ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters Life!) - For years, they’ve endured jokes about the “frozen chosen” and even doubts about their existence but now Alaska Jews are getting some unexpected northern exposure.
The latest novel by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Chabon imagines a Yiddish-speaking Jewish homeland in the most northerly U.S. state which has put a welcome spotlight on the small Jewish community.
“The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” envisions a post-Holocaust universe with no Israel and where dispossessed Jews find a temporary haven in Alaska, with its premise drawn from an abandoned plan in the 1930s to relocate German Jewish refugees in Alaska.
The story is set in Sitka, a former Russian colonial capital, that in reality is home to nearly 9,000 people but, in Chabon’s story, expanded to a population of 3.2 million.
For many, the book is an exploration of Jewish identity and Jewish theology, all wrapped in an engaging murder mystery, but is it good for the Alaskan Jews who make up less than one percent of the state’s 670,000 residents?
Yes, according to Rabbi Yossi Greenberg of the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska.
“This novel will definitely create an awareness of Alaska’s history and Alaska’s contribution to the world,” said Greenberg, who heads the state’s only Orthodox Jewish congregation.
The rabbi, who is also spearheading an effort to build an Alaska Jewish history museum, said he is used to the mistaken idea that no Jews live in the 49th state.
“People probably don’t even think there are non-Jews in Alaska. They say, Are there people there?’ They think there are only igloos,” he told Reuters, adding that the climate in Anchorage is less harsh than that of Chicago.
Chabon, 44, on a recent trip here, himself admitted that he was a bit surprised to meet so many real-life Jewish Alaskans.
“In my wildest imaginings, I never thought I would be addressing an audience of my fellow Jews atop a hotel building in Anchorage, Alaska,” Chabon said at a reception hosted by Greenberg’s Alaska Jewish Historical Museum.
At the reception, which was held between book signing events, Greenberg introduced the author to the term “Jewskimo,” a word describing certain Alaskans of mixed heritage.
Chabon, whose grandparents spoke Yiddish, also picked up other nuggets of Alaska Jewish history.
He learned Alaska Airlines was the carrier that evacuated 40,000 Yemeni Jews to the infant state of Israel and that one of the last surviving crew members of the Exodus, the famous ship used by Holocaust survivors attempting to settle in post-war Palestine, is an Alaskan from Seward.
He also learned about many of the Jewish Alaskans who hold and have held elective offices, including former House Minority Leader Ethan Berkowitz, an Anchorage Democrat mulling a future run at statewide office.
“From my perspective, when you have 3 million Jews in Alaska, we can rewrite the political stage,” Berkowitz joked at the reception.