Hollywood Star Finds a Way to Jewish Alaska

Actor Nicholas Cage stops by Anchorage gala, which raises more than $250,000 for a museum to highlight Alaska's Jewish history.

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Click photo to download. Caption: Rabbi Yosef Greenberg (center), director of the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska, holds hands with attendees at the center's recent Jewish Cultural Gala. Credit: Lisa J. Seifert.

Alaska is pristine, rugged, and filled with nature and wonder. It’s known for the spectacular northern lights and the world-renowned Iditarod race. 

However, the focus for Chabad of Alaska’s Rabbi Yosef Greenberg is the state’s strong Jewish connection—something the casual observer may not be as familiar with. Greenberg hopes to establish the Jewish Museum and Cultural Center in Anchorage and held a gala fundraiser earlier this month for that purpose, with film star Nicholas Cage in attendance.

Alaska’s rich Jewish history dates back to 1867, when Russia sold the territory to America for $7.2 million—less than 2 cents per acre. Secretary of State William Seward’s purchase was the result of strenuous U.S. lobbying and Czarist negotiations sponsored by the Jewish merchants of San Francisco, who had established trading relations with Russian Alaska. The purchase of Alaska’s territory was considered folly to many Americans, but what was still unknown to all parties was the area’s monumental mineral wealth of gold, silver, copper, zinc, coal, and oil.

About 6,000 Jews live in Alaska, which has a long history of a strong relationship with Israel. Greenberg, a researcher of Jewish Alaska, explained that in 1949, the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) asked Alaska Airlines to help airlift Jews out of Yemen. Bush pilots risked their own lives in rescuing thousands of Yemenite Jews and flying them in the dark of night to Israel, during Operation Magic Carpet. 

“The planes at the time could make the trip from Yemen to Israel in 10 hours, but could only hold enough fuel for nine hours, and there was no country they could stop to refuel,” Greenberg told JointMedia News Service.

“They had to take fuel on the plane—and refuel it while flying from the inside,” Greenberg said. “These planes were at times shot at, but the Alaskan pilots accepted the job. They flew 380 flights, and when Alaska Airlines had to pull out, their pilots carried on with the mission until it was completed.”

An Alaska resident for two decades, Greenberg feels that emphasizing the unique stories of Alaska’s Jewish connection helps bring about tolerance between Jewish people and the rest of society. The Alaskan Jewish community is returning the goodwill by working with natives to help them preserve their heritage and language, such as the Na-Dene language, which became extinct in January 2008.

Michelle Sparck, a Jew with Up’ik Eskimo roots, grew up celebrating both of her cultures. She is a triplet and explained, “We are affectionately referred to as Jew’piks. Although we were not raised Jewish, we celebrated all the Jewish holidays like Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah and Hanukkah. From food, to arts and culture, our Jewish side was a big part of our identity amidst the back-drop of a predominant Eskimo culture set in the sub-Arctic.”

Sparck co-owns ArXotica, Inc., a bath and beauty line featuring products infused with the wild harvests of Alaska. The company donated products for Greenberg’s gala event, which she said highlighted “the Jewish contribution to building cultural diversity in the Last Frontier.”

“Judaism has absolutely influenced and helped shape our worldview,” she said.

The gala sold out weeks in advance. Over 500 people attended and more than $250,000 was raised that night.

Greenberg explained, “I believe that what is unique about our event, is that you will not find anywhere in the U.S. a Jewish event in which more than 80 percent of the attendees are non-Jews who come and dance the hora with a Chasidic rabbi and have a true appreciation for the kosher food, Jewish music and above all, the warmth and Chasidic joy that is being radiated by the Jewish community who put on the event.”

Unbeknownst to Cage, who showed up in typical Alaskan attire (comfortable clothing), the gala was a black tie affair. According to a photographer on site, he retreated soon after because he did not feel it was appropriate to attend such a glamorous event without being properly dressed.

Mark Ordesky, one of the producers of the “Frozen Ground,” a movie being filmed in Alaska starring Cage, attended the gala and added another surprise to the night. He offered to provide a “personal tour on the set” for the winning bidder, created a bidding frenzy and raising an additional $5,000.

Greenberg acknowledged that he needs significant funds to complete the museum.

“We need about a million dollars or more to complete the museum, so yes, we are looking for a miracle, but miracles do happen,” he said smiling, citing the past “miracle” of Chicago philanthropist Rabbi Morris Esformes, who helped purchase the Alaska Jewish Campus and is now helping to remodel it.

Sparck said Judaism “has absolutely influenced and helped shape our worldview” in Alaska.

“Exposure to Jewish culture and values in Alaska and even in the greater East Coast community, nurtured our critical thinking and humanities philosophy during our formative years,” she said.

Masada Siegel can be reached at fungirlcorrespondent@gmail.com.

Posted on November 28, 2011 and filed under Arts.