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.
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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.

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