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Oh, That Wild Life in Alaska!

April 27, 2011 By:
Susan Perloff, Jewish Exponent Feature
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Photo by Susan Perloff

Jewish geography in Anchorage is Jewish geography anywhere -- plus ear muffs.

At lunch, Yael Rubenstein Kaufman, a 1993 University of Pennsylvania graduate, learns that I, also a Penn alum, grew up in Elkins Park.

So she phones her Elkins Park Penn friend Joy in Rhode Island to make connections. No old ties materialize, but we bond anyway.

Yael, daughter of Stuart Rubenstein (Penn 1950), a Long Island native, followed Bob Kaufman to Alaska in 2001. Ten years earlier, he had created the Alaska Channel, a TV service broadcasting tourism tidbits in hotel rooms.

Now Alaska.org provides noncruise travel opportunities, prints, guidebooks and maps, and recently launched the free Alaska app for smart phones. And, if you go to "Expert Advice," you'll learn about Jewish Alaska, including when to light Shabbat candles in mid-summer.

In Anchorage, light up between 9 p.m. and 11 p.m. In Nome on July 1, Shabbat will begin at 1:22 a.m. Saturday and end Sunday at 3:05 a.m.

Yes, Anchorage has a mikveh, and no, Tuluksak, population 428, has no kosher deli. (Jews and Alaska are nothing new; Michael Chabon's 2007 best-selling novel, The Yiddish Policeman's Union, focusing on a settlement of Jewish refugees in 1941, is set in Alaska -- Sitka, Alaska.)

Back to Yael. She takes leadership roles in Jewish activities, including Chabad and the 50-year-old Reform temple (frozenchosen.org), whose rabbi's email address is: [email protected]."

She is treasurer of the planned Alaska Jewish Historical Museum and Cultural Center, which will detail 150 years of Alaskan Jewish history.

Like Native Alaskan tribes, Jews struggle to maintain their language, culture and history. During the pogroms and the Holocaust, some Jews turned to Alaska for refuge, and in the early 1940s, Congress considered a proposal for Alaska to resettle Central European Jewish refugees.

In the early 1940s, too, my father, Herbert Nagler, life-long Philadelphian, served in the Army Air Corps, primarily in Adak and Attu, two of the least accessible Aleutian Islands.

He often told of his arrival on the first base. He was a physician, and the troops announced immediately that every man suffered from heartburn. Daddy instructed the cook to clean the coffeepot with soap.

Epidemic eradicated.

I have the telegram notifying Daddy of my birth. He came home to stay on my second birthday, and he always told me that he loved me as though he had known me all my life.

When my husband skied in Alaska in February, I went along in search of Something Daddy. I do not prefer traveling north in winter, but this was my chance.

Although about 3,500 residents of the 49th state are Jewish, not all the marvels of Alaska are. Every winter, the town of North Pole receives planeloads of letters addressed to Santa Claus.

A local told me that high school students answer that mail. In busy years, middle-schoolers have pitched in. I love that thought.

Favorite spot: The frosted mud flats in the Turnagain Arm of Cook Inlet. While Capt. James Cook was searching for the Northwest Passage, his sailing master, Captain William Bligh, later memorialized in Mutiny on the Bounty, sailed up the mouth of a river and had to -- turn again.

Favorite event: The ceremonial start of the Iditarod dog-sled race in March. During the night, city trucks dump snow onto Fourth Avenue, the heart of downtown Anchorage. Riders line up with their 16-dog teams, wearing brightly colored booties, awaiting the starting gun like 8-year-olds anticipating the first ice-cream cone of spring.

This "pre-start" has multiple humans per sled; in the real thing, one soul braves the elements alone. These lean, shorthaired dogs -- not longhaired huskies, who would literally die of the heat -- cover 1,150 miles of what Iditarod.com calls "extreme and beautiful terrain ... mountain ranges, frozen rivers, dense forests, desolate tundra and windswept coastline."

We rode the Alaska Railroad 12 hours from Fairbanks to Anchorage -- an eight-hour ride except for touristic slow-downs for moose viewings. The old train whistle attracted moose, which ran headlong into the cars and fell down dead.

Since tourists didn't adore seeing carcasses by the dozens, railroaders changed the whistle to scare the critters. So the train now slows for moose, which run headlong from it.

The bears we saw were miles away, the apparent size of a pearl earring. At the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center, we saw all the non-humans I needed to see, up close, personal and across an electric fence.

Hey, I'm a city girl.

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