The Jewish Experience of the great white north

So as most of you already know I have recently been sharing my experiences on my recent road trip to Alaska. Many brave folks have made the 4000+ mile journey from the east before me, so why is it such a big deal?

Every morning when the temperature rose above freezing we would pull over usually around 10am or so, so that I could put on my tefilin and thank the good L-rd for the beauty that lay all around me. As I davened I always wondered to myself if anyone Jewish let alone religious had ever occupied this current site. Had any frum Jews ever driven the road from Fort Nelson, British Columbia to Fort Liard, Northwest Territories? Had anyone ever learned torah in Kluane National Park? Were we the first to daven mincha on the Byron Glacier in Portage Alaska?

All these thoughts entered my mind every time I did anything remotely related to my being frum. Every bracha we made, every prayer, every hinting towards torah- absolutely everything kept us wondering whether we were the first. We probably weren’t- there are always a few token frum folks who make the trek to Alaska every summer according to the Chabbad sheliach in Anchorage- he did mention that it was more common to see older retired folks then young ones like ourseleves. He also mentioned a frum girl who had hitchhiked from Boro Park to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska a few summers ago-that of course caught my attention and made me feel less hardcore.

We did know that no frum Jews resided in the Yukon or Northwest Territories. According to the Rabbi, there are 12 frum families in Alaska including two of whom live in Ketchikan and Sitka- both not accessible by road, located on the southern tip near Juneau- the capitol.

Our first contact with Jews above the 60th parallel was in Fairbanks when my companions and I decided to check out the Reform Temple – Ohr Hatzafon- very fitting if you ask me. No it wasn’t the jolt of torah and prayer I needed, but we met some fine folks of the Fairbanks Jewish community and an Israeli stationed in the Army base there – Fort Wainright. He took our number down and he said he would call after shabbos. Sure enough he called and invited us to a concert on the army base- having never been on an army base before, I was ecstatic, as were my companions.

The base was huge and Yitzchok, though he goes by Ike was pumped to have some of his own kind to hang out with for a night, especially since my two companions spoke fluent Hebrew. A death metal show on an army base is about as conducive to Yarmulke wearing as a KKK rally- so for the first time on the trip I wore a hat. I must note that throughout the whole month of my trip I felt 100% comfortable wearing my yamy and tzitzis out and proud, as well as davening on the side of the road in public view. Anyway, the concert was basically a barkmetal, death metal, lets blow some sh-t up extravaganza- all the while the movie street fighter raged on in the background. I personally am more of a melodic metal fan, but seeing a crew of tattooed army guys throwing each other around rather violently in the pit was a sight to behold. We then skipped out and wound up in some jam band, hippy, stoner, Birkenstock-bar. More my scene, my yarmulke was replaced to its rightful place, but I was so tired I just fell asleep on the couch while my friends chilled and spoke with Ike. I was woken up by someone tapping me on the head and proclaiming that he had never seen someone so wasted. “Dude that guys so flippin wasted”- indeed I was tired after a long day of trying to manuver around a hotel on shabbos with all doors needing your electronic keycard. Thats right my friends never stay in a hotel that needs keycards for the ground floor doors, elevators, STAIRS, bathrooms or anyother simple luxaries. These keycards were really invented by some sick anti-Semites if you ask me.

So I woke up and started talking with some locals. Jim, the craziest guy in Fairbanks apparently. “Hey Ill tell you guys some good stories he yelled”. He was severely doped up- I’m not much of a drug expert but my buddy told me it appeared as if he had some meth or speed. Anyway, Jim started telling hunting stories. Its odd that in a hippy bar people would tolerate this- but you see, Alaska is different- everyone hunts. So Jim starts telling us about the time his dad got stuck in the tree and the bear chased him right up, he shot the bear a bunch of times until it slid down the tree in a puddle of blood. Or about his friend paying $7000 just for the right to shoot a Polar Bear. On he went about the natives and Alaska and how many Moose he had bagged this year. As a parting story he told us that a bears’ favorite part of the human is the asshole- I hope its not true- but he told us the story of his dads friend who hadnt wiped well enough, and so the bear ate his asshole out literally- yes the bear killed him. That nights’ sleeping was mildly uncomfortable until someone declared his story to be bogus.

Our next Jewish north experience was in Anchorage where we spent Rosh Hashanah at the Chabbad. The Greenberg family is the sheliach there and besides letting us stay and eat every meal, they had some of the best food I had ever eaten. So we went to the Mikvah and shull, and it was quite interesting. The first night of Rosh Hashanah was dominated by everyone speaking in shull of how their fishing and hunting season was going. One man had caught a 150 pound Halibut that day and was very joyful After all was said and done the food was quite good, the company rather interesting and very hospitable, but the highlight of the Anchorage Jewish community was our chance encounter and ability to hang out with a Jewish Eskimo from Barrow Alaska. If you look at an atlas you will note that Barrow is the most Northern city in the continent. It sits on the Beaufort Sea- otherwise known as a part of the Arctic Ocean. The closest road to this desolate area of Alaska is the Pipeline road which ends at Prudhoe Bay- a 2 hour plane ride to the east. Any way I will withhold his name because he doesn’t like the attention. We were extremely interested in his culture and background so he invited us over and we watched whaling expedition videos from his town and we spoke of what it was like to grow up there. He had his fridge chock full of reindeer, whale, caribou, moose and other meats. He showed us his coat made of a wolverine. We spoke of life back east since he attended college in the east and Midwest and just chilled. Jewish Eskimo’s rock.

Then we were gone and once again we wondered whether we were the first frum Jews to step foot in Jade City, British Columbia population 12 or Moosleigh, Alberta or Crookston, Minnisota. Then all of the sudden I was eating kosher Pizza in Detroit Michigan enjoying every bite as if I had been trapped on a ice floe in the middle of the arctic. Relishing the simple pleasure of not having to cook Osem meals that contain your weekly sodium content in every serving on my stove on the side of the road. I was back in civilization but most importantly Jewish civilization . When I walked into shull Friday night in Cleveland I was shocked at how much I actually missed frum Jews. I was so happy to be back.