Last night, after a bit of chaos with the airlines and one delayed bag, I arrived in Fairbanks for five days with the local Jewish community at Congregation Ohr HaTzafon. This is a very small and haimish group, who take pride in being the "farthest north" Jewish community in the world. And far north it is--today, it was 15 degrees outside and everyone kept commenting on how warm it is!
My hope is to catch a glimpse of the northern lights. Unfortunately, the aurora activity has been pretty low this year, and besides that, it is supposed to snow for most of the time that I am here, which means a good chance that I'll get no clear nights for viewing. But I'm still hopeful, and members of the Jewish community have promised that if they see the aurora, they will wake me up by calling my cell phone.
I've always wanted to view the northern lights, and in this I'm not alone. I've seen bus loads of tourists from Japan who have come on aurora pilgrimage. Apparently, in Japanese culture, it is an extraordinarily auspicious thing to spy the northern lights, and some even come in the hope that it will bring fertility. Fairbanks has made a kind of cottage industry out of this, with lots of books, video, and tchatchkes featuring the aurora. And they need all the business they can get, as it isn't otherwise easy to get tourism stoked in the winter here, when it is well below zero much of the time.
I had a quiet day. I'm staying in the synagogue (see attached photo) so I went to the market to buy some food and supplies, then walked around downtown. I spent the afternoon on the campus of the University of Alaska-Fairbanks, which has a terrific museum devoted to the cultures of the far north: native art, wildlife dioramas, local history, and scientific info on the aurora. Then, I spoke at an interfaith forum, together with a Catholic and a Muslim, both of whom are professors at the university. It was a pretty conservative crowd; it's no accident that Sarah Palin is the governor of the state.
Tomorrow night I lead services; if the day is decent, I'll try driving out of town a little bit, heading north to the outlying town of Chatinika, which is 25 miles from Fairbanks. Meanwhile, into a warm bed!