With help from air freight, Orthodox Jews follow ancient laws in Alaska

Posted: Sunday, March 31, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Like other Orthodox Jews in Alaska, Raquel Bodie packs an extra suitcase when she takes a trip Outside.

The extra baggage is not for souvenirs. A mandatory stop is a kosher food store, where she loads up on delicacies she can't find in Alaska.

''It's overwhelming. I just want to buy everything,'' she says of her trip down the aisles.

She fills her cart, then starts editing.

''I say, now what do I need to put back, because I can't carry it all.''

Living without easy access to kosher food is just one of the challenges to following Talmudic law in Alaska, where mukluks outnumber yarmulkes.

Another popped up eight days before Passover. Jacob Tsatskis was born March 21, and the law called for him to be circumcised on Passover. The Jewish community usually summons a mohel from Washington or California, but no one wanted to be apart from their families for the holiday.

The solution? Fly in a mohel from Israel. Rabbi Shimshon Eiesenberger arrived Tuesday night from Jerusalem.

''In New York, in one hour, you'd have 10 different people to do it,'' said Jacob's father, Izzy Tsatskis, an Army medic from Brooklyn stationed at Fort Richardson. ''In Alaska, it's different.''

Mostly the differences show up at the dinner table. Air freight orders are a way of life for Orthodox Jews and trips are a chance to let somebody else do the cooking.

Esty Greenberg made a quick trip to Los Angeles for a wedding a few weeks ago. She dined at the reception and squeezed in dinner and breakfast at kosher restaurants.

''I was there less than 24 hours and I managed to eat three times,'' she said, laughing.

Her husband, Rabbi Yossi Greenberg, head of the Lubavitch Jewish Center of Alaska, estimates there are more than 5,000 Jews of various stripes among the state's population of about 627,000. About 1,000 people attended a Hanukkah service last year.

Greenberg estimates 20 to 30 families follow the strict dietary laws.

Kosher is a Hebrew word meaning ''fit'' or ''proper.'' The dietary laws are as old as the Bible's Book of Leviticus. For food, kosher means meat that's properly slaughtered from mammals that chew their cud and have cloven hoofs. The law allows eating fish with fins and scales, but excludes all shellfish. The law forbids eating meat with food containing dairy products, or even preparing them with the same utensils.

With many foods it's obvious what's not kosher: a cheeseburger, a pepperoni pizza, a slice of brisket washed down with a glass of milk.

It's not so obvious with processed food. Every oil, preservative and emulsifier must be reviewed.

''You just can't go and get yourself a TV dinner type of thing,'' said Esty Greenberg.

For mass-produced products, the congregation relies on national kosher certification agencies such as the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America or the Organized Kashrus Laboratories to ensure that a food is kosher. Approved products bear a symbol such as a circled U or a circled K.

Jif and Skippy peanut butter are kosher. So are Lay's potato chips, Heinz ketchup, maple syrup, pickles and many breakfast cereals.

Orthodox families get together in an informal cooperative to pool orders and exchange information about kosher food products that turn up in the city. Anything not available in Anchorage is ordered and flown in by air freight.

The day before Passover, Rabbi Greenberg drove to Alaska Airlines air cargo to pick up kosher milk, yogurt and butter. At his home, which doubles as the Jewish Center of Alaska, the food went into refrigerators.

''Our garage is being turned into a kosher food store,'' Greenberg said.

The Orthodox community is trying to persuade grocers to stock more kosher food. Greenberg was shopping in Natural Pantry, a health food store in midtown Anchorage, one day when he spotted a box of crackers that he used to eat as a boy in Israel. He got so excited he started eating them in the aisle before heading to the checkout.

The store has since started stocking kosher chicken and turkey. They're available if another Orthodox family has not cleaned them out, Greenberg said.

He's especially grateful families no longer have the expense of flying in kosher grape juice, used in Friday night meals and holidays as part of ceremony giving thanks to God for the fruit of the vine. The congregation used to have to rely on flying it in themselves.

''Grape juice is heavy,'' Greenberg said. Inevitably, a glass bottle would break and they'd trail a line of purple from the air freight warehouse to their cars, the rabbi said.

If air service ended tomorrow, the Orthodox community would not starve.

Fresh produce is kosher. Alaska's fresh salmon and halibut are kosher, as long as they're not processed with shrimp or crab. Most families simply accept that they have to make their own bread because there are no kosher bakeries.

But they're happy when the occasional kosher pizza shows up at a local freezer section.

''It's a big thing for us,'' Greenberg said. ''Frozen pizza is better than no pizza.''

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