Each year, our congregation visits a different corner of the Jewish world. This year we traveled to Scandinavia and our first stop was Stockholm, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. Sweden is green and vibrant and its capital city is surrounded by water. Many of us took a 10-minute ferry to Old Town each day and sat in cafes that have been in continuous use since the 1700s.
On television, which isn’t dubbed in order to promote English, we watched reruns of “Saturday Night Live” and “Curb Your Enthusiasm.” The Swedes have a little trouble understanding Linda Richman being farklempt, but they seem to enjoy urban Jewish shtick.
Swedes tend to be extremely attractive and friendly, neither overly competitive nor driven. They also speak excellent English. As my Swedish cousin told me: “When you have a language that nobody else in the world speaks, you have to learn English well.”
Like most Scandinavian countries, Swedes are taxed above 50 percent, but they get 85 percent of their salary at retirement and are provided with health and welfare benefits throughout their lives. However, immigration is challenging their ability to be so generous.
Scandinavian Jews are well-integrated into the population, but they have to struggle to preserve Jewish life. Each major community is small — a few synagogues, a school, an old age home and a small Jewish Community Center. In Stockholm, the major synagogue has mixed seating, a rabbi originally from Buffalo and a few-dozen regular attendees. Families tax themselves about 3 percent of an average salary to belong to the community — and about 800 do.
Journalist Peter Wolodarski, 26, spoke to us of the keen interest that young Jews have in Jewish issues and Israel, but they just can’t find their place in the much-too-traditional organized Jewish community. He also addressed the issues of European anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and contrasted the pre- and post-Holocaust views of Jews.
Quoting Israeli author Amos Oz, Wolodarski reminded us that, before the Shoah, Jews were told to leave Europe and go to Palestine. Today, too many Europeans believe that Europe and Israel share no history or culture and that Jews now need to leave “Palestine.” “Don’t be here” and “don’t be there” can lead to “don’t be.” Israel’s rejection by the European Union, when Israel is actually more European than Turkey, struck Wolodarski as ironic, as did Poland’s present pro-Israel stance, since Poland is now anti-Soviet and the Soviets were anti-Zionist.
Our guide, Dr. David Fisher, a professor of Jewish studies at Uppsala University, was a wellspring of facts and figures. For instance, in 18th-century Sweden, Jews who converted to Christianity on a given Sunday could take home what was in the church collection plate that day. Despite the incentive, few converted.
By 1870, there were only 800 Swedish Jews, but 25 percent of the major stores in Stockholm were Jewishly owned. These Jews were quite charitable to hospitals and museums, and they even built a synagogue much larger than they could use to emphasize their importance in the community.
During World War II, Sweden was officially neutral, but it traded with both sides. Those whom we met in Norway and Denmark condemned this amoral approach, but all acknowledged Sweden’s role in saving Danish Jewry. In October 1943, during the 10 days from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur, most Danish Jews were rescued by the Danish Resistance who sent them across the Oresund in fishing boats to Sweden.
During and after the Holocaust, hundreds of German refugees came to Sweden, which to this day, like all Scandinavian countries, grant asylum to political refugees. But, because these refugees were different, they weren’t always welcomed by the well-established and integrated Swedish Jewish community, and many failed to join synagogues or the kehilla (community structure).
The Jewish community is quite elderly — one funeral a day, but not even one marriage a month. At the Jewish community center, we sang, spoke and visited with a Holocaust survivors group, at their weekly oneg Shabbat (now in its 20th year), and we met some of those immigrants, who never felt comfortable in the religious community. Languages abounded that day — Yiddish, Russian, Polish, German and Hebrew. Our cantor sang in Yiddish, Hebrew and Ladino, I was asked to speak about Reconstructionism, and others in our group played the piano or conversed in the mamaloshen. It was a deeply satisfying mutual mitzvah and simcha that we shared with each other.
At Uppsala University, one of Europe’s oldest, the medieval church still depicts, in stone, Jews sucking from a pig. Swedish law doesn’t allow its removal for historical reasons, although it’s clearly anti-Semitic. Today’s anti-Semitism doesn’t come from Swedish Lutherans, but from radicals in a Muslim population of 350,000, all of whom arrived in the last 30 to 40 years.
