For 350 years, Jewish immigrants have brought to America their talent and drive to succeed, displaying entrepreneurship, patriotism, and often a great spirit of adventure. New opportunities combined with few restrictions allowed Jews to participate actively in the economic life of the United States. Jews also played an important role in the western migration by settling in less desirable areas. For example, the genesis of Alaska's Jewish community coincided with the purchase of the territory by the United States in 1867. It is believed that some Jews sailed there with the Russian fishing fleets in the 1830s and 1840s, but it was not until a Jewish-owned firm, the Alaska Commercial Company, secured the seal-fishing rights that known Jewish traders began making regular visits to the territory. In 1885, the first permanent Jewish settlers arrived in Juneau.
The Klondike gold rush of 1897, soon followed by another discovery of gold near Nome, brought thirty thousand miners, fortune hunters, and businessmen into Cape Nome. A number of Jews joined the immigration, and Inuits also sought a share of the bonanza. Several hundred of the latter rapidly established a market for native clothing, along with carved ivory figurines, cribbage boards, and other souvenirs.
This unusual Alaskan artifact combines the Jewish custom of sending Rosh Hashanah cards with the centuries-old Inuit craft of walrus-tusk carving, a tradition that developed quite separately from the whaleman's scrimshaw. However, with the arrival of the whalers in the nineteenth century, both Inuit carvers and scrimshanders expanded their repertoires as they exchanged techniques and materials. The complexity and diversity of Inuit subjects increased as more sophisticated interpretations displaced schematic figures and linear ornamentation. Inuit carvers quickly learned to copy illustrations or photographs in what is termed a "western pictorial style."
The most innovative and influential of the carvers was the Alaskan Inuit Angokwazhuk, known as "Happy Jack." He is credited with the introduction, after 1892, of the art of engraving walrus tusks with a very fine needle, which resulted in an almost perfect imitation of newspaper halftones and fabric textures. The carvers enhanced the incised lines by filling them with india ink, graphite, or ashes.
Most of the engraved walrus tusks are unsigned, but several closely resemble this carving. A cribbage board, for example, assumed to have been made by Happy Jack, is embellished with portraits of a couple separated by a nosegay. Even though he could not read or write, Happy Jack reproduced written inscriptions; one work included the full content of a Packer's Tar Soap label with its portrait, pinecones, and slogan. While some other native carvers also had the ability to copy the inscriptions and photographs provided by their customers, they lacked his consummate skill.
On this tusk, the artist has ably recorded the faces and attire of a religiously observant Jewish couple, believed to have run a store in Nome. The woman seems to be wearing a wig and is dressed in typical turn-of-the-century style. The man's beard is neatly trimmed; his top hat suggests a holiday or formal occasion. The Hebrew inscription delivers the traditional Jewish New Year salutation: "May you be inscribed for a good year, 5671 ." In English is added: "Nome, Alaska."