A tale about Queen Elizabeth, Rabbis and Elephants

Aug 16, 2004
Author: Susan Lawrence, former assistant purser, Cunard Line

It was the Thursday before Passover in 1965 and, although I didn't know it, I was making my last voyage on the Queen Elizabeth.

It was normal practice for the company to only let its purser's staff know that they were to be posted to a new ship when they reached the last port of call before England - usually only a few hours from the final destination. There had even been cases of officers getting to Southampton station on their way home, only to be summonsed by the stationmaster's PA and told that they weren't going home after all - instead, they were to proceed to such and such a ship. That never happened to me, but I did twice get cables while on leave instructing me to report to a different ship.

In this case I found out when we got to Cherbourg that I was being transferred (and promoted) to the smaller ship, Sylvania, then on the Liverpool to New York run via Le Havre, Cobh and either Halifax or Boston (alternately).

But back to the Queen Elizabeth - sailing day from pier 92, New York, and even that late in her career, sailing day from New York was a festive occasion, with the pier absolutely packed with passengers and relatives. However, two things were different about this departure.

Firstly, the aircraft were beginning to make their awful presence felt and passenger numbers were beginning to dwindle, so the company's public relations department were dreaming up all sorts of stunts to attract more passengers. For some unearthly reason, our New York office had decided to hire some elephants and get them to do
stunts on the pier. Needless to say, they took up a lot of room and made the already crowded concourse even more difficult to negotiate.

However, they were entertaining - but they were not the only thing that was different about that sailing. Fortunately, the elephants declined the invitation to sail with us, but returned to their homes on Manhattan Island, or wherever they came from.

As I said, it was just before Passover and the Chief Rabbi of New York had decided that it was an appropriate time for him to visit the Holy Land. But he didn't sail alone. New York has a very large population of Orthodox Jews, and sharing the pier were some thousands of black-suited, skull-capped, dreadlocked and bearded Jewish men,
all there to see off the Chief Rabbi and the 200 of their number who were to accompany him. The poor people controlling the crowds on the Pier had their work cut out to manage the thousands of Jews, the elephants and the other more conventional passengers.

Eventually, sailing time came and we inched out into the Hudson River leaving behind both elephants and most of the Jews. It was actually quite normal for us to carry large groups of people, but usually they were members of common interest organisations, or business sales people who were being rewarded for their diligence in selling the company's products by being ‘invited’ to attend a sales conference in
England. Members of these groups usually wore something like a corporate uniform - coloured blazers or company neckties or badges or whatever. They also usually had a very solid programme of ‘fun’ activities organised for them by their company bosses.

However, there was one trip when such a group lost one of their number for the entire voyage. They didn't report him, which might have caused almighty problems as we would have been obliged to go and search for a possible body, but eventually they found out that he had spent the whole voyage in the cabin of one of the lady passengers. He might have enjoyed that trip, but he wasn't given a chance to enjoy the
conference, as the ship carried him back on the next voyage. His company had summarily dismissed him and expelled him from the conference!

In general, I wasn't very much involved with the Jewish contingent on that voyage as I was allocated to the Tourist Class Office (actually much more fun). Our working hours were from 9 to 5 in the office with two hours for lunch, but we were also entertainment officers and so were involved with the passengers until midnight when the pumpkins arrived. (Dancing with millionaire passengers in the first class lounge of the QE has to be one of my most memorable memories - and I was being paid for it!).

However, the first class office was kept open until 7.30 pm so that the first class passengers could retrieve their jewellery from the ship's safe before going to dinner. We took it in turns to staff this office- usually alone, as it wasn't normally an onerous job.

On the night of Passover (I'm not Jewish and I can't remember which night would actually have been the significant one), I was on duty in the first class office. The Chief Rabbi of New York, appropriately enough, was going to conduct the special service in the ship's Synagogue (yes, the QE had both a Christian Chapel and a Jewish
Synagogue), and there was a lot of coming and going that night. Then one of the Jewish men, dressed as a typical Orthodox Jew all in black and dreadlocks, came up to the counter and said that he would like to conduct a Passover service. Naturally, this shook me a bit, but as a Cunard officer, one has to keep one's cool.

"I'm sorry, Sir, but the Synagogue is in use as the Chief Rabbi is conducting a Passover service there tonight."

"Young lady, I would still like to conduct a service for my own flock."

"Well, I am sorry, sir, but we do only have one synagogue and there is already a Synagogue service being held - by the Chief Rabbi of New York himself."

"Young lady, I am the Chief Rabbi of Portugal and my followers want to have their own service."

At that point I realised that the customer is always right, and promised that I would allocate a lounge for the service - which I did, and so the ship had two simultaneous Passover services. As far as I know, up to that point nobody had had any idea that we had two Chief Rabbis aboard - and it transpired that they were both powerful and fervent men in their own geographical areas.

The rest of the voyage was perfectly peaceful.

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