In pursuit of common ground

Matt Nesvisky searches desperately to find a Jew in Iceland and any similarity to the State of Israel.

A geyser in Geysir, Iceland. (photo credit: BOB STRONG / REUTERS)
A geyser in Geysir, Iceland.
(photo credit: BOB STRONG / REUTERS)
In March 1966, President Asgeir Asgeirsson of Iceland visited Israel. This may not seem so remarkable today, but back in those early, pre-Six Day War years, any visit to little Israel by a foreign head of state was big news and Asgeirsson was, in fact, the first to address the Knesset.
But that’s not why this occasion remains in my memory. The reason I recall this minor diplomatic moment is because of what I witnessed as Asgeirsson was greeted upon his entry into Jerusalem. After serving up the traditional bread and salt, somebody – mayor Teddy Kollek or prime minister Levi Eshkol, I forget exactly who – pronounced that Israel was especially pleased to welcome the president of Iceland because the two countries had so much in common.
I blew my orange Tempo soda through my nose. What luftmensch, I marveled, was writing our leaders’ speeches? What in the world could such disparate states as Israel and Iceland have in common? That they both start with the letter I? Hoisted on his own petard, the greeter – Kollek, Eshkol, whoever – creatively soldiered on. Both countries had achieved independence in the 1940s. Both were democracies. Both had relatively small populations. Both featured languages rarely spoken outside their borders. Okay, right, but even so, this was quite a stretch. And over the decades this incident remained in my memory as sharply as the astringent, batteryacid taste of old Tempo orangeade – Iceland and