The signs of fall in Homer are many: the Spit closes, the tourists disperse back to their respective homes Outside. Fireweed burns red on the Reber Trail. Moose season ends.
And outside Elise Boyer’s house up East Hill Road, a line of cars fills the driveway. Inside, nine people have gathered to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.
Many people think that the highlight of a Jewish year, the big holiday, is Hanukkah, celebrated with dreidels and potato pancakes and close to Christmas. But not so.
Each fall brings the Jewish holidays known as the High Holy Days, or the Days of Awe: Rosh Hashanah, the beginning of the new year; and Yom Kippur, the day of atonement. Rosh Hashanah takes place on the first and second days of the Jewish month of Tishri, which usually falls in September or October, and Yom Kippur is on the ninth day of the month. The period between these includes Tashlich, a holiday during which Jews cast their sins into water to start the new year fresh.
For most of the world’s Jews, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur mean long days of services at a synagogue, meals with family and other members of the community. Formal attire and long sermons by a rabbi. Serious self-reflection.
Yom Kippur requires a 24-hour fast, from sunset to sunset, during which Jews are simultaneously cultivating empathy for the world’s hungry, simulating mortality to reflect on whether they have been acting like the people they intend to be, and practicing self-deprivation to repent for any bad behavior during the previous year. During the week leading up to Yom Kippur, Jews are supposed to make amends with anyone they’ve hurt during the year, as Jewish law teaches that God cannot forgive sins done to others — only the victims can.
For most of the world’s Jews, Rosh Hashanah dinner doesn’t involve conversations about the Iditarod. Yom Kippur evening services aren’t paused when somebody sees a whale in the bay out the window.
But Jewish holidays in Homer are a little different.
Those gathered at the Boyers’ estimate that they are among more than 50 members of the “Frozen Chosen” in Homer. But with no synagogue or formal Jewish community here, many Jews choose not to practice, or do so in small groups. This particular group was originally formed at the Sourdough Express, where a local Jews used to meet for a Sabbath dinner over 20 years ago. Many of the original Sourdough congregants have moved away, and most of the people at Elise’s have met in years since, through mutual friends and suggestions.
“People will see my hair and say, ‘Oh, you’re Jewish, you have to meet so-and-so,’” Elise says.
Forever an evolving ensemble, they get together a few times a year to celebrate the holidays.
Services begin at sunset in the Boyers’ living room. People curl up in chairs and take turns reading aloud from stapled service sheets borrowed from the congregation at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. For the evening of Yom Kippur, called Kol Nidre, the group is silent for a while as a laptop plays Barbra Streisand’s recording of “Avinu Malkeinu” (“Our Father, Our King”), a haunting prayer traditionally sung by a synagogue’s cantor.
Yom Kippur day services are in the Boyers’ yurt further up the mountain. According to Jewish law, a minimum of 10 people must be present to read the Torah. Counting the two dogs in attendance, the group just makes the cut.
It’s a motley crew, with a variety of Jewish backgrounds and life stories and levels of faith, but most originally are from the East Coast and belonged to a reform or conservative temple growing up. All the adults are from elsewhere but have become as Alaskan as anyone in Homer: Elise Boyer’s husband is recently retired from the Coast Guard and she and her family have been in Alaska 15 years. Betsy Wolf has been here since the 1980s. Liz Diament has worked at the post office in town for 11 years. Fred and Nona Safra live in Anchor Point, and Fred has been in Alaska since 1973. He ran the Iditarod twice and was a tour guide on Denali.
“So I’m not a wimpy Jewish boy from Brooklyn. Anybody who thinks that, they’ve got another thing coming,” says Fred.
“None of us is particularly orthodox, or else we wouldn’t live here,” says Elise. But to be even a semi-practicing reform Jew in Homer is a challenge. The nearest synagogue is more than 220 miles away, in Anchorage. Elise’s youngest son, Zane Boyer, is a junior at Homer High School, and for his bar mitzvah, a coming of age ceremony, a family friend had to fly in with a Torah. As the local person with the most extensive Jewish background knowledge, Liz Diament taught Zane to read Hebrew and acted as rabbi at the service.
