Saturday, February 28, 2009

I woke to a good four or five inches of new snow.  Fortunately, Luke and Elyse, a couple from the congregation invited me out to their home in the countryside for some snowshoeing.  That was a lot of fun, and also hard work.  We took turns breaking trail and walked along a frozen creek in their back yard, which is near the University of Alaska campus.  Elyse and Luke offered some terrific conversation, too.  Luke is  planning to run for mayor this fall, and is currently sits on the county commission.  Elyse was an Alaska delegate to the Democratic convention in Denver this past summer, and her brother David serves in the Alaska state legislature.  They are, obviously, well-connected to the politics of the state, which they tell me are less monolithic than it appears at first glance, especially judging by Sarah Palin.  Until the mid-1970s, Alaska was, apparently, a Democratic leaning state.  The huge infusion of oil pipeline money changed that.  But there are still a good number of progressives, especially baby boomers who came here in the late sixties and early seventies, seeking a new way of life.  

Later this evening, I spoke at the Farthest North Jewish Film Festival, after a showing of "The Counterfeiters."  There was a sell out crowd at the site, a combination bar/theater named the Blue Loon--kind of a rougher version of The Flicks, which sells a lot more beer than Charadonay.

When I emerged from the film and discussion, the snow had stopped and the night was crystal clear, so I had high hopes of seeing the aurora.  I drove ten miles out of town to an overlook on the Steese Highway.  Parked there, I ran into a lot of local teens partying.  And a night sky filled with stars and a gorgeous crescent moon.  But no aurora.  This seems to be the theme of my travels these days: no entrance into the inaguration despite my ticket, no northern lights despite a clear winter night.  Thankfully, when I get to Nepal, I'm pretty confident that the Himalayas will still be there.

Friday, February 27, 2009

northward bound!

Today I drove up to Chatanika, about 35 miles north of Fairbanks.  The roads were a little icy and snowy, but the going was not too bad.  Along the way, I passed boreal forest, old gold mines, and oil rigs.  I stopped and spent some time along the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline, which runs from Barrow down to Prince William Sound.  Sarah Palin would have kvelled.  Alaskans sure love their natural resources.  It's such a paradox here: this is huge, wild country which attracts a certain kind of--dare I say it?--maverick.   Alaskans are proud of their land and at the same time, they tend to be very conservative and human-centric in their approach to its use.    I experienced that in the environmental forum where I spoke last night, and amongst the folks I spoke with today in the bar/lunch counter where I ate in Chatanika.

Tonight I'm leading Shabbat services and then hoping to see the aurora.   All day the sky was clear and blue,  and it's supposed to snow later in the weekend, so this is my best shot.  We'll see.

Shabbat shalom to all.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

The Frozen Chosen

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!