Ours was one of a handful of Jewish families on the island of Kodiak, Alaska, and we would gather for High Holidays. There with us were the beer brewer, the welder, the lawyer, and the science professors. Occasionally, we’d be joined by a Coast Guard family as well. It was nice to come together two or three times a year, and we had our own tradition to talk about diaspora stories. Our family of four moved to Seattle in 2013, when my husband was offered a position at the University of Washington and the Burke Museum. I currently teach middle school science at Seattle Hebrew Academy.
I was born and raised in Kodiak and my husband is an Alaska native (his mother is one of the last speakers of the Alutiiq dialect). My mother had come to Alaska in 1970 to make her fortune and sail around the world, but got distracted by love and the fishing industry and ended up running an all-female commercial salmon fishing boat for 30 years. Before that, my grandmother, Celia Epstein, had raised my mom and her sister in Waltham, Massachussetts and Malibu, California, where she was a mathematician and early computer programmer for NASA.
It was her mother, Rivka Gavitsky, who came to America from Minsk in 1901 at the age of 14. Rivka was the daughter of a bookbinder, Morris, and his wife Dora. One day, when checking the rise on the challah, Dora discovered guns stowed underneath them. Rivka soon reported that she was being watched, and afraid that she’d been found out as a supporter of the resistance, Rivka and her mother buried the guns in the backyard. Shortly after, the family decided it was best to send her to Portland, Maine, with a sister and her family who were already planning to emigrate.
Once she arrived in the US, Rivka married a man whose family had lived in their village. They opened several dollar store-type shops — family lore had it that my great-grandfather was disgruntled that he couldn’t be a rabbi and had to run the shop to support his family instead, and Rivka was really the one with a head for business.