Shana Tova from the Bottom of the World

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I’m the helpdesk manager here at MJL — which means that any question that gets sent to the site drops straight into my inbox. It’s given me some pretty amazing (and pretty random) interactions — everything from the sobering (where to get information on Jewish death and burial quickly) to the wild (visiting students looking for a Rosh Hashanah dinner with hot guys, I’m looking at you.)

By far the most unusual request, not to mention the most far one, has come from Dr. Don Shuwarger, a Jewish doctor who’s doing an extended tour of duty in the South Pole. He’s been writing a blog about his experiences, but we took the chance to ask him a few questions about High Holidays, prayer, and life when you’re as south as it gets.

What are you doing in Antarctica? How long have you been there?

I’ve asked myself that same question. I am working at McMurdo Station as a physician. I arrived the first week of September (2008) and will stay until the end of February 2009. I am taking a sabbatical from my medical practice of 20 years.

Are there other Jews in your base?

Yes, but finding them can be somewhat challenging. So far, I’ve found Marci, Linda, Brody and Cary. They come from a wide variety of backgrounds and observances.

Have you ever had instances where being Jewish was a factor in your duties, or in your everyday life there? How did other people react to it?

Chapel of the Snows, AntarcticaSure. For example, I requested to be off work for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. This request was granted without question. I requested to access streaming video of a Rosh Hashanah service over the internet, but this was denied because of limited bandwidth and the complete prohibition against streaming media. Also, there is no truly neutral worship center for Jews (or any non-Christians for that matter). The non-denominational chapel (Chapel of the Snows) has a stained glass cross in the window. The cross has a six-pointed star at its intersection. It’s kind of unique. The altar cloth is vintage Unitarian Universalist.

How did you end up celebrating Rosh Hashanah this year?

There are but a handful of Jews in Antarctica. Besides myself, I could find two others, both women. I’m told that there may be a couple more, but they haven’t surfaced, yet. We attempted to celebrate Rosh Hashanah, aware as we were that three a minyan does not make. Nonetheless, we discovered the box labelled in true military fashion, “Supplies – Jewish.” Unfortunately, it contained just Pesach stuff. We were fortunate that one of the two ladies, Marci Levine of Denver, CO, had a High Holy Days machzor. We used it to guide our service along with some URJ materials gleaned from the internet. The oneg, pictured, was tea, hot chocolate, or Sanka.

Tashlich involves casting away of sins. It is customarily done in a body of moving waters, as it is referred to biblically as a casting away into the seas. However, our sea, the Ross Sea, is solid ice. There are no rivers or open bodies of water, save for indoor plumbing.

We elected to put our sins onto paper and cast them into the mixed paper recycling bin. For us, this became Tashlich, a casting away.

When does the four-month-long night start, anyway? Does that mean that Yom Kippur is that long?

I’m told by those who should know that the last sunset is October 21 at 23:39 local time and the last sunrise is October 22 at 01:34 [A.M.]. From then until sometime in late February, the sun will not set again.

Were you able to find a piece of new fruit?

There is no new fruit in Antarctica. Nothing grows here. I had an apple and honey. Cornbread substituted for challah.

Posted on October 8, 2008

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One thought on “Shana Tova from the Bottom of the World

  1. m0loch

    “I am taking a sabbatical from my medical practice of 20 years.”

    haha….I took “sabbatical” from my regular job in 2005 to work in Antarctica….I’ve never looked back

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