Muslim immigration is a worry throughout Europe. Many come, as guest workers, but others are children, sent by their parents, claiming to be orphans. Then, once they are given to a Muslim foster family, “they discover” 20 relatives back home, who then have the right to immigrate.
Muslim triumphalism and Sept. 11 terrorism have combined to frighten Scandinavians who are now caught between a philosophy of open borders and the reality of different races, religions and cultures changing their progressive European society. With 350,000 Muslims and only 25,000 Jews, the Jewish community is worried, too.
“We’re just wild about Harry” was our pervasive feeling in Norway, because we spent a week with Harry Rodner, a former oil company executive, and now a marvelous guide. Sophisticated and menschlich, Harry’s family contributed the funds for Oslo’s synagogue. Norway is now the richest country per capita in Europe because of North Sea oil and salaries (and expenses) are 30 percent higher than in the rest of Western Europe.
Like all good guides, Harry shared more than facts; he told us wonderfully fascinating stories of Norway and its Jews, including his own. Harry introduced us to the Vigeland Sculpture Park — a must — representing 20 years of an artist’s creativity, in which Vigeland evoked powerful images of love and hate — within families, between lovers and in human striving. The National Gallery and Munch Museum were also artistic experiences of the highest order and we realized how little we knew about the cultural contributions of Scandinavia to Western Civilization.
Our first stop in Oslo was the Holocaust Memorial, honoring the memories of 750 Norwegian Jews who were murdered. There are only 1,000 Jews in Oslo today, so imagine the great pain of such a loss. Unlike many other countries, Jews and Muslims work together with Christians in an interfaith council, but there are serious problems with Muslim fundamentalists in Norway, as well.
A Christian hero to Jews was Henrik Wergeland, who vigorously promoted the legal and civic equality for Jews in the 18th century. To honor his memory, the Jewish community erected a large marker over his grave in the shape of a havdalah spice box.
Oslo was also the site of the Israeli-Palestinian peace accords that offered such hope a few years ago as well as the place where the Nobel Peace Prize is presented each year (the other Nobels are given in Stockholm). Near that site, another Holocaust Memorial powerfully stands — empty Shabbat dinner chairs facing the dock from which Jews were deported. Fortunately, half of Norway’s Jews were saved by the Norwegian Resistance and each year, the Jewish community sends its 13-year-olds on a bar mitzvah march to walk the refugee trails to Sweden, remembering and re-enacting one of the major escape routes.
At the lovely shul, one of the most northern in the world, we joined in a circle for a havdalah service, singing songs and prayers calling for a more utopian world. Interestingly, we were told that there are many converts to Judaism in Norway because of marriage or due to the “coldness” of Norwegian Lutheranism.
For many of us, the fjords were a highlight. Formed by glaciers, these bays flow through the mountains, below skies that constantly change color from blue to gray to black. We saw rainbows and waterfalls and felt at peace in the overwhelming glory of nature. I have never seen a more unusual sky, and it’s one that’s found in so many Norwegian paintings. We stayed in a hotel not unlike a smaller version of San Diego’s Hotel del Coronado, sipping tea on the porch and flashing back a century, while enjoying Norwegian pianist Age Kristofferson, playing Edvard Grieg’s music and telling us his life story.
Imagine a society in which a composer is a national hero, and you gain some insight into Norwegians. By the way, Grieg, whose music we played as we traveled through the fjords, was such an outspoken advocate for freeing Dreyfus that he refused to play in France during the Dreyfus affair.
In Norway, we also learned about trolls and how they’re not little and cute, but big with tails and possess up to seven heads. They only go out at night and during the day live in caves because sunlight makes them explode. So, we were told, if you see a big guy with multiple heads, he’s not a Norwegian. Moreover, never tell a Norwegian that you saw a troll with eight heads — he won’t believe you; seven is the limit.
In beautiful Bergen, a city of narrow townhouses, cobblestone streets and a colorful wharf, we ate lots of fish. Actually, we ate fish a lot throughout our tour and lox almost every day for breakfast. Although there are few bagels and little cream cheese, the main source of income for the Jewish community isn’t North Sea oil, but lox, since the rabbi is the mashglach/kashrut supervisor of the lox factories.
