If there is any to truth to the Anchorage Daily News suggestion the Pioneers of Alaska – one of the 49th state’s sillier clubs – is a bunch of anti-Semites, the late Robert Bloom must be spinning in his grave.
Bloom was one of the founders of Pioneer Igloo No. 4, a Fairbanks businessman, a founder of the University of Alaska, a proponent of the first U.S. Air Force base in Alaska, and a Jew.
Very much a Jew.
“In 1900, he officiated at the first Jewish funeral, for a man who drowned in the Fortymile River,” according to his biography at The Jewish Museum of the American West. “(He) closed his store every year for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.”
Bloom wasn’t some closet Jew. History makes it clear he was very public about his religion.
He “was an active participant in the Jewish communities in Dawson and Fairbanks,” the bio says. “(He) also served as chairman of the Jewish Welfare Board. Robert and Jessie (his wife) Bloom opened their home to servicemen during World War II for religious services and Passover Seders.”
A Lithuanian who journeyed to America in 1895 at age 17, he joined the great Klondike Gold Rush to Dawson, Yukon Territory, Canada only three years later and followed other miners to Fairbanks in 1902.
By 1906, at age 28, he opened a hardware store on Fairbanks’ Front Street, which he ran for the next 36 years. He was a true Alaska pioneer and a Jew, but maybe it was only the Pioneers of Fairbanks accepting of Jews.
But wait, there was this businessman named David Green in Anchorage who was also a member of the Pioneers of Alaska. Some might recognize that name.
David Green Master Furrier, a downtown business in the state’s largest city, still bears his name. He started the store in 1922. His son’s Jerry and Perry took over in 1971. His grandson, David, now runs the business.
The elder David Green, who died in 1971, features in the “Jewish Movers and Shakers of Early Anchorage” at the Alaska Jewish Museum.
Among the others joining Green are Isadore “Ike” Bayles, another member of the Pioneers of Alaska, and Leopold David, the first mayor of Anchorage. David didn’t live long enough to join the Pioneers; he died young at age 46.
The Pioneers promptly dragged him into the fold anyway.
David was followed into office by Zachariah Joshua Loussac – Zack to many in his day. He was a Jew, an immigrant from Russia fleeing persecution and, oh yes, a member of the Alaska Pioneers, according to his bio at The Jewish Museum of the American West.
The Pioneers, suffice to say, have a pretty rich Jewish history. They might have been racists – a whites-only requirement for membership wasn’t dropped until 1982 – but there is no hint they were ever anti-Semites.
It is only sad that so many members of the organization are unfamiliar with its Jewish history. Past president Roger Storrs said Friday he didn’t know if the Pioneers had Jewish members or not.
“There has to be,” he said, “but I honestly don’t separate people that way.”
He seemed a little offended by the question about anti-Semitism, which stems from the accusation in the Daily News that current Anchorage Major Ethan Berkowitz, who is Jewish, was “blackballed” when he applied for membership.
“What has happened to us?” Storrs asked. “We’re going 1,000 different directions, and everyone has their ax to grind.”
Politics, politics, politics
“Blackball” is a loaded term. Its second definition – “to exclude socially, ostracize” – is what it is now commonly meant to mean in this country.
In the case of the Pioneers, however, it has a more specific term. Black or white marbles dropped in a box are how the Pioneers vote new members in or out. Three black ones, and you’re toast. The voting procedure dates back to Alaska gold mining days.
Berkowitz attracted three black marbles and was denied membership. Why specifically he drew the black marbles is unknown, but there are reasons to dislike the mayor, starting with the simple fact that he is a politician.
There are no doubt people who would drop a black marble on him for that just as there are people who would drop a black marble on me because I’m a journalist. I’ve personally run into people who don’t know me from Adam who hate me because they disagree with something I once wrote.
Welcome to life.
Prejudices are everywhere, and there is no doubt some Jews in Alaska are sure to have endure it at sometime. There is no evidence whatsoever to indicate it is systemic within the Pioneers.
