The Frozen Chosen

Alaska Jews Talk About Life on America's Last Frontier


By Molly Arost Staub

Published August 06, 2012, issue of August 10, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 2 of 3)

In Juneau, Alaska’s capital, I met Stuart Cohen, a onetime New Yorker who brings to mind Joel Fleischman of the 1990s TV show “Northern Exposure,” a Manhattan doctor on contract in an Alaskan town. But unlike Fleischman, Cohen moved to Alaska on his own volition in 1981 to escape the noise and congestion of New York City.

“It’s very spiritual here, with towers of clouds and mountains, much like in the Bible,” he said. “My personal view is that the Torah is a landscape, and this landscape is a Torah. I can’t speak for everyone, but I wouldn’t be surprised if other people felt the same way.”

Cohen is the author of three novels: “The Invisible World,” “17 Stone Angels” and “The Army of the Republic”; the former two have been translated into 10 languages.

“My writing is involved with my religion in the sense that it examines the same moral questions that Judaism does,” Cohen said. He owns a store in downtown Juneau, also named Invisible World. In it he sells silk, alpaca and cashmere, all of it handmade; he travels to China and South America during Alaska’s harsh winter months so that he can restock.

Cohen attends synagogue sporadically, and he taught Sunday school for 10 years. He says that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in Juneau. But from his perspective, many of the city’s 300 Jews do not trumpet their heritage, either.

“It’s a different group of Jews here, with many into hunting and fishing,” he said.

Cohen said the Jewish community formerly met in members’ homes, the Lutheran Church or Salvation Army headquarters, hiring guest rabbis for major holidays. Now the community has committed to a more permanent presence. This year, Congregation Sukkat Shalom has hired its first year-round rabbi, Dov Gartenberg. It moved into a modest former day care center built in 2005; the building is nestled amid the whispering spruce and the hemlock.

I met Chicago native Steve Dulin in Ketchikan’s historic downtown. He explained that he and his wife arrived in Ketchikan in 1981, because “I wanted to make money, and sought adventure.” They had a strong Jewish identity, and absolutely became more religious,” he said. They are now Orthodox, part of a tiny Jewish community.

Dulin owns the Salmon Ladder Gift Shop which sells tchotchkes and inexpensive jewelry. He lives in a small apartment. “It’s not difficult to keep kosher here, just expensive,” he said. Dulin gets kosher meat and supplies from a source in Seattle. The city has 50 full-time Jewish residents, he estimates, “but they’re very assimilated.”

If the community is in need of a minyan, the staff of the nearby Israeli-owned Diamonds International jewelry store is there to help. Dulin has opened his home to Jewish travelers who pass through. For example, a cruise ship passenger suffered a heart attack and was hospitalized. “His wife asked if there were any Jews in town. She came to us and celebrated Shabbat with us,” Dulin said.

“Our lives are here,” he said, “and it’s the easiest place economically.” The Dulins raised four children in Alaska, tutoring them in Hebrew and Jewish subjects.

Molly Arost Staub is a freelance writer and the former editor of Palm Beach Jewish World.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “'I made a new friend,' my son told his grandfather later that day. 'I don’t know her name, but she was very nice. We met on the bus.' Welcome to Israel."
  • A Jewish female sword swallower. It's as cool as it sounds (and looks)!
  • Why did David Menachem Gordon join the IDF? In his own words: "The Israel Defense Forces is an army that fights for her nation’s survival and the absence of its warriors equals destruction from numerous regional foes. America is not quite under the threat of total annihilation… Simply put, I felt I was needed more in Israel than in the United States."
  • Leonard Fein's most enduring legacy may be his rejection of dualism: the idea that Jews must choose between assertiveness and compassion, between tribalism and universalism. Steven M. Cohen remembers a great Jewish progressive:
  • BREAKING: Missing lone soldier David Menachem Gordon has been found dead in central Israel. The Ohio native was 21 years old.
  • “They think they can slap on an Amish hat and a long black robe, and they’ve created a Hasid." What do you think of Hollywood's portrayal of Hasidic Jews?
  • “I’ve been doing this since I was a teenager. I didn’t think I would have to do it when I was 90.” Hedy Epstein fled Nazi Germany in 1933 on a Kinderstransport.
  • "A few decades ago, it would have been easy to add Jews to that list of disempowered victims. I could throw in Leo Frank, the victim of mob justice; or otherwise privileged Jewish men denied entrance to elite universities. These days, however, we have to search a lot harder." Are you worried about what's going in on #Ferguson?
  • Will you accept the challenge?
  • In the six years since Dothan launched its relocation program, 8 families have made the jump — but will they stay? We went there to find out:
  • "Jewish Israelis and West Bank Palestinians are witnessing — and living — two very different wars." Naomi Zeveloff's first on-the-ground dispatch from Israel:
  • This deserves a whistle: Lauren Bacall's stylish wardrobe is getting its own museum exhibit at Fashion Institute of Technology.
  • How do you make people laugh when they're fighting on the front lines or ducking bombs?
  • "Hamas and others have dredged up passages form the Quran that demonize Jews horribly. Some imams rail about international Jewish conspiracies. But they’d have a much smaller audience for their ravings if Israel could find a way to lower the flames in the conflict." Do you agree with J.J. Goldberg?
  • How did Tariq Abu Khdeir go from fun-loving Palestinian-American teen to international icon in just a few short weeks?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.