Anchorage, Alaska — Only in the alternative reality of Michael Chabon’s fanciful best-selling novel “The Yiddish Policeman’s Union” do three million Jews, rescued from the Holocaust, call Alaska home. The (real-life) reality is that only about 6,000 Jews live in the entire state. As I embarked on a recent trip up north, I didn’t expect to find much of a Jewish presence.
How wrong I was. Soon after arriving here in the state’s largest city, I found my way to what is the newest and quite possibly most visible Jewish anchor in the state — the Alaska Jewish Museum and Cultural Center, which officially opened in its new building on July 3. Perhaps just as eye-opening is the subject of its premiere exhibition: “On the Wings of Eagles: Alaska’s Contribution to Operation Magic Carpet.” Yes, really: Through photographs, documents and air flight artifacts, the show tells the little-known story of the commercial pilots of Alaska Airlines who flew the bulk of the flights that airlifted more than 49,000 of Yemen’s Jews from the British Protectorate of Aden to Tel Aviv. Those flights took place between December 1948 and September 1950, as part of the rescue mission popularly known as Operation Magic Carpet.
Both stories — the one about how Alaska came to have a Jewish museum, and the other about how Alaska came to play a crucial role in transporting Yemenite Jews to the newly founded state of Israel — carry the air of adventure and the allure of the unlikely. And yet — in contrast to Michael Chabon’s entertaining fiction — they are both absolutely ture.
The museum’s story begins with its founder, Rabbi Joseph (“Yossi”) Y. Greenberg. He was born in Moscow — one of 17 siblings, all of whom are now themselves or married to Chabad rabbis — the son of a rabbi who wrote a High Holy Days machzor prayer book while imprisoned in the Soviet Union’s infamous Gulag. In 1967 the family was allowed to move to Israel. “This was very early…. I think they were trying to get rid of us; we were sticking out too much as religious Jews in the suburbs of Moscow,” says Rabbi Greenberg. “My grandfather had a mikveh underneath the kitchen … closets with Torahs, a shul in the home.”
After studying with the “Rebbe” Menachem Mendel Schneerson in Brooklyn, and being inspired by Schneerson’s vision of rebuilding Jewish infrastructure, he arrived in Anchorage in 1991 as a Chabad shaliach, or emissary. Just before Greenberg and his wife Esty left the Lower 48, they asked Schneerson for a blessing; he told them that though Alaska’s climate is cold, “you should make it warm up there” for Yiddishkeit.
Rabbi Greenberg likes to joke that this is the reason for climate change. When they first arrived, the Greenbergs discovered what he called a “low-key” Jewish presence. The Anchorage Reform Congregation, Beth Sholom had been founded in 1958, but the general inclination was “not wanting to stand out,” Greenberg says. Before long, the Greenbergs had opened a Chabad shul in their home, started a preschool and begun organizing yearly community-wide Chanukah parties. With about a thousand people showing up each year, enough to fill the Convention Center, these yearly celebrations were not low-key. “Not just Jews but everybody,” attended, including local and state political figures, says Greenberg.
Throw a party, and people will come. But build a museum, and they will visit? It was in fact the community-wide response to the Chanukah celebrations, says Rabbi Greenberg, that showed him “there was a yearning in the non-Jewish community to have knowledge about the history and culture of the Jewish people.” The best way to convey that information was to create a museum focusing not on the Holocaust but rather on what he calls “the Jewish contribution story. What Jews contributed to American and society in general” and what America — and Alaska — contributed to the Jews and to Israel. Moreover, the seeming oddity of a Jewish museum in Anchorage would itself prove enticing for visiting tourists, even “rekindle their flame of Judaism, because they would never expect to find Jewish life here,” says Rabbi Greenberg.