John Aho, another former Anchorage Igloo president who was at the meeting with about 30 others at which the Berkowtiz vote was cast, said the mayor’s Jewish heritage never came up.
“I don’t see that that’s ever come up before,” he added Friday, but like Storrs he was unaware of the Jewish history of the Pioneers or of any Jewish members.
“There could very well be some,” he said, but who knows. It’s not something the Pioneers think about, let alone worry about.
The Pioneers are a fraternal organization like the Alaska Press Club, which exists mainly to see to it that all journalists who work in Alaska love each other (or pretend to) and win an award for something during their usually short careers.
The Pioneers was formed in Nome in 1907 “to preserve the names of Alaska’s pioneers on its rolls; to collect and preserve the literature and incidents of Alaska’s history;
and to promote the best interests of Alaska.”
“The roles of the Pioneers in early Alaska were many,” says the webpage of the Anchorage chapter. “Oftentimes, they would band together to overcome natural disasters, provide much needed and difficult to find medical supplies for the sick or injured, or provide food, housing and medical assistance for those in need. In fact, in the early days of the Alaska Pioneers the membership application required a physical description to aid in the identification of those who died while on the trail or in a remote cabin.
“Today, the Anchorage Pioneer Men’s and Women’s Igloos continue the tradition of keeping alive the memories of old-time Alaskans and work diligently to give back to our community through scholarships, community events, and historical site maintenance.”
The Pioneers of today appear to be a group of old fogies with good intentions, but not even good intentions can escape the American political divide of these times.
Aho blamed Berkowitz’s Pioneer election defeat on “a couple of Republicans.”
Clearly, he said, “it was political.”
Aho himself had a pretty strong reaction to that.
“I told them it was bullshit, and I walked out,” he said. But he hasn’t quit the Pioneers. At least not yet.
“If you quit,” he said, “you can’t change the system, but if the system doesn’t change, I’m out of there. What’s happened is that it hasn’t changed with the time.”
He’s wrong. The problem isn’t the Pioneers; it’s Alaskans.
This used to be a state where tolerance was high because people needed each other. No matter how different political views, the flaming liberal and the get-off-my-lawn conservative down the street recognized that come the next earthquake or the next big storm, or the car in the ditch at 40 degrees below zero, or the grizzly bear in the house, they might need each other.
Alaska has modernized. That kind of thinking has faded. We’re urban now: screw you; I got mine; get out of my way or, as one might view the mayor:
“I don’t really like Ethan. He’s a liberal know-it-all who hasn’t done much in office except let the crime rate soar. I’m dropping the black marble on him.”
There’s probably a damn interesting story here if someone could get the black-marble men to talk, but ADN.com columnist Charles Wohlforth didn’t bother with that. He just ran with this:
“The Pioneers of Alaska recently ‘blackballed’ Mayor Ethan Berkowitz from membership using a gold-rush era ritual, raising questions about prejudice for an oldtimers’ club that has faced them before.
“….That left several people I spoke to wondering if the vote happened because Berkowitz is Jewish.”
The names of those “several people?” Unknown.
Wohlforth didn’t identify them, but he did call Berkowitz for comment, and then leveraged the mayor’s comment to make the whole thing look like anti-Semitism.
“I don’t suspect it, but it wouldn’t surprise me,” Berkowitz was quoted as saying. “I hope it’s not part of the coarseness that is happening across the nation, because we should be above that.”
It’s too bad the mayor isn’t a little more familiar with the history of Pioneers. A better answer would have been this:
“The first mayor of Anchorage was Jewish and made an honorable member of the Pioneers shortly after his premature death. The second mayor of Anchorage was Jewish and joined the Pioneers. The city library is now named for him.
“I see no reason to believe the Pioneers would reject me because I’m Jewish. I’m sure it’s about politics, and I wish we could get beyond that.”
But that would have been the high road, and nobody takes the high road in America today because President Donald Trump is too many of us. The smallest slight is a reason to take offense even if the offense is largely meaningless.
It’s possible Berkowitz spent the week crying himself to sleep because he wasn’t allowed into the Pioneers of Alaska on this go around, but I somehow doubt it.