September 3, 2010
Like driftwood from Siberia
Iceland’s Jews succeed in building community despite small size.
Few forests remain in Iceland. Yet, over the years, many farmers have benefited from logs that have broken loose from Siberian logging booms and mysteriously made their way across the waters to the communities along Iceland’s western fjords and the rugged Snaefellnes Peninsula. This timber, or driftwood, is a valuable resource to those fortunate enough to have it land at their doorstep.
On a recent holiday to Iceland, I learned that Iceland’s Jewish community is very much like this driftwood from Siberia. Iceland’s Jewish presence is very much a product of who washes up on its shores and what energy and resources they are able to bring to the very small resident Jewish community, almost all of whom are in interfaith marriages with Icelanders.
Michael Levin, a Chicago-born Reform Jew met his Icelandic wife while studying voice in Vienna many years ago. After their marriage, they returned to live in Reykjavik, where Michael owns a restaurant and catering business with his father-in-law. Michael is one of the stalwarts and organizers of the Jewish community, which manages to get together for services and a meal on Rosh Hashanah and Passover. At present, community members use the social hall of the Free Church for their activities. The yom tov (holiday) meals are potlucks, where as many as 35 people bring a dish to share. The priest at the Free Church studied in Israel, speaks Hebrew and has been very welcoming. There are no community assets: no building, a printed scroll instead of a kosher Torah, and only a very modest community bank account.
How Jewish lifecycle events are celebrated has changed with the times and the resources available. In former years, an elderly Jewish woman, who has since passed away, taught pre-bar and bat mitzvah children Hebrew. Michael could teach them the blessings and obtain their parashah on tape. Now, in lieu of a traditional bar mitzvah, kids can have a nondenominational confirmation with a humanist clergy. At the other end of the lifecycle, Jewish burials are permitted in several cemeteries.
Although he has no formal title, there is clear recognition within the broader population that Michael represents the Jewish community. In 2005, when there were celebrations of the 60th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, Michael was asked to recite the Kaddish in a service held in the Hallgrimmskirkja, the main Lutheran church. On a more personal level, he was contacted a few years ago by a leader within the Salvation Army and asked for his assistance with an elderly Jewish gentleman who had lived through the Russian Revolution, was boarding at the Salvation Army facility and was in rapid personal decline. Michael noted that, on occasions when Jewish tourists have asked at their hotels how to connect to the Jewish community, the concierges have called the larger churches for assistance and the churches have provided visitors with his contact information.
Michael is joined in his efforts to build community by others, including Sigal Harmeshi, an Israeli-born resident of Reykjavik. Sigal originally came to Iceland in 1986 with her sister to work in a fish factory. She met and married her husband soon after. Her sister also met and married an Icelander. I asked Sigal what relations were like with her in-laws and with her own parents. Her in-laws, she told me, were very accepting, “they really did not know about Jewish people” and she said they affectionately refer to her as the “the black one” in reference to her Middle Eastern, rather than Icelandic, coloring. Her mother was accepting from the outset, she said, but it took her father a little longer to accept that both his daughters had married out of the faith.
Sigal and her husband lived in Israel for a number of years but, ultimately, it proved too difficult and they returned to Iceland. They have three sons, who have both Icelandic and Jewish names. It is a legal requirement in Iceland that children be given Icelandic names. When I asked Sigal about how she was able to maintain a Jewish identity, she noted that, in addition to contributing to whatever events are organized, she has made Friday night dinners and the celebration of yom tovim her family’s special way of celebrating Judaism.
In the absence of formal structure, both Michael and Sigal spoke about the challenges of creating any sense of cohesiveness within the Jewish community. The key challenge is size: there may be up to 50 Jews living within Iceland’s population of 300,000. With the country’s current economic crisis, an estimated few thousand Icelanders are leaving each year to begin their lives anew wherever the fortunes seem more promising. There are likely interfaith families among those numbers, as these couples already have personal connections in the country of the non-Icelandic spouse.
Sigal also noted that, in her experience, many Jews prefer not to attract attention to or assert their Judaism. In Iceland’s past, as in that of many countries, including Canada, there has been a chapter when Icelanders’ behavior towards Jews has been ungenerous. Iceland followed Denmark’s lead in 1938 when it closed its doors to Austrian Jews. It was not until 1940, when British forces arrived with some Jewish soldiers, that the first official congregation was established in Reykjavik. A Yom Kippur service, which included servicemen from Britain, Canada and Scotland, held at the lodge belonging to the Good Templars in 1940, was the first non-Christian religious ceremony to take place in Iceland since the nation embraced Christianity in the year 1000, according to the Jewish Virtual Library.