Still, making dreams comes true takes time. And money. Community fund-raising began in 2004. A significant pledge from Chicago philanthropist Rabbi Morris Esformes came in 2007 (though the museum is an independent non-profit entity, the two-building complex, composed of the museum and near-by Chabad center, bears the name Esformes Jewish Campus of Alaska). The state of Alaska also provided a grant, to help fulfill the nonprofit museum’s stated mission to “create cultural bridges and promote diversity and tolerance for all Alaskans.” Then, toward the end of 2011, curator Leslie Fried came on board, moving north from Seattle.
Fried — an experienced artist and scenic designer who was born in Israel and raised on Long Island, and who had made a career in Seattle — had her work cut out for her in Anchorage: transform an uninviting former ATM bank machine mini-storage building consisting of a single 1,300-square-foot room into an attractive exhibition space that could also house a curatorial office and archives. And, oh, yes: research and mount an original exhibition to open in July 2013 about Operation Magic Carpet’s Alaska-Israel connection.
In a way it was a natural fit for Fried to begin with this particular exhibition, since her father had been one of the so-called “Machal Boys” — volunteers who flew air missions with the nascent Israeli Air Force in 1948. But it wasn’t until Fried set to work in Alaska that she learned that her father had also piloted several flights for Operation Magic Carpet, the popular nickname that has become synonymous with the mission’s official name, Operation On Wings of Eagles.
The passage from Exodus from which that phrase comes — “You have seen … how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you unto myself” — serves as the leitmotif of the exhibition, appearing atop the photograph-laden walls. Those photographs and assorted artifacts and art works tell the history of the humanitarian mission step by step.
The exhibit begins with the origins of the Yemenite Jewish community itself, which according to legend (but not substantiated by archaeological evidence) dates back to the time of King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. But from the Middle Ages onward, Yemen’s Muslim rulers imposed humiliating restrictions as well as severe taxes on Jews, whom they considered impure. After the 1947 United Nations Partition Plan, the situation worsened considerably; a pogrom in Aden left 82 Jews dead and many Jewish homes destroyed. After Israel’s independence in 1948, says Fried, “it became imperative to get [Yemenite Jews] to Israel.”
Enter Alaska Airlines. By1948, Alaska Airlines had become the largest charter air carrier in the world, thanks in part to its use of surplus military aircraft no longer needed by the armed forces after World War II. After meeting with representatives of the American Jewish joint Distribution Committee and the UN, Alaska Airlines president (and pilot) James Wooten agreed to help transport Yemenite Jews from Aden to Israel. At first, he relates bluntly in a taped interview (one of several pilot interviews to be heard in the exhibition’s media alcove), he was just in it for the money. Then he visited the refugee camp in Aden, where the poor living conditions shocked him, and the refugee plight became real. He soon became the driving force behind Alaska Airlines’ involvement in Operation Magic Carpet. Although each of the 420 flights that carried the 49,000 refugees had to navigate a difficult route to minimize the threat of bombing from the Arab League, says Fried, not a single casualty resulted from the flights. Moreover, “six babies were born on board.”
The show includes displays of Yemenite clothing and jewelry, and — for kids — an interactive map with push-button lights to outline the airplane route, and a hands-on steering wheel from one of the original planes. Doors from one of those planes are also on display, their shapes bearing a distinct resemblance to popular depictions of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. In addition, works by local artists emphasize the Alaska connection; they include a striking sculpture composed of abandoned airplane parts.
On the Sunday before the official opening, a multigenerational family of tourists from Indiana drove up to the midtown Anchorage location and asked for a tour. “Can you come back later in the week?” asked museum curator Leslie Fried, who was showing this writer around even as she double-checked final labels that still needed to be mounted on the walls. The travelers promised they would; like most tourists, their itinerary began and ended in Anchorage, and they would have time to stop by when they swung back this way after other stops along the way.
And indeed, a return trip to visit to this gem-sized museum would be well worth their trouble. And if not this summer, there’s always next year; a new exhibition is already in the planning stages. It’s about Jewish contributions to Alaska’s history, including early Jewish fur traders in Russian Alaska.
The Alaska Jewish Museum and Cultural Center is located at 1221 E. 35th Ave., Anchorage. (907) 770-7021, alaskajewishmuseum.com.