In search of Yiddishkeit in Norway
Jewish community focuses on education to improve attitudes toward Israel
Oslo’s one functioning synagogue and community center serves around 500 people, with services led usually by a cantor.
Photos by Elaine Durbach
June 12, 2013
The most common response I received when I told people that I was going to Norway this spring on a trip for Jewish journalists was “Why?” Follow-ups included, “Are there any Jews there?” and, occasionally, “Aren’t they anti-Semitic?”
I had no answers. In truth, those were not far from my initial responses too. The fact is there’s been very little talk of Norway in the American-Jewish community for a long time — and that’s precisely why this trip was organized. It was a joint venture between Joseph Jacobs Advertising, a Jewish-oriented marketing agency, and Innovation Norway, a travel company owned by the Norwegian government.
Naturally, their goal was to encourage tourism. On the May 20-30 journey, I and four other Jewish journalists visited Oslo, Trondheim, Bergen, and the fjord tourist resort of Flam and were treated to as much magnificent scenery, delicious food, and fascinating museums as you could fit into nine days. But Jewish institutions were also on the itinerary, and we had the chance to talk to members of the country’s only two Jewish communities, in Oslo and Trondheim.
In Bergen, we found just one Jew, Tamar Halperin, the Israeli-born pianist wife of a German countertenor performing in the annual music festival. “Am I your live one?” she asked us.
Despite the scarcity of Jews, the trip was both comfortable and intriguing. Just one proviso for would-be visitors: If you keep kosher, bring your own food (more on that in a later article). And it has to be said: The country is well worth a visit, with its ever-present interlinking of land and water, picturesque architecture, and charming people — almost all of whom seem familiar with English and committed to being really pleasant.
The British-born Chabad rabbi we met in Oslo, Rabbi Shaul Wilhelm, told us, “I can walk down a street late at night past a bunch of drunks, totally confident that no one will hurt me — even if they would hurt each other.”
They probably wouldn’t do much of that either. A Jewish Russian drama teacher — who spends months each year training actors in Oslo — whom the rabbi introduced us to said his greatest challenge is to get Norwegian actors to explore conflict or raise their voices at one another. “They just hate doing it,” he declared.
The country has an official commitment to tolerance, but it wasn’t always that way. Jews weren’t legally permitted to live in Norway until the mid-1800s. By the outbreak of World War II, the population stood at around 2,100. Despite some efforts to hide Jews and help them escape to Sweden, the Norwegian police helped the Nazis round up hundreds of Jews. About 800 died in the Holocaust.
Today, the number of affiliated Jews is around 750; the total, including visiting Israelis and others, is believed to be between 1,500 and 2,000. That means that most Norwegians know no Jews and know little about Judaism, though Holocaust education is now part of the school curriculum. Jews on the whole keep a low profile, and a number mentioned efforts to blend into the general population. “My parents insisted I learn to ski — to be like other Norwegians,” one woman said.
Education of the general populace is a primary concern of the Jewish organizations, in part to moderate a pervasive highly critical attitude toward Israel. There have been a handful of vandalism attacks against Jewish sites — with anti-Israel sentiment appearing to be the motive — resulting in tight security at all of them.
As it happened, the country’s most prominent Jewish political figure, Jo Benkow, had died the week before we arrived, at the age of 88. On our second day in Oslo there was a massive memorial service for him. In his long career, he was very popular; he led the Conservative Party in parliament and was the speaker from 1985 to 1993. So many dignitaries attended the service, tents had to be erected outside to handle the overflow, and we were told there was no way we could attend.
That morning, we were taken to visit The Jewish Museum, created in what used to be a shul in the eastern part of the city. There were two carefully constructed and very moving exhibitions, one about the Jewish year and its customs and celebrations, the other about the wartime experiences of the community, including Benkow, who fled to Sweden and later served with the Allied forces. Museum director Sidsel Levin said, “He didn’t make an issue of his being Jewish until he retired from parliament. But everyone knew he was Jewish, and it made no difference to his popularity.”
Wilhelm and his wife, now with four children, have been in Norway for 10 years. “We don’t compete with the established community,” he told us. “We try to provide what it isn’t able to provide.” That includes hosting a public seder and other holiday celebrations. Much as they enjoy life in Norway, Wilhelm said, one of the great drawbacks is that they will have to send their children abroad to receive a yeshiva education.
Inevitably, some members of the Ashkenazi, more or less Modern Orthodox, congregation, the Mosaic Religious Community, voiced objections to Wilhelm’s presence and his attempts to attract people to Chabad-sponsored programs. When we visited the one functioning synagogue, a congregant who heard we had met with Wilhelm demanded, “Why doesn’t he go somewhere where there’s no Jewish community and start one there, instead of dividing our little community?”
You could see both sides: The country’s chief rabbi — Danish-born Michael Melchior, a former Knesset member for Meimad — lives in Israel and visits only a few times a year. His son comes more often and conducts services when he does; regular services in Oslo are conducted by a cantor. Wilhelm, on the the other hand, is present full-time and performs a range of rabbinical duties. But they all seemed to share that goal of educating the broader Norwegian population about Judaism and the history of its Jewish community.
At the Resistance Museum in Oslo, celebrating the Norwegian effort to block the Nazis, a display provided by Levin and the museum profiled some of the Jews who fought in the war. Prominently mentioned was the fact that a vastly disproportionate number of Jews served with the Allied effort.
In a nicely ironic touch, the mansion where Norway’s Nazi-sympathizer president, Vidkun Quisling, once lived, there is now a state-financed Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities.
It has a display commemorating the Holocaust and provides office space for researchers. Our guide, a non-Jew academic of Polish extraction, mentioned that his grandfather was Jewish. We were also introduced over lunch to a colleague of his whose recently published study showed anti-Semitism to be lower in Norway than elsewhere in Europe. The talks and concerts at the center, we were told, draw large crowds.
Education is also the goal of Israeli Ambassador Naim Araidi, who happens to be Druze. When he first arrived, he caused a ripple in the media and won fans by having his guests gather in the kitchen while he cooked for them, Golda Meir-style.
The literature professor-turned-diplomat “dished” with us over dinner on our last evening, summing up his impressions of Norwegian society and its commitment to democracy and equality. The Norwegians’ biggest mistake, he said, is their failure to recognize that Israel, more than any other country in the Middle East, shares those values.
“You should encourage Jews to come visit,” he told us. “The more people who come, the more contact people here have with Jews, the better for Israel.”
This is the first in a series of articles on NJJN reporter Elaine Durbach’s visit to Norway; future articles will deal with Trondheim’s Jewish community and Norwegian culture.