

Charles Kennell was among the nearly 700 crew members to die that night. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, the 30-year-old Kennell signed on to the White Star Line’s Titanic on April 4, 1912. He listed his address as 6 Park View, Southampton, the port city in southeast England from which the Titanic would embark.

Kennell had already served on the Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic, which took its maiden voyage in 1911. Now he came aboard the larger, more luxurious Titanic for wages of four pounds a month. Kennell was the ship’s “Hebrew cook.” The Titanic had kosher food service.

Midway through the great wave of Eastern European Jewish immigration to America—which brought two million Jews to the United States between 1881 and 1924—major passenger lines crossing the Atlantic began instituting kosher food service for its Jewish passengers, mainly immigrants in third-class steerage.

But historians and authors who explore and preserve the body of knowledge about Titanic know little else about kosher food and Jewish life aboard the ill-fated liner.

“It’s been a very tough subject to get much on,” said Charles Haas, president of the Titanic International Society. “My research has generated more questions than answers. It’s been, in a way, frustrating because I haven’t been able to find anybody who knows for sure almost anything.”

Haas and John Eaton are authors of five books on Titanic including the meticulous “Titanic: Triumph and Tragedy,” which has just been released in a newly expanded third edition.

Over the years, they’ve cultivated friendships with Titanic survivors and their descendants, conducted Titanic research in England and Northern Ireland, and have plunged to the ocean floor to see the Titanic’s wreckage.

The two will be among the guest lecturers on the Titanic Memorial Cruise from Southampton to New York, April 8-19 aboard the Balmoral cruise ship.

The White Star and Cunard lines, as well as the German lines all had kosher facilities by the time Titanic sailed, Haas said.

Based on information Haas has found about kosher kitchens on other ocean liners of the time—particularly on Titanic’s sister ship Olympic—he believes, “we have some probably reasonable assumptions in terms of Titanic.”

The earliest reference Haas has found about kosher service on an ocean liner dates to 1904.

“There’s an article in the Trenton Times in June 1904 and it says, among other things, ‘American Line officials arranged another innovation in the form of special kosher cooks for the Jews. The English will have their meals served separately and their cabins will also be separate from those of the Jews.’ And that was on the S.S. Philadelphia.”

One of the big names in shipbuilding at that time, Haas said, was Albert Ballin, chairman of the Hamburg-American Line. In 1905, Ballin, who was Jewish, decided to place separate kosher facilities on all of his steamships between New York and Bremen.

According to a contemporary news article about the Hamburg-American line, the addition of kosher service was “in accordance with a request from a number of representative Jewish organizations.”

Valery Bazarov, director of family history and location services for HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, also confirmed the first decade of the 20th century as the beginning of kosher food service on liners crossing the Atlantic. He added that HIAS, which continues to help resettle Jewish refugees to America, established a kosher kitchen at Ellis Island in 1911.

Jewish steerage passengers on Titanic—as was the case on other liners departing from England for America—were primarily refugees from Eastern Europe. But why would they stop over in England first?

“To get out of immediate danger, and more than that,“ Bazarov explained. “It was not only immediate danger like a pogrom; it was also immediate danger if someone was drafted to the Russian army.”

Transmigrants through Britain

A century ago, the term of conscription to the Russian army was three mandatory years. Bazarov referred to conscription as “the underground pogrom, only much longer and much more painful.”

The Jews of Eastern Europe, he added, were limited in their successes because of pervasive antisemitism. “It was not just immediate danger but just the quality of life as a whole,” he said, that also led them to flee.

“To travel abroad, all Russians, not only Jews, needed foreign passports,” Bazarov said. “And to get it, they wrote a petition to the local authorities. They needed to bring the certificate about their relationship to the military service. Without that, they wouldn’t be allowed.”

That’s why so many Eastern European Jews forged or purchased forged passports, he said.

Some Jews fled to England because they couldn’t afford the ocean passage; some tried to make lives for themselves there. Others were required by law to keep moving.

“Even at that time, two stop-overs cost less than a ‘direct flight,’ like now,” Bazarov said.

England’s National Archives has estimated that between 1881 and 1905, up to 100,000 Eastern European Jews settled in England. Parliament curtailed this immigration in 1905 with the Aliens act. Most Eastern European Jews could then only stop over in England as “transmigrants,” on their way to other destinations.

