A new generation of Titanic fans
The Jewish experience

A new generation of Titanic fans

When Titanic was released in 2012, it was unlike anything the world had seen, quickly cementing itself as one of Hollywood's greatest films.

It has widely been referred to as one of cinema’s biggest gambles, but Titanic sure did pay off. The original film, released in 1997, was the first to reach the billion-dollar mark, initially raking in more than $1.84 billion at the box office.

Titanic remained the highest-grossing film of all time until director James Cameron surpassed his own record with Avatar.

Titanic also won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Song and more.

The success of the initial release means it shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that it was re-released in 2012, commemorating the centennial of the sinking. Since then, it has been re-released twice more – in 2017, celebrating the film’s 20th anniversary, and now in 2023, for its 25th. So far, the film’s worldwide total earnings have reached $2.2187 billion, and they continue to climb.

A still from Titanic.

What’s different about this year’s re-release?

Well, for Cameron, it’s about reaching a new generation of people who ­weren’t even born when the original was released. It’s also a “celebration of love”, the director told SiriusXM, which is why it was released in time for Valentine’s Day. Another reason for the timing of the re-release is that despite the film reaching cinemas in mid-December, Valentine’s Day 1998 was the highest-grossing single day, which Cameron noted was “very unusual for a film that’s been in the marketplace for two months to have its biggest single performing day”.

The director also acknowledged that it’s unlikely he’ll be around for the 50th anniversary, so he may as well celebrate the quarter-century.

What many people don’t know though, is that when the Titanic sailed, there were dozens of Jews on board.

Eli Moskowitz, author of The Jews of The Titanic, told Ynet News that while some of the Jews were in first class, most were in third, which reflects the fact that many Jews in the early 1900s were immigrants, fleeing Eastern Europe for America.

Photo: Wikipedia

While there is a guest manifest, identifying the Jewish passengers by their names, Moskowitz points out that it’s likely there were a lot more on board, given the fact that many Jews at the time changed their names.

“One of the only ways to leave was by forging documents,” said Moskowitz. During that time (roughly the 1880s to the 1920s), an estimated 2.7 million Jews fled Russia to escape increasing religious persecution, bloody Kishinev pogroms, and the dreaded Cantonist decree.”

According to the Titanic Museum in Missouri, the ship even had a kosher kitchen and kosher chef on board. Artefacts discovered from White Star Line ships show plates labelled meat and milk, and menus offering separate kosher options. It’s said this is proof that kashrut laws were accommodated on board. Perhaps the reason why the kitchen was never found, though, is that it was located on F deck and was in the back of the ship – the part that fully collapsed when it reached the ocean floor.

The Titanic exhibition also shows that a man by the name of Charles Kennell was on the Titanic. He was one of 700 crew members who perished when the ship sunk. After having served on the sister ship, the Olympic, Kennell went aboard the more luxurious Titanic for the higher wages. On board, he was listed as the ship’s ‘Hebrew cook’.

A number of other Jews are registered as having died on board, including some of the wealthier ones who had the opportunity to board lifeboats.

Mining magnate Benjamin Guggenheim was one of them, refusing the opportunity to be saved, saying, “No woman shall remain unsaved because I was a coward.” According to the Jewish Chronicle, Guggenheim remained on the ship, assisting the officers to get passengers on the life vessels.

Isidor and Ida Straus, owners of Macy’s, were also on board. Their story is depicted in the movie, showing that while Ida could have been saved due to the ‘women and children first policy’, she refused to leave her husband’s side. Isidor’s gold and onyx monogrammed pocket watch fob and wedding band are both on display at Titanic museums.

Another victim of the Titanic was Sinai Kantor, whose pocket watch was recovered from his body and returned to his wife. It features Hebrew letters on the face and an image of Moses and the Ten Commandments on its back.

Of the 710 third-class passengers on board, only 174 – one fourth – escaped death. Most died of hypothermia in the -2°C ocean after the ship sank.

The survivors arrived at New York’s Pier 54 at 9.30pm on April 18 aboard their rescue ship, the Cunard liner Carpathia. Third-class passengers had to wait until 11pm to disembark.

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.

There’s no denying that almost everyone knows the story of Titanic. And for those who don’t, there’s always Cameron’s film. Plus, there will always be the biggest debate of all – could both Jack and Rose have fit on the life-saving door?


With Times of Israel

Titanic is now in cinemas across Australia.

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