BY RON FEINBERG / WEB EDITOR //
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.
Of course, 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 my wife Wendy and I came across some reminders recently of the Jewish community.
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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.
But, 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. 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, just like in cartoon strips, I saw a light bulb click on 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, as we were cruising between Ketchikan and Victoria, we found ourselves somewhere watery and cosmically mountainous. Shabbat was nearing, and the folks at Norwegian Cruise Line announced there would be a short service in the ship’s chapel.
Wendy, my daughter Lauren, son-in-law Josh and I, all spiffy in our Friday night best, went looking for a minyan and found a vacant room, a dozen chairs, two challahs and a bottle of Manischewitz. We sat and waited…and then waited some more.
After a bit, a young couple showed up and joined our chavurah. Now we were six and needed only four more Jews.
Well, actually, we were still only four, six short of a minyan – the young woman was a Seventh Day Adventist, and the guy was, well, “nothing,” he said.
Can you say awkward?
Once again, we waited, and then waited some more. Finally, lacking the required number to hold a proper service, we instead opted to say kiddush and the Hamotzi.
It was about then that Lorraine showed up. She was a full-fledged, card-carrying Jew from Sydney, Australia.
Still, I gathered that 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”?
Anyway, 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 metro Atlanta, and we knew only one person living in Sydney: the former executive director of our shul, Alan Glazerman.
That would be the same man, Lorraine announced, that until very recently was the executive director of her synagogue in Sydney.
I did mention it was a small world, right?