If asked to list the worst tragedy to befall the Jewish people on the open seas, most would point to the voyage of the S.S. St. Louis, the ship carrying hundreds of Jews that was refused entry to the United States in 1939 and forced to return to Europe, where 254 Jews later died at the hands of the Nazis. But the Jewish people also suffered heavy losses from one of the most newsworthy disasters of the 20th century.
To this day, the sinking of the Titanic remains the most famous civilian maritime calamity of modern times, memorialized in print, film, theater, and song. While several works have been written about the ship’s passengers, Eli Moskowitz of Israel adds an entirely new dimension to the existing canon in his book, “The Jews of the Titanic: A Reflection of the Jewish World on the Epic Disaster” (Hybrid Global Publishing, March 2018).
Moskowitz shared highlights of his research at a talk on July 2, the last stop of his inaugural North American book tour. More than 50 people attended the event, which was sponsored and held at B’nai Shalom in West Orange. (His aunt, Faith Cohn, is a member of the congregation.)
The book’s official launch took place in June at a joint convention of the Titanic International Society and the Titanic Society of Atlantic Canada in Halifax.
A native Israeli who lives with his wife and five children outside Ashdod, and holds a master’s in Jewish history, Moskowitz’s fascination with the Titanic dates back to September 1985 when a joint American and French research team led by Dr. Robert Ballard, an American professor of oceanography and underwater archeology, discovered the ship on the ocean floor. Moskowitz was 8 years old at the time and so began his decades-long interest in the ship.
“I received my first book about the Titanic as a bar mitzvah present,” he told the crowd, to much laughter, during his presentation.
While studying for his master’s degree he wrote a paper about the Jewish passengers on the Titanic, and after he graduated he decided to develop the paper into a book. Originally published in Hebrew in 2014, “The Jews of the Titanic” was the culmination of 10 years of meticulous research. In 2015 he decided to make it available to English speakers, and has spent the past two years updating the book and including the findings of new research.
Moskowitz began his talk at B’nai Shalom by outlining the major topics covered in the book, among them Jewish immigration, kashrut, and the plight of the agunah (widow). Through his research, he was able to identify more than 75 Jewish passengers, although the exact number is unknown.
Among the most notable first-class passengers were Benjamin Guggenheim and Ida Straus, who famously refused to get into a lifeboat without her husband, Isidor, a co-owner of Macy’s who would not board a lifeboat while there were still women and children on the Titanic; reportedly they were last seen sitting together on deck chairs as the ship sank.
The second-class berth held fewer than 20 Jews, but Moskowitz said it’s difficult to know the number of third-class Jewish passengers for a variety of reasons, one being that some were traveling under assumed names to escape authorities from Russia and other Eastern European countries where they had lived.
In all, Moskowitz said, fewer than 40 Jews survived.
One question posed by Moskowitz: Was there kosher food available on the Titanic, and if so, who was most likely to request it? The answer, he said, is all about context.
Between 1880 and 1921, 2.7 million Jews left Eastern Europe in search of a better life in the new Promised Land of the United States. Many were religious Jews trying to escape persecution or avoid serving in the Russian army. These Jews ate strictly kosher food — some even died over their refusal to eat anything that wasn’t kosher — and by 1911, many ships sailing the North American route agreed to accommodate Jewish dietary needs.
When the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, were being built, the White Star Line decided both ships would supply kosher food. Also in 1911, the Olympic’s third-class menu was published with the words, “Kosher meat supplied and cooked for Jewish passengers as desired,” written at the bottom, according to Moskowitz.
However, Moskowitz noted, kosher food was served only to third-class passengers aboard the Titanic.
“Many of the first-class passengers were American born and non-observant,” he said. “In fact, there was one gentleman who delighted in eating what he described as the ‘exotic’ foods served in first class. Third-class passengers, however, often came from observant Jewish homes.”
The author discussed one thorny religious issue that became relevant after the tragic fate of the ship: Jewish law dictates that a man cannot be considered dead under Jewish law until his body is located, which means, effectively, that his widow is forbidden to remarry. “These women are called agunot, which literally means unanchored,” explained Moskowitz. “An agunah can’t remarry without definite proof her husband is dead or if he is alive and gives her a divorce.”
Only one Titanic widow, who lived in Russia, is known to have asked a rabbi to release her from her agunah status, but without direct evidence of her husband’s passing, the rabbi would not allow her to remarry. He did, however, refer the question to the chief rabbi in Ponevezh (pronounced Ponevitch), a large Jewish community in Lithuania, who ultimately penned a 10-page letter in which he ruled that because there was no doubt the husband was deceased, the woman was free to remarry.
Moskowitz said he hopes his book will serve as a tribute to the 1,500 souls who died in the world’s most famous maritime disaster.
He also revealed his personal dream: to dive to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean and find the Titanic’s kosher kitchen.