The British National Archives has also estimated that between 1880 and 1914, approximately one million Jewish transmigrants arrived at England’s eastern ports, crossed the country “quickly,” and departed via England’s western ports.

Before liners offered kosher food, Jews who kept kosher had to fend for themselves, bringing their own food. Some didn’t survive. Despite the Jewish value of pikuach nefesh—that saving a life takes precedence even over keeping kosher—Haas cited a Washington Post article from Nov. 2, 1909 about Gisella Greiner, a “young Hebrew immigrant,” who died of starvation in Ellis Island’s hospital. Kosher food was not available during her nine-day voyage across the Atlantic; she chose to fast.

Even for those passengers who didn’t keep kosher, food service in the old steerage system could be a vile experience.

In December 1909, the U.S. Immigration Commission reported on steerage conditions to the U.S. Congress. The report described the “disgusting and demoralizing conditions of the old steerage,” in which 300 or more people would sleep in large compartments. There were no regular dining rooms for steerage class. A minimum number of tables and seats were set in common areas.

An immigration commission agent described the sleeping compartment of one of these liners as subdivided into three sections: “one for the German women, which was completely boarded off from the rest; one for Hebrews; and one for all other creeds and nationalities together. The partition between these last two was merely a fence, consisting of four horizontal 6-inch boards. This neither kept out odors nor cut off the view.”

That particular liner did have a separate galley and cook for kosher food. “They used the same tables with others if they used any, and were served in the same manner,” the agent reported. “Their food seemed of the same quality.”

It was competition for steerage passengers, the 1909 report continued, that led the major lines to develop improved steerage conditions.

Haas said, the “new steerage” arrangements of the White Star Line, particularly those of Olympic and Titanic, provided third-class passengers with foods they had neither seen nor could ever afford before, such as oranges.

“The White Star Line, although we tend to think of them as the steamship line of luxury, they really catered to the third class, because they made more per head on the third class tickets than they did on a first-class,” Haas said. “And if they could get word-of-mouth advertising where immigrants reached America and wrote home and said how wonderfully they were treated on the White Star Line’s ships, that was the best kind of advertising they could hope for.”

On Olympic and Titanic, Haas said, the largest cabins in third class accommodated six. In some cases, there were cabins for four and even two.

“The third class, in most cases, were accustomed to waiting on others,” Haas said. “And here for the first time they had stewards serving them. And there’s even a notice on the bottom of the menu saying, ‘any complaints regarding the lack of civility from a steward should be reported to the chief steward immediately.’”

As in all steerage arrangements of the time, Titanic’s third-class passengers were segregated by gender. The men were in the bow of the ship, unmarried ladies in the stern, and families were also in the stern.

Haas, who is not Jewish, has attempted to track down details of Titanic’s kosher facilities while conducting research in Belfast, where the Titanic was built, at Harland and Wolff shipyard. He’s never seen a kosher-only menu card specific to Titanic.

“All of the existing menus for the Titanic, to the best of my knowledge, there’s not specific reference to that,” Haas said. “I don’t know whether that would have been done by word of mouth or it might possibly have been at the time passengers booked their tickets.”

He and Eaton have seen a generic 1911 White Star third-class menu that indicates the availability of kosher meat. The menu was part of an advertisement for Olympic.

“In terms of artifacts that have been retrieved from the ocean floor,” he said, “we’ve not seen any kosher service dinnerware, although we do know from the Olympic, what the design (for dishes) looked like and everything.”

Karen Kamuda, vice president of Titanic Historical Society Inc. and Titanic Museum in Indian Orchard, Mass., said in an email that her understanding of kosher food service on Titanic comes from Paul Louden-Brown, a former society vice president and author of “The White Star Line, An Illustrated History.”

She explained that on Titanic, all kosher “china, stoneware and silver-plate or other serving utensils were marked in Hebrew and English either ‘meat’ or ‘milk.’” The same standards, she indicated, “applied for all classes, and even first class silver-plate was marked ‘milk’ or ‘meat.’ Kamuda added that “rabbis regularly inspected the liners’ catering departments in both Southampton and New York.”