The Bergen Design Museum was also a highlight, in which furniture and other everyday functional household items were transformed into art. There’s a cosmopolitan joie de vie in Bergen and its citizens are know as the “Latins of Scandinavia,” because of their warmth and zest for life.
Like the Swedes, Norwegians are optimistic and warm, albeit a bit reserved initially. When an irreplaceable and historic wooden Stave Church was burnt down (by a satanic cult, no less), instead of mourning it as a tragedy, Norwegians saw it as an opportunity to build a new church that would be the “newest Stave Church built in Norway.” Talk about seeing the glass half full!
Or consider the story of one of our speakers, Wolfgang Pintzka, who displayed a “curious lack of bitterness,” in his own words, at his life story. In his book, “From Siberia to the Synagogue,” well known in Norway and Germany and soon to be published in English, Pintzka describes his Jewish father in Germany, who was Aryanized by Hitler, since he was a sports car designer and was needed to design tanks.
Pintzka, who survived Hitler and Stalin, was sent to Siberia at the age of 16 to work in the mines. The Russians punished him with a 25-year sentence for belonging to the Hitler Youth.
In the camp library, Pintzka found a book of Brechtian plays, banned by Hitler, but available under the communists. So he directed his first play in Siberia, was pardoned by Stalin after five years and then became the foremost director of Brecht in East Germany. In 1984, because of their cultural status, Pintzka was allowed to leave East Germany. He moved to Oslo, converted to Judaism with his wife and children (in Jerusalem) and is now a leading member of the Oslo Jewish community and a former president of B’nai B’rith. Next year, Wolfgang will be directing Brecht’s Jewish play, “Refugee Talks,” in Oslo.
We will never forget the Danes and they, of course, will forever merit our highest respect and gratitude. No country did more for its Jews, rescuing nearly all of them in the 10 days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Students and fisherman, people who knew Jews in Copenhagen and those in villages who never met one, all joined together because “it was the right thing to do; it wasn’t a big deal; we couldn’t look at ourselves if we did any less,” according to our guide, Grette, as well as everyone with whom we talked.
The most well-known story of the Danish rescue isn’t factually true — King Christian X never wore a yellow star, because Danish Jews didn’t have to do so. But the important part of that famous story is that he would have, if the Jews had been forced to comply. That’s the way the Danes were and are.
Even more, non-Jewish Danes maintained the homes of their Jewish neighbors, sent food packages to those in concentration camps and, when the war ended, even business competitors welcomed the Jews back.
Are the Danes philo-Semites? In Copenhagen, a number of churches even have God’s name, YHWH, in Hebrew engraved above their front doors, in gratitude for Jewish financial help during a major 18th-century war.
Moreover, one of our guides, Gitta, was a non-Jewish Israeli tour guide, whose daughter and sister underwent Orthodox conversions in Jerusalem. Like so many in Europe, Gitta had some Jewish ancestry four generations ago, and so, out of curiosity, she visited Israel and stayed for 20 years!
Denmark is remarkably safe and sane. It has strict gun laws and little crime. In fact, few people use locks on the ubiquitous bikes one sees, and the city even allows people to rent a bike for a whole year for a deposit of only $8, which is even returned at the end of the year.
“We live the way we want life to be,” Grette said, “by standing up for a certain kind of reality, we create it.”
On the last day of our trip to Sweden, Norway and Denmark at our closing circle, our travelers spoke about what they liked best. Majestic fjords, impressive Embassy visits, fascinating speakers and deeply spiritual experiences were high on the list. But everyone realized the greatest benefit of “traveling Jewish,” deepening personal relationships around the world and having experiences unavailable to those traveling on other kinds of tours.
Most of all, we realized that when we travel abroad, and visit our fellow Jews, it’s a kind of homecoming. Everything and everyone feels both new and familiar, for traveling to distant lands to have new experiences is also a way of meeting and finding ourselves.
Arnold Rachlis is rabbi of University Synagogue in Irvine.