Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Lights of the North (Alaska, Part II)

Friday, February 3

I sleep in after getting to bed around 2:00 or so.  This is easy, given the late sunrise, and my room is very dark.  Then I enjoy a quiet morning, reading Michael Chabon’s Yiddish Policeman’s Union.  Time to read is one of the great luxuries of being on sabbatical.  I have a lot of books on my list for the coming months: on pilgrimage, and Lithuania, and Jewish life, and a  host of other matters.  But I love reading books set in the location I’m visiting and so it is a pleasure to pick up Chabon’s quirky novel about a fictional Jewish state in Alaska.

At noon I head back out Chena Hot Springs Road, past the farm where I did yesterday’s wedding, to a place called “Just Like Magic” that offers dog sled rides.   Once again, I arrive to find it’s me and a busload of Chinese tourists.  I bundle up and meet Heidi, my musher.  Then I settle into the sled for the one hour, seven mile ride.

It’s so fun!  Heidi leads the team of eight dogs through gorgeous forest, first pine and then birch.  It isn’t light for all that long up here in February, but when the sun is shining, the light is golden and gorgeous.  The sun never rises very high over the horizon, so it’s always that guilded quality of illumination that seems to glow from within all it strikes.  And the sky is cerulean blue.  So we slide along the paths in the sub-zero sunlight and Heidi tells stories of mushing.  She did the Iditirod last year, and loved being out with the dogs, sledding through the wilderness in the long Alaskan nights, the auroras dancing overhead, and sleeping by day on straw beds with her dogs providing warmth.  The dogs clearly love to run and she loves to run them, and our hour goes by too quickly.

On my way back to town, I’m cruising down the road when I stop for a crossing moose.  Quite the sight!

I spend the afternoon doing some Shabbat prep, and schmoozing with Beth, the synagogue’s office manager and only paid employee (she’s also a member),  and her granddaughter, who has the day off from school.  Beth makes a few copies for me, and I listen to her stories of Alaskan Jewish life.

In the evening, I lead services at Or HaTzafon, the northernmost synagogue in the world.  They have a good sense of humor, calling themselves the “frozen chosen.”  About twenty-five people show up for Shabbat evening, which is, as everyone notes,  a great turnout for the winter season.  During the summer, when Fairbanks is full of tourists, they have a rabbinic intern from HUC who stays for a couple of months.  But they are not accustomed to having a rabbi in the winter.  They appreciate my being here—and I’m grateful to be here, too.  I lead; they point me to the melodies that they know.  The portion is Bo, which recounts the final three plagues.  I focus my d’var Torah on darkness, which is the common tie between those plagues: locust so numerous that their swarms darken the sun; arafelet, the thick darkness that descends upon the Egyptians’ dwellings; and the slaying of the first born, which happens at midnight, the darkest hour of the day.  I note that these are also dark days for America, with the Trump administration’s cruel orders against refugees and immigrants and venomous attitude toward the free press.  Then I remind them—and myself—that darkness is also the place where life is born and nurtured, where seeds germinate, and roots do the quiet but essential labor to feed what blooms above the earth.  As Sue Monk Kidd teaches, the darkness that we fear as a tomb can also be a womb.  It’s not a new message for me, but here in Alaska, in February, when the days are so short, in a season of political peril unmatched in my lifespan, it feels poignant and timely.

The community reminds me a bit of my own.  They are unpretentious, hardy, haimish.  Lots of mixed marriages, almost all moved here from somewhere else.  They express gratitude, they represent the “do it yourself” Judaism of smaller Jewish populations, they love the outdoors and are proud of who they are.  Being with them reminds me of how much I love my congregation, how lucky I am to be the rabbi of my community.  After services, I go out for a late Shabbat dinner with two congregants, including the president, at a sushi restaurant.  And then to bed.

Saturday, February 4

I lead a “Bagels and Torah” study session for a small but enthusiastic group at Or HaTzafon.  We focus on Pharaoh’s hardened heart—and our own hearts' hardenings.  It’s a lovely discussion, a joyful learning together.  How lucky we are, as Jews, to have this Torah, which instructs and inspires us.  We approach it so differently, in so many ways.  Yet wherever we are, it goes with us, it guides us.

I enjoy a Shabbat nap, then plan to go to a tribal potlatch with a friend I know from Boise who is living here.  But when we show up, it’s already filled beyond capacity, so I enjoy another quiet Thai meal and then head back out to Cleary Summit for another chance to see the aurora.

I arrive around 11 pm and this time it’s much more crowded than on Thursday night.  The lot is packed with cars and tour busses.  But not much is happening.  For two hours, there’s just a very pale band across the center of the sky, running through the north star, Polaris, which is almost directly overhead at this latitude.  We sit in our cars, get out and walk around a bit, set  our cameras on our tripods, then get back in the cars to warm up.  So it goes for a couple of hours.  By 1 am, I am getting tired and prepare to leave.

And then the sky explodes in light!  But "explodes" is the wrong verb, really, because it’s nothing like fireworks, which are beautiful but also loud and violent and war-like—the rockets’ red glare.  This is soft, feminine, shimmery.  The lights move—astoundingly!—like a group of female Motown singers from the ‘60s, sashaying with utmost grace in their elegant gowns.  Curtains of green and yellow and red undulate across the sky.  I say the blessing again, this time with astonishment and wonder and awe.  The Holy One really does renew the work of creation, all the time, sometimes—most often—with real subtlety, but on rare occasion, such as this, with miraculous exuberance.  This is what I’ve wanted to see all my life, and I am immensely grateful for the show.  Then, just as quickly as it began, the show ends, around 1:30 am, and I head home to Fairbanks, filled with wonder and gratitude.

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