Stockholm’s neighbourhoods are pristinely preserved. This photo was taken last summer. (photo by Ella Kaplun)
Summer days in Stockholm seem never ending. The sun refuses to set until around 10 p.m., leaving a romantic glow upon the city for the evening hours. It is a city made up of a string of 14 islands, most interconnected by bridges; the blue of the water and the green of the land fit together like irregular shaped pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle.
Stockholm has a unique landscape, with barely any high-rise buildings, except for church spires that pierce the otherwise almost-unobstructed skyline. Since Sweden was neutral during the Second World War, Stockholm was not touched by the war and its old neighbourhoods are pristinely preserved, and feature low buildings in different shades of pastel, inspired by many varied styles of architecture, especially in the Old Town, Gamla Stan.
To get around the city conveniently, a Stockholm Pass, which can be purchased in advance (stockhompass.com), enabled us to hop on and off buses, visit museums and take the always enjoyable ferry rides. But, besides touring, my granddaughter and I also explored Stockholm’s Jewish life here, with its deep-rooted history. Although Sweden has the largest population of Jews in the Scandinavian countries – an estimated 20,000 thousand, 4,500 of whom live in Stockholm – they have a minuscule number compared to other European countries.
To learn more about Stockholm’s Jewish past, we took a three-hour walking tour with knowledgeable guide David Kay from Milk and Honey Tours. We started at our hotel, the Diplomat, a turn-of-the-20th-century Art Nouveau building overlooking Nybroviken Bay. We walked along the waterfront toward the Gamla Stan, where Jews were first officially allowed to settle in Sweden. Ferryboats lined the docks and, last summer, in the many bars and restaurants, including many vegetarian ones, people were relaxing after work, meeting friends and taking in the summer sun.
We crossed a bridge to Gamla Stan, a harbour town built on a hill, with the Royal Palace on top. As we were winding our way up narrow, cobbled streets, passing eye-catching storefronts, our guide told us the story of David Isaac. In 1774, the wealthy gem merchant and seal engraver was invited to settle in Stockholm by Gustav III, to help finance his military expeditions. Unlike Jews who came to Sweden before him and accepted conversion for the privilege of staying, Isaac made it a condition for coming that he be allowed to practise as a Jew. He also insisted that he bring with him other Jewish families so a congregation could be formed.
Our guide then pointed out the middle storey of a three-storey apartment house where the first synagogue in Sweden had been housed. This building, just off the island’s main square, where the Nobel Museum is located, was recently purchased by the Jewish community to be converted into a Jewish museum.
Our tour ended by crossing to another island to see the Great Synagogue. Built in 1870 in a Moorish style, it is a testimony to the wealth and privilege Jews attained by that time and the tolerant attitude of their adopted country. It is now a Conservative synagogue with a female rabbi.
Jews have contributed, of course, to the cultural and economic life of Sweden. An elegant department store in the centre of Stockholm was established by the Saks family, who also owned Saks Fifth Avenue in New York. The renowned publishing house Bonnier, founded in 1804, is still important in the literary life of Sweden. The Stockholm Concert Hall was built by the textile merchant Isaac Hirsch and the City Hall was largely ﬁnanced by Jewish donors. Even though many of these older families are no longer Jewish, because of intermarriage and assimilation, they continue to support Jewish causes.
However, the climate for Jews has changed and Sweden is no exception to the rise of antisemitic incidents in Europe and in North America. There have been news reports of harassment, intimidation and attacks on Jews in Malmo, Gothenburg and other towns. In Sweden, antisemitism has found oxygen both among white supremacists on the far right and Israel-bashers on the far left.
Nevertheless, Jewish life goes on, albeit on a reduced scale. We spoke with a local high school senior, Eliot, who was involved in the Jewish youth organization in Sweden. He told us that, for him, as for many of his peers, Glamsta, the only overnight Jewish summer camp, was his most important experience in maintaining his Jewish identity. Located in Stockholm’s picturesque archipelago, this small camp attracts children from all over the country. “This was the ﬁrst time I was involved with Shabbat rituals,” Eliot said, “and it made me proud to be Jewish. In this camp you also become part of a close-knit community of young Jews.”
Another important institution that helps to keep the community together is the Bajit (House), a Jewish cultural community centre, built in 2016. It houses the Hillel school, the only Jewish day school in Sweden, with 360 students in classes from kindergarten to sixth grade, and it also sponsors many cultural events. Like all schools in Sweden, including universities, this one is also tuition free.
Although most Swedish Jews hesitate to show any identiﬁable sign of their religion, the Chabad rabbi of Stockholm walks around with a kippah. Chabad is located on the island of Sodermalm, formerly a working-class neighbourhood that has been gentriﬁed into a kind of Soho, with vintage and antique shops, art galleries and ethnic restaurants. Chabad holds an Orthodox minyan, hosts Shabbat and holiday meals, houses a kindergarten and is a gathering place for youngsters. Chabad also offers bar/bat mitzvah lessons and Jewish studies, and caters to tourists by delivering kosher meals to their hotels.
Stockholm’s Great Synagogue is not only an historical landmark, like in many other places in Europe, but also a functioning one. One Shabbat morning during our stay we witnessed a double bat mitzvah. One of the celebrants was a local girl, the other from New York, who chose to celebrate this important occasion in Stockholm because she and her family are active in Paideia, a Sweden-based organization dedicated to the revival of Jewish culture in Europe. Both girls read from the Torah, their young voices ringing out in this soaring historical interior, which can easily seat 900 people. On that Shabbat, fewer than 100 attended, but these young voices were the hope for the continuation of Swedish Jewish life.
Erika Leviant has written travel pieces for newspapers and magazines in the United States and Canada. Her granddaughter, Ella Kaplun, is an English major at New York University.