One rainy Sunday afternoon last November, I was driving in Tacoma, Washington when my cell phone rang. "Rabbi," said Nancy Pullen, our temple's religious school principal, "a man named Rick Erlich just called from Kotzebue, Alaska...something about a funeral they want you to do."
"Alaska in November?" I thought. "The whole state must be frozen solid!"
I called back and spoke with Rick's wife, Suzy. Kotzebue (rhymes with "matzah-view"), she explained, is a town in northwestern Alaska, thirty miles north of the Arctic Circle. A woman named Clara Rotman had died, and none of Alaska's rabbis could do the service. Suzy suggested I call Bish Gallahorn, one of Mrs. Rotman's grandsons, for more information.
Bish spoke gently and quietly. Clara's mother, he said, was a native Alaskan, and her father was Jewish. Clara had been raised as a Jew, and she'd cherished her Jewish heritage. "I'll come," I said.
As we planned the funeral, Bish asked if there was anything he should know about the casket. "Just order a Jewish casket from the local funeral home," I suggested. Bish paused. "Rabbi..." he finally said, "we don't really have a funeral home here in Kotzebue."
Other questions followed. Could the ceremony take place in the Friends Church? (No, I don't usually do funerals in churches....) It's the only room in town big enough for the ceremony. (In that case...okay.) Could the casket be open during the funeral? (No, I'm afraid not.) Did I have warm boots?
At 11:30 Tuesday night, I boarded a Boeing 737 to Anchorage, then changed to another 737 bound for Kotzebue. I felt some measure of comfort. A town that had an airport big enough to land a 737 couldn't be that tiny a place, could it?
I hadn't realized that this particular 737 was just a twenty-three seater; most of the contents were cargo bound for ice-locked Kotzebue.
The man sitting next to me had been to Kotzebue many times. He explained that the town, populated mainly by Inupiaq (pronounced IN-you-pack), serves as the social and economic hub for a region that includes several small Eskimo villages on the tundra--only some of which have electricity and running water. He advised me to speak softly and slowly with the Inupiaq, not to look them straight in the eyes, and not to be surprised if they waited ten to fifteen seconds before responding. To the Inupiaq, that's a sign of respect. Uh-oh, I thought, I'm doomed. You see, I'm a fast-talker extraordinaire. My friends call me a "manic expressive."
I stared out the airplane window. The view of the Alaskan terrain below was the whitest I'd ever seen.
When the plane landed at 9:00 am, it was still dark outside, and bitter cold. On three sides I could make out windswept snowfields. On the fourth stood several rundown buildings--the entire town of Kotzebue. Oh my goodness, I thought. This must be the most godforsaken place on earth.
Within a couple of minutes, Bish arrived. He was accompanied by his cousin, John Baker, another grandson of the deceased, whom I learned was a favorite to win the upcoming Iditarod dogsled race (he came in third).
We drove down Kotzebue's only paved street and in a few minutes arrived at Rotman's General Store. Clara Rotman Salinas had owned the store and lived in an apartment above it. The upstairs looked like a college dormitory, with one long hall and several rooms--some bedrooms, some offices--on either side. I learned that the second floor had once been an inn; visiting dignitaries--among them Roy Rogers, Jimmy Dean, and Edna Ferber--had all stayed there. In her 1958 best-selling novel, Ice Palace, Ferber had based the character Mrs. Leah Raffsky on Clara Rotman, the delightful Jewish Eskimo innkeeper she'd met while writing the book.
One simply did not say hello to Mrs. Raffsky. One does not say hello to the sculptured head of Nefertiti in a museum.... Amidst the cheeses, the canned goods, the housewares displayed in the well-stocked trading post, Mrs. Raffsky was wearing a short, boxy lemon-yellow jacket with a small standing collar, it was cut with reticent elegance like a Chinese woman's coat; fine black wool trousers and tiny black flat slippers.
A short, plump housekeeper wearing the first of many huge smiles I would see that day ushered me to my room--immaculately furnished in 1950s-era furniture. A small stack of neatly folded towels lay on the bed; the uppermost bore an embroidered Magen David.
