It’s funny the sorts of things you notice when traveling. In Alaska, all you need do to see something beautiful and transcendent is open your eyes. The state bills itself as The Last Frontier and, if anything, the slogan is an understatement.
Nature pretty much trumps everything else in this part of the world, but there are a few cities and villages – Juneau, Skagway, Ketchikan – that offer up bits of civilization and tchotchkes if you’re cruising the Inside Passage.
It was in these places that the lovely Miss Wendy and I came across some reminders recently of the Jewish community. There were a couple of handmade signs that, in Hebrew, offered a hearty hello to travelers. We even spotted a few mezuzot on the doorposts of several jewelry stores.
After asking a sales clerk about the mezuzah at the front of her store and getting a puzzled look and shrug, the manager of the shop stepped forward and explained that the owner was Jewish. At the risk of sounding cynical, I fear these little touches of Judaica and yiddishkeit have little to do with Judaism and lots to do with marketing and attracting the attention of Jewish shoppers. It’s a ploy, apparently, that works.
Meanwhile, Wendy and I had a small mission to accomplish for our rabbi. He asked that we bring back a stone to place on the grave of a man who recently died; no, not a gravestone, but a pebble of some sort. Trust me, it’s a Jewish thing. The man, a member of our congregation, had been planning a trip to Alaska with his family and the rabbi thought a stone from Alaska might offer a measure of comfort for the bereaved.
We stumbled across a little shop on a side street in Skagway, a ramshackle affair that spilled across a dusty lot and was filled with shiny rocks, unpolished stones and boulders. After sorting through a small mountain of stuff, we attempted to explain to the store’s clerk what we were hoping to find.
She smiled and I’m pretty sure I saw a light bulb go off over her head. Oh, she said, you want a stone for a grave. Turns out she was Jewish and knew exactly what we needed. Small world!
A few days later, somewhere watery and cosmically mountainous, we were cruising between Ketchikan and Victoria. Shabbat was nearing and the folks at NCL announced there would be a short service in the ship’s chapel.
Wendy, Lauren, Josh and I, all spiffy in our Friday night best, went looking for a minyon and found a vacant room, a dozen chairs, two challahs and a bottle of Manischewitz. We sat and waited. Then waited some more. After a bit, a young couple showed up and joined our chavurah. Now we were six and only needed four more Jews to make a minyon.
Well, actually, we were still only four, six short of a minyon. The young woman was a Seventh Day Adventist and the guy was, well, nothing, he said. Can you say awkward! Once again we waited. Then waited some more.
Finally, lacking the required number to hold a proper service, we instead opted to say kiddush and the ha-motzi. It was about then that Lorraine showed up, a full-fledged, card-carrying Jew from Sydney, Australia. If there were other Jews about, they were probably in one of the ship’s restaurants, enjoying a Shabbat feast of lobster and shrimp. Oops; did I actually say that with my outside voice?
Lorraine joined us as we made the blessing over the challah. Then we did what Jews do when first meeting – we played Jewish geography. Lorraine knew absolutely no one from the Land of Cotton and we knew only one person living in Sydney, the former executive director of our shul.
That would be the same Alan Glazerman, Lorraine announced, that until very recently was the executive director at her synagogue in Sydney. I did mention it was a small world, right?
EVEN IN ALASKA: The always lovely Miss Wendy (photo above) reaches out to touch a mezuzah we spotted on the doorpost of a jewelry store in Ketchikan. The owner is Jewish and places mezuzot at the entrances of all his shops.