But that lack of Jewish infrastructure also provides freedom.
“Because we’re in Homer we lack the standardized Jewish community, so you pick and choose what’s important to you,” says Diament.
Zane could decide which part of his Torah portion to recite without having to justify himself. Elise can make service sheets that only include prayers she agrees with. And they’re outside of the “bar mitzvah factory” Elise says she grew up in — many of the guests at Zane’s ceremony had never been to another Jewish coming-of-age celebration.
A few members of the group say they’ve experienced anti-semitism in Homer, but most agree that the larger community is generally open-minded — more curious than hostile. Still, the Jewish presence isn’t widely acknowledged in Homer, Elise says.
On Rosh Hashanah morning, she and Zane are the only ones who make it to services. Everyone else either can’t leave work or lives too far away to make the trip.
Zane has made the choice to stay home from school, but a borough-wide student council meeting keeps Betsy’s daughter, Homer High sophomore Sarah Wolf, from observing the holiday. Zane and his older brother Evan were the only bar mitzvahed Jews at Homer High School last year, and both participated in Christmas pageants when they were younger.
“We don’t live in a society where people will change their schedules for the Jewish holidays,” says Elise.
Those gathered at Elise’s on Yom Kippur say they’d like to change that. They want to become a more formal organization.
“My hope is that we can get kind of a bigger ‘havera’ or group together that could maybe meet once or twice a month and for holidays,” says Liz Diament. “Just to do shabbat dinners and kind of have an overall Jewish presence here so that people who are Jewish but not necessarily part of our friend circle would feel comfortable coming.”
She says it could be like the Jewish community in Kenai, which has an official meeting place, but “with a Homer flavor to it.”
“There are 29 churches and 27 bars in Homer, so there’s room for one more,” jokes Tim Steinberg, a Jewish artist from Albuquerque who’s been in Homer 15 years.
The Jews of Homer are working on coming up with a name for their congregation. Fred has been talking to a rabbi friend to get suggestions. Liz likes the idea of something involving the Hebrew word for “mariner.”
After finishing Rosh Hashanah dinner and before heading to the Burning Basket, the group dons their XtraTufs and caravans down to Bishops Beach to observe Tashlich. There, Elise passes out pieces of hamburger buns.
Sins of the previous year are announced in alphabetical order: “Avarice!” “Breaking promises!” “Calling names!” For each sin, everyone throws a little piece of bread into a rivulet in the sand, watches the crumbs float into the bay and out of sight. As water cleanses the body, it will cleanse the soul.
Though being Jewish doesn’t always have a huge effect on their everyday lives, observing the High Holy Days is important to the people assembled.
With her children thousands of miles away, these gatherings give Nona a chance to pass on her family’s traditions, like the alphabet of sins — l’dor v’dor, from generation to generation. She also appreciates the opportunity to start over each year.
“I think that when we examine ourselves, it’s a chance to reflect on who we were in the prior year and who we want to be going forward. And we have to look not just at the bad we’ve done but at the good we’ve done, too, because that’s who we really are,” she says.
Judaism has taught her to be compassionate, she says, to respect the differences between people and empathize with suffering all over the world.
“I wish that the media would stop saying how many Jews, how many Christians, how many Muslims have been killed. They’re all human beings. It’s all loss of life,” she says.
Many of her fellow Jews share a passion for social justice, and cite Judaism as the reason.
Zane is a peer educator at the R.E.C. Room and says his Jewish upbringing is why he values education and acceptance. “The way I think about things socially and politically is because of my faith,” he explains.
Elise smiles when she hears that. Sometimes she feels guilty that her kids weren’t members of a big Sunday school class, making Torahs out of paper towel rolls. All of their Jewish education has been self-directed. Through trial and error, Zane taught himself to play the shofar, the traditional ram’s horn that is blown on the High Holy Days.
“It was very important to me to give our kids a sense of Judaism that was internal, that they could take with them wherever they went, but also to feel that it had value to them so they wouldn’t leave it behind,” she says.
To hear that she’s been successful makes the struggle to maintain a Jewish identity in Alaska — a place whose climate and demographics couldn’t be further from those of Jerusalem — worthwhile.