An eskimo in Israel

Eric Knutsen was an Alaskan Aleut harbormaster, but became a Jerusalem barber.

eric knutsen 88 298 (photo credit: Leslie Schachter)
eric knutsen 88 298
(photo credit: Leslie Schachter)
Perched atop a supermarket in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood sits "Eric of Alaska" - a sunny barbershop of modest proportions. It's owner, Eric Knutsen, insists he is, in fact, a hairdresser and not simply a barber. "I cut women's hair, too," he says with a smile. "Most of my clients include whole families - men, women and children. I have a good clientele: doctors, lawyers, judges and just average Joes," he tells me as he works on his first customer of the afternoon, Eitan, who stumbled upon Eric of Alaska's one day and has been a loyal customer ever since. Maybe it's his calm demeanor or his reserved manner which, in addition to his fine haircuts, keep his customers coming back again and again. And in exchange Eric profits by learning a thing or two on the job. "You learn politics, you meet all kinds of people," he relates. "[When] I have a question, I ask it and I get a good answer. I know the history of Beit Hakerem very well now because I talk to people who were born and raised here." Eric, on the other hand, was born in a little fishing village on the Krijak River in Alaska's interior. A native Aleut (pronounced Ali-ut) - the group of native inhabitants of the islands southwest of the Alaskan mainland - Eric was used to living a rustic life, making his living as a respected harbormaster for many years. But at some point in the 1960s Eric drifted south, beyond Alaska's border, to see the great beyond. After spending some time in Washington State and Reno, Eric ended up in California, where he worked for 10 years as a forester. California is also where he met his future wife Joan, a radical Jewish hippy who wandered away from New York. Eventually they got married and expanded the family with the arrival of their first daughter, Sarah. Soon after they moved north to Naknek, Alaska, which they called home for 15 years. Their daughter Elena was born there and the young family lived a more or less traditional, native way of life. Throughout the years Joan never forgot her Jewish roots, and in 1995, Eric and Joan, along with their two daughters, decided to leave Naknek for Israel. They made aliya, settling in Jerusalem's Beit Hakerem neighborhood. "I never came here to change people's ideas on how they're going to live," Eric explains. "I just came here because my family's Jewish. I wanted to give them the opportunity to choose. They can choose to live here. Or they can choose Alaska, the States, England, wherever they want to live." His eldest daughter, in fact, has been living in Bristol, England, for a few years, raising her two children. "I gave up a lot to come here, I had a house paid for, a lot of acreage," Eric admits, "but it was for my children." "I enjoy living here in Beit Hakerem," he adds. "It's a nice little community. They all know me here, they know I'm Eric of Alaska. I'm happy here." Joan managed to get a job as a receptionist in a doctor's office shortly after their arrival but for Eric, work was not so easy to find. Even though he had been trained as a hairdresser back in Alaska, he couldn't get hired at any hair salons due to his lack of Hebrew, and there was not much use for a harbormaster in Jerusalem, so he opened a hair salon right in his home. Struggling to pay the bills, Eric returned to Alaska a few years ago to work. Upon his return, with cash in hand, he bought a modest corner shop above Denmark Square and established his hair salon. "I pay my bills, it's good business," he says. "I'm satisfied with everything the way it is. I'd like to be rich, but you know everybody else would, too. I'm okay. I used to think about going to Alaska but not much anymore. It'd be very easy to go back to the States..." He pauses, ponders and concludes, "we're destined to be here, I guess." "I have friends in Alaska who are Jewish who say I'm more Jewish than them because I live in Israel." On the topic of religion, Eric claims to be pretty much neutral, preferring a more solitary existence, one in which man and nature live harmoniously. "Religion... I could take it or leave it," he says. "I figure, when I die I hope I don't go to heaven, I hope I go to a happy hunting ground. I'd rather go there than with a whole bunch of people. I miss being in a country where you can be completely alone. I can go out in a snowstorm and be happy. I used to go 100 miles and never see a person." When suggested that he might find kinship being alone in the desert here in Israel he is quick to decline: "I don't need to go out to the desert, there's nothing there. Although I probably could enjoy living with the Beduin." These days Eric works six days a week in his sunny little shop in Beit Hakerem, and although he still does not speak Hebrew, he manages to slip in an occasional bit of Ivrit here and there. In his down time, Eric enjoys shooting arrows with the Israeli national archery team, of which he has been a member for the past five years. The team has faced some serious international competitors in Europe, including recent tournaments in Spain and Cyprus. Surprisingly, he only got involved in the archery by chance - in Israel and not in Alaska. "It's a good feeling to be part of the team," says Eric. It is somewhere Eric can enjoy the outdoors and be with like-minded Israelis, something which was not very easy in the beginning, he says. "I enjoy shooting," he reflects. "It takes my mind off other stressful things, like what goes on here in Israel." Other stressful things, perhaps, like his recent bout with prostate cancer last July. "When I had to go to the hospital for the operation I had five doctors come to visit me and they weren't even my doctors!" he says, explaining they were just loyal clients coming to check on a friend. "I had to stop shooting for pretty much the rest of the year. It was serious. But they got rid of it so now I'm building myself up again to play." At this past weekend's outdoor national archery championship, the final tournament of the season, Eric made quite the triumphant return. "It was tough coming back, but it feels good to be here, it's fun. This is where I like to spend Shabbat." The event, which was held at the club's headquarters in the quiet Tel Aviv suburb of Givatayim, was attended by a few dozen participants, men and women of various ages. Eric did particularly well, placing second over-all. But when the judges make the announcements Eric is completely lost. "I don't understand a darned thing! How do I get by?" He jokingly answers: "I just follow everyone else!"