At breakfast, Bish and John told me that Clara Rotman Salinas, originally Clara Levy, was born in 1914 in the nearby village of Kiana. Her father, William Shakespeare Levy, had settled in Alaska shortly after 1900, having been sent north as an accountant during the Klondike Gold Rush. Clara's mother had died young, leaving William Shakespeare Levy the job of raising four daughters. He raised them as proud Jews. As an adult, Clara married a Jewish man named Louis Rotman. After Louis died, she remarried, this time to Steve Salinas, a non-Jew, who also predeceased her. A consummate "hands on" perfectionist, Clara operated two general stores in Kotzebue and Selawik, both of which continue today. She remained in remarkable health until her final years, when she was plagued by Alzheimer's. She died quietly in the hospital, survived by four children, twenty-nine grandchildren, forty great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild.
Clara's home had been the gathering place for the entire family. While at Grandma's, Clara's children and grandchildren knew they had to put their napkins on their laps, hold their forks properly, and clean up after themselves. Proper behavior was a must. An aficionado of travel, the arts, and fine dining, Clara took her sister to Europe, the Middle East, and the Caribbean, and her grandchildren to San Francisco, Hawaii, and New York--faraway places that other Eskimo children would never get to see. How her family loved her!
Clara was also passionate about Judaism. She shared it with her offspring at every opportunity and traveled to Seattle several times a year to attend services at Temple De Hirsch Sinai.
Culturally, Clara was an Alaskan pipeline, connecting Jews and Eskimos. In Kotzebue, she shared with her neighbors the richness of being Jewish. Visiting her relatives in the Lower 48, she shared her Inupiaq wisdom--the importance of hospitality, the richness of subsistence living, the value of strong, quiet perseverance.
Full daylight had come at around 10:30, revealing Kotzebue's cold, clear November skies. Early in the afternoon, Rick and I drove to the Friends Church for the funeral. About 200 people, mostly Eskimo, were already there. Several had snowmobiled in that day from villages in the tundra. In northwestern Alaska, Clara Rotman's funeral was a major event.
I led the funeral liturgy. One daughter and four granddaughters eulogized Clara, and I added some reflections as well.
While waiting to go to the burial site, I met Rick's wife, Suzy. Like most of the other Inupiaq women, she wore a magnificently colorful parka, the hood trimmed with wolf fur. Her kind smile, the sparkle in her eyes, and her quick-wittedness immediately endeared her to me. And she knew a lot about Judaism. Her "Jewish journey," Rick told me, consisted of everything short of conversion.
We had been speaking for several minutes when Suzy suddenly interrupted herself. "Oh my goodness!" she said, placing her mitten-covered hand on her hood-covered cheek, "I have to get home to take the challah out of the oven!" A flurry of swirling ice crystals blew across my astonished face, and she was gone.
Rick drove me to the cemetery. Until recently, he explained, digging a grave in Kotzebue had taken three days, with shifts of volunteers working round the clock to cut through the permafrost with pickaxes. Fortunately, they had recently acquired a pneumatic jackhammer, reducing the digging time to just one day.
Kotzebue's burial site, a windswept hilltop overlooking the town, is a fenced-in hodgepodge of several dozen graves, many marked by crooked headstones. A few tufts of tall brown grass cling desperately to the permafrost. It seemed as if, prior to our arrival, little had changed at the site for a long, long time.
It was about two degrees below zero, with a wind-chill factor of about -30 or -40 degrees Fahrenheit--so cold, a smiling Eskimo woman told me, "if you spit, it'll freeze before it hits the ground."
I recited prayers as several men lowered the casket into the ground with ropes. In keeping with Jewish custom, everyone was invited to shovel earth in the grave. Shovels scraped; men grunted; dirt ice cubes exploded everywhere from under the tips of flying pickaxes. In keeping with both Jewish and Eskimo custom, the grave was then filled in completely.
I stood off to the side, by the fence, slapping my hands, stomping my feet, and contorting my face in a futile effort to keep my unparka-ed parts warm. It struck me that while the casket was lowered into the grave, nobody had cried. In Kotzebue, the interment ceremony is a loud, physical event--quite a contrast from our quiet, glitch-proof funerals that allow mourners to turn inward in grief and sadness. In Alaska, it's hard to weep when you're dodging projectile stones and worrying about whether that rope wrapped around Joe's ankle is going to pull him into the grave along with the casket. Burials in Kotzebue force the community to focus almost exclusively on the task at hand. There will be plenty of time for weeping later.
