Mt Zion in Juneau, Alaska

The Inside Passage is dotted with peaks and islands that are named by Western explorers or pioneers.  Jonathan Raban in his book, Passage to Juneau,  retraces George Vancouver’s voyage up through Puget Sound and the Inside Passage with details on the origins of the names the English explorer designated for his discoveries up the coast.  Many of the names he selected honored his bosses at the Admiralty in London or his shipmates on the voyage. In Juneau many of landmarks are named after gold prospectors such as Mt. Roberts, the location of the well-known tram.  According to the USGS, this peak was called Mt. Gold by the white miners who came in the 1880s, but by 1883 became known as Mt. Roberts after Henry Roberts who had mining claims along Roberts Gulch below the peak.  My efforts to find the original Tlingit name of the mountain have not yet born fruit.


But yesterday, I renamed the mountain.


Living in the area around Juneau, Alaska, we are frequent hosts to visitors who come all over the world to see the scenic beauty of Southeast Alaska.  Yesterday, we were honored to host Noam Zion (pronounced Tzeeyon) and his family who were visiting from Israel.  Noam is a renowned Judaic scholar and educator associated with the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.  I have known Noam since the 80s during my frequent summer visits to Jerusalem to study at the institute with Noam, Rabbi David Hartman, and many other outstanding scholars and teachers.


Noam is the author of many books that have had a direct impact on American Jewish culture. His most well-known book is A Different Night Passover Haggadah, which I consider to be one of the most important Haggadot to a be published in a generation.  Consistent with his other works, Noam, presents to us a model of being Jewish that is highly participatory, informed, respectful of the multiple sources of tradition, yet integrated with modern understandings of what it means to be a Jew today. Noam’s books are like Noam the  person, brimming with Jewish and worldly knowledge, engaging stories, witty and insightful observations, and an acute awareness of the cultural and historical moment we live in.   I have used Noam’s books at our Shabbat and Festival table now for two decades. They comprise a central part of my rabbinic teaching.  So you can imagine we were very excited about his visit with his family to Juneau.


Like other Israelis we have hosted, the Zions were quite taken by the mountains, glaciers, and waterways of the Inside Passage which they had toured for two weeks. The terrain and climate here are so vastly different than Israel.  The vastness of the place is also a wonder for our friends from Israel who live in a geographically small  country that is bordered by other countries that are either hostile or sunken in chaos.   The Zions are from Jerusalem which is one of the world’s great cities with its own distinct features.  Jerusalem also has “mountains”; the Mt of Olives, Mt. Moriah, Mt. Scopus, and Mt. Zion (in Hebrew, Har Tzeeyon).  Jerusalem’s mountains are no match for Alaskan mountains in height, but they are intersections in a long historical drama between religions and civilizations in Western history (See the excellent book, Jerusalem: The Biography (Vintage) Simon Sebag Montefiore. )


Which leads me to my Juneau vignette about the Zion family’s visit to Juneau, Alaska. For part of the their day visit I had to leave Noam and his son, Yedidya, for some work obligations.  They needed to take a taxi from the DIPAC salmon hatchery in order to reach a trailhead that I recommended for a hike on what was a beautiful sunny day.  I told them to tell their taxi driver to go to the Perseverance trail head on Star Hill.  The Perseverance trail is one of Juneau’s most beloved hikes, winding its way through along Gold Creek, the old mine works of the Perseverance Mine and through a lush valley between Mt. Juneau and Mt. Roberts and the peaks behind them.   While there is some elevation gain, the trail is fairly level.


When the taxi driver let the Zions off at the trail head, he questioned their plan to go on the Perseverance Trail.  He told them that the Mt. Roberts trail was much easier. Not knowing Juneau, the two followed his advice and  trekked up the 1760 foot climb to the tram on Mt. Roberts.  They realized midway that this was no easy hike, but continued since it did not make much sense to head down.


It remains a mystery to us why the taxi driver recommended the Mt Roberts Trail over the Perseverance Trail as the easier hike. But in honor of their effort and in honor of the Noam’s great contribution to Jewish life and learning, I have renamed Mt. Roberts as Mt. Zion.  While there is no legal basis to this renaming and it is not binding in anyway on my fellow Juneau residents, I feel that I am following in the footsteps of the chutzpadik explorers who felt they could name peaks after stodgy British admirals while ignoring the names of the ancient residents of the land.  In any case, the newly minted Mt. Zion will serve as a reminder of the original one in Jerusalem and a personal dedication for a great teacher and a great mentsch.


August 14, 2013

8 Elul, 5773

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1 Comment

  1. Stuart

     /  October 11, 2013

    Having a chance to catch up and read a bit. Enjoy hearing your thoughts in beyond the one we usually inhabit together: jewish education.



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