The United States established an airbase at Keflavik during the war and maintained it for many years and, at some points, their chaplains have been ordained rabbis. Today’s president of Iceland, Olafur Ragnar Grimsson, is married to an Israeli-born Jewish woman, Dorrit Moussaieff, and his choice of a spouse has heightened awareness of the Jewish faith in a positive way within the country.
Arni Bergman, an Icelandic journalist and writer, met his Russian-born Jewish wife, Lena, now deceased, during the 1950s, when he went to study in the Soviet Union. In those years, overt religious practice was not possible there and, during her adolescence, Lena did not have opportunity to learn Jewish customs and rituals. Arni and Lena lived in the Soviet Union until Lena’s father died, at which point they relocated with Lena’s mother to Iceland.
It was in Iceland, with his mother-in-law in their home, that Arni and the two Bergman children came to know about Jewish holidays and customs. In a telephone conversation, Arni painted a poignant picture of how he was guided to lead a Passover seder by his mother-in-law, who sat at his side with tears of joy at his accomplishment. Today, the Bergman children are grown and, according to their father, are very proud of their Jewish roots. Arni said, “[I have] tried my best in the course of years to explain both to the readers of my newspaper and to the general public the history of the Jews and their fate in our times.... Six or seven years ago, I did a serial of eight one-hour programs on the state radio about Judaism, Jewish history and culture. Among my other books is one I wrote with my late wife, Lena, on growing up in two different worlds. I wrote about Iceland and Lena wrote about her childhood and adolescence in the Soviet Union.”
I was assisted in my attempts to locate Jews in Iceland first by Canada’s former ambassador to Iceland, Anna Blauveldt, and, in turn, by a locally employed staff member of the Canadian embassy in Iceland, Ester Eliasdottir, who has her own remarkable story.
Ester’s paternal grandparents were German Jews who ended up in Palestine. Ester’s father was born there in 1941. He came to Iceland for adventure in 1960, and met and married Ester’s mother, a Lutheran. Ester’s upbringing was largely non-religious, although she was baptized and confirmed at 13. It was not until her paternal grandmother came to live with Ester’s family, after the death of her husband, that Ester “became aware of the Jewish religion and its intricacies.”
Ester’s grandmother stayed in Iceland for two years but missed a Jewish community, and so returned to Israel and married a second time. Ester visited her grandmother in Israel in 1982 and said, “[I] became much more attuned to my heritage, met my extended family and became interested in the Jewish traditions and beliefs.”
Her grandmother was again widowed and married a third time to a German Jew, who lived in London. Her third husband was a religious man and, through Ester’s frequent visits to their home, she learned more about Judaism. At his death, this husband left Ester’s grandmother financially comfortable, his wealth making it possible for Ester and her father to make frequent trips to London to assist the grandmother, who was, by then, infirm. During Ester’s visits, a rabbi’s wife would also be there and a friendship developed. Her grandmother’s death 10 years ago brought an end to this rich exposure to Judaism. Today, Ester acknowledges that she identifies with Jews to a certain point, and that she has many wonderful memories associated with her grandmother and Israel.
My last night in Iceland was spent in a small cabin at a hostel at the mouth of a beautiful northern fjord. At breakfast, my friends and I were distracted by a lively conversation going on among a family of five – parents traveling with three handsome young sons. To my astonishment, they were speaking Hebrew. Extending a hand and saying, “Shalom,” I introduced myself to an equally astonished Dan and Sharon Oryan, Israeli diplomats posted to Denmark and on holiday in Iceland. In the ensuing discussion, I explained that I was writing an article for the Jewish Independent on the Jews in Iceland. In an unmistakable Israeli accent, Dan replied, “There are Jews in Iceland?” We enjoyed a laugh together, noting that the presence of their family in Iceland might have momentarily doubled its Jewish population.
One of my motivations for traveling to Iceland was that I grew up in Winnipeg, the heart of the Icelandic Diaspora, among beloved Icelandic neighbors and friends. I have also visited several Jewish communities around the world and am privileged to live in Canada, where diversity is, for the most part, a cherished value. I find it remarkable how people who, metaphorically, wash up on distant shores for whatever reasons, manage to incorporate their identity and heritage into a brand new culture. The communities they build are unique, yet similar, a valuable resource indeed to those countries fortunate to have such “driftwood” land at their doorstep.
Karen Ginsberg (Chaimsdottir) is an Ottawa writer who was raised in Winnipeg.