It was time for Kaddish. Rick had distributed transliterations of the prayer at the church, but I figured that by now most of the attendees would have "misplaced" their Kaddish sheets. How wrong I was. Everyone reached into their pockets, unfolded their papers, and began: " Yitgadal v'yitkadash shmei rabbah...."
So there we were, a rabbi and several dozen Eskimos, all struggling valiantly with an ancient Aramaic prayer. The people of Kotzebue were struggling because they didn't know the language and still wanted to get it right. I was struggling because it's difficult to say "v'imru amen" when your face is numb.
Afterward, there was going to be a post-funeral "potlatch" at a family member's home--that's shiva, Eskimo style.
On the way, we stopped at Rick's house. Suzy poured some wine and, to my delight, served me a few slices of her challah. It was the best challah I'd ever tasted! "What's your secret?" I asked.
Suzy smiled. "You just need an Inupiaq-Jewish baker, that's all." We laughed, and then Suzy walked into the next room and returned with a gift--the book Arctic Home Cooking, which included recipes for "Easy Chunky Moose Spaghetti Sauce," "Whale Stew" (ingredients: 1 whole whale, 3,000 onions, 4,000 carrots, 2-3 seals to taste...simmer for two days, serve hot, invite the surrounding villages...)--and, of course, Suzy's "Challah Fit for a Judge." "It's fit for a rabbi, too," I said to a beaming Suzy.
At the "potlatch," the family welcomed me warmly and asked if I wanted some muktuk.
I struggled to understand. "Eskimo boots?"
"Not mukluks, silly. Muktuk! Whale blubber--dehydrated, ya' know." For me, being a gracious guest is more important than observing the minutiae of kashrut, but this was pushing it. As gently as I could, I told my hosts that I'd been trying to cut down on my whale intake lately.
Suzy chimed in. "Oh, don't worry, rabbi, it's not treif." I gave her a quizzical look. Unless cold and exhaustion had fogged up my brain, I was pretty sure that whale is treif.
"It's not a fish--it's a mammal," Suzy explained, "so it doesn't need fins and scales. Plus, a whale doesn't have an uncloven hoof or refrain from chewing its cud. It must be kosher."
By that point, Suzy's talmudic reasoning was making sense to me. Throwing up my hands in defeat, I said, "Okay...Bring on the muktuk!"
They handed me what looked like a leathery piece of candy corn--white on the small end of the triangle, reddish-brown on the other. "Feel free to chew the dickens out of it, rabbi. It'll stay in your mouth without dissolving for as long as you want."
I put the muktuk in my mouth, chewed twice, swallowed it whole, and forced myself to smile really big. "Mmmmm....That's good muktuk," I said.
Then someone said, "Here, rabbi, you'll definitely like this stuff, too. It's like Eskimo ice cream."
Again I swallowed fast and forced a smile. "Mmmmm, that's good Eskimo ice cream!" Later, I learned it was a mixture of blueberries, flaked boiled whitefish, seal oil, and creamed Caribou fat.
Finally, it was time to leave. On the way to the airport, I thanked Bish for the honor of participating in his grandmother's funeral. "By the way," I said, "'Bish' is an unusual name. Is it short for anything?"
"Yes, rabbi," he replied. "It's short for Leibisch."
"Leibisch! That's about as Yiddish as a name gets!" I laughed. "I'll bet you're the only Leibisch in all of Kotzebue!"
"Well, not quite, rabbi," he said, smiling mischievously. "There's Bish, Jr., too."
As my twenty-three-seat 737 headed back to Tacoma, a warm blizzard of images swirled within me. I thought of William Shakespeare Levy raising four daughters as Jews on the Alaskan tundra. I thought of a group of Inupiaq reverently struggling through the Kaddish. I thought of a kind Eskimo man named Leibisch.
But most of all, I thought of Clara Rotman Salinas--innkeeper and merchant; traveler and teacher; mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother--a Jewish snow angel whose good name will be remembered in Kotzebue for many generations to come.