A few clues

Eaton, Haas’ writing partner, puzzles at the scarce documentation of kosher service aboard the Titanic.

“There are fundamental questions of when and who decided to hire a ‘Hebrew Cook’ for Titanic’s kitchen,” he explained in an email. “Who and when were (which) Jewish authorities called in for consultation? For the actual implementation of the facility…the ‘victualizing’ inventory for the Titanic is well known: all sorts of cookware as well as serving plates and tableware are categorized and listed. But nowhere is there any mention of or separate designation for ‘kosher’ items.”

But Eaton did remember that about 20-25 years ago, likely at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum in Holywood, Northern Ireland, he caught a brief glimpse of a Titanic deck plan that included a space indicated by an arrow for kosher service.

“It was a small space as I recall,” he said, “scarcely large enough for a single sink or workspace. It was not the size of a full installation of ranges and sinks, by any means.”

Eaton made a return visit to the Ulster museum last spring and asked if staff could find that deck plan again. They were unable to locate it. At the end of March/beginning of April, he and Haas were scheduled to be in Belfast for a week, ahead of the centennial cruise, and “will likely make an effort to locate the plan then.”

Haas said that before Titanic’s sister ship, Olympic, was scrapped in 1935, all the contents of the ship were sold via auction. The auction included Olympic’s kosher kitchen and supplies, including a cooking range with rack and hood, stoking irons, dressers, cupboard, sink, tilings and light fittings.

Tim Sluckin is secretary of England’s Southampton Hebrew Congregation, which dates to 1833. According to England’s Jewish Year Books, the seaport city was home to 20 Jewish families in 1905, 60 Jewish families a decade later.

Though Sluckin isn’t aware of any hard documentation, in an email conversation, he indicated that, “It is known that for many years the kosher butcher (in Southampton) was kept in business by supplying the ships…our butcher was getting the meat from our rabbi, who was also the shochet (kosher slaughterer).”

Martyn Rose, president of Southampton Hebrew Congregation, also affirmed in an email that, “Although there was kosher food on the Titanic, it would have been the same for all liners calling or using Southampton as a base at that time. Indeed until the mid 20th century, when liner travel to the USA and beyond Southampton had kosher meat suppliers, and our minister (rabbi) was the shochet.”

The 1909 U.S. Immigration Commission report on steerage conditions may give an indication of the role of Charles Kennell, Titanic’s Hebrew cook.

An immigration agent who reported on “new steerage conditions” wrote of the unnamed line she investigated: “The Hebrew steerage passengers were looked after by a Hebrew who is employed by the company as a cook, and is at the same time appointed by Rabbi as guardian of such passengers. This particular man told me that he is a pioneer in this work. He was the first to receive such an appointment. It is his duty to see that all the Jewish passengers are assigned to sleeping quarters that are as comfortable and as good as any; to see that kosher food is provided and to prepare it. He has done duty on most of the ships of the _______ Line. On each he has instituted this system of caring for the Hebrews and then has left it to be looked after by some successor.”

This immigration agent also reported that friends and acquaintances, and “various nationalities” were quartered together as much as possible, and that “the few Jewish passengers were assigned staterooms distantly removed from all others.”

Yet all of these upgraded accommodations for steerage passengers in general and Jewish immigrants in particular couldn’t substitute for the absence of common-sense safety measures at every level on Titanic.

Speeding through a North Atlantic ice field, its crew ignoring warnings from nearby ships, lifeboats for only half of those on board, poor communications among crew members, and an off-duty wireless operator on the nearest ship, Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14 and sank at 2:20 a.m. on April 15.

Of the 710 third-class passengers on board, only 174—one fourth—escaped death. Most died of hypothermia in the 28-degree ocean after the ship sank.

The survivors arrived at New York’s Pier 54 at 9:30 p.m. on April 18 aboard their rescue ship, the Cunard liner Carpathia. Third-class passengers had to wait until 11 p.m. to disembark. According to Haas and Eaton, “federal immigration officers waived the usual examination of steerage passengers.”

The following day, The New York Times reported that “A score of the Titanic’s steerage were taken to the Hebrew Sheltering Home and Immigrant Aid Society, 229 East Broadway for the night.” According to HIAS records, the agency assisted 27 Titanic survivors.

If the body of Titanic’s Hebrew cook, Charles Kennell, was ever retrieved, his remains were never identified.

Marshall Weiss is the editor and publisher of The Dayton Jewish Observer. 

See More Coverage of the Titanic Disaster Centennial on the Website of The Dayton Jewish Observer

The story of Titanic survivors Leah and ‘Filly’ Aks


When Titanic departed on its first and last voyage from Southampton, England on Wednesday, April 10, 1912, 18-year-old Jewish immigrant Leah Aks and her 10-month-old son, Philip were on board.

Passover had concluded the day before. On sailing day, Leah was pleased to find that the third class was not completely booked; she and Philip had a cabin all to themselves.

Leah was born in Warsaw, Poland. In London, she had met Sam Aks, a tailor who was also from Warsaw. They were married there.

“In London he was barely making a living,” wrote Valery Bazarov, historian for the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, in a piece about the family for HIAS. “A cousin who lived in America visited him in London and told him that if he came to America he’d make money very quickly. So he came over, got a job and soon saved enough money to bring Mrs. Aks and the baby over.”

Sam settled in Norfolk, Va. and entered the scrap metal business. In Titanic: Women and Children First, author Judith B. Geller indicates that all the money Sam earned was used for Leah and “Filly’s” trip to join him. Their arrival in Norfolk would mark the first time Sam would meet his son.

Though Leah and Filly were booked onto an earlier ship, Bazarov explained that Leah’s mother convinced her to wait a week and travel on Titanic, considered the world’s safest liner.

Four days into their journey, after the ship struck an iceberg, Leah and Filly followed other third-class passengers to the bottom of the third-class staircase at the rear of the ship.

At 12:30 p.m., the crew permitted women and children in this group to make their way to the boat deck. When crew members saw that Leah and Filly couldn’t get through the crowd up the stairs, they carried the two. Leah and Filly made it to the boat deck, part of the first-class area of the ship. Madeline Astor, the young wife of millionaire John Jacob Astor, covered Filly’s head with her silk scarf.

According to Bazarov, a distraught man—who had been rebuffed by the crew when he attempted to get into a lifeboat—ran up to Leah and said, “I’ll show you women and children first!”

The man grabbed Filly and threw him overboard.

Leah searched the deck until someone urged or pushed her into lifeboat 13. She sat in the middle of the Atlantic with 63 others in number 13, a broken woman. Hours after Titanic went down and the cries for help from those dying in the water faded away, the liner Carpathia arrived at daybreak.

Leah searched the deck of Carpathia in vain for her baby. Despondent, she took to a mattress for two days. Titanic survivor Selena Cook urged Leah to come up on deck for air. When she did, she heard Filly’s cry.

Unknown to Leah, Filly had fallen into lifeboat number 11, right into another woman’s arms. In Geller’s account, the woman is presumed to have been Italian immigrant Argene del Carlo. Her husband was not permitted to follow the pregnant Argene into the lifeboat.

“Argene shared her warmth with Filly through the long night,” Geller writes. “Toward morning she began to believe that God had sent this child to her as a replacement for Sebastino (her husband) and a brother for the child she carried in her womb.”

On the deck of Carpathia, the woman who had cared for Filly since Titanic sank refused to give Leah the child.

Leah appealed to the Carpathia’s captain, Arthur Roston, now put in the role of King Solomon.

In an e-mail interview with The Observer, Gilbert Binder, the husband of Leah’s late granddaughter, Rebecca, described what happened next.

Binder said that Filly was returned to Leah because “she identified him as a Jewish baby and he was circumcised. The (other) woman was Catholic and Italian and her male child would not have been circumcised.”

After their arrival in New York, Leah and Filly were taken to HIAS’ shelter and remained there until Frank could come for them.

“Leah Aks gave birth to a baby girl nine months after arriving in this country and intended to name her Sara Carpathia,” in honor of the rescue ship, Binder explained. “The nuns at the hospital in Norfolk, Va. got confused and named the baby Sara Titanic Aks. I have a copy of her birth certificate.” Sara was Binder’s mother-in-law.

Leah lived until 1967; her son, Filly, until 1991.


Marshall Weiss is the editor and publisher of The Dayton Jewish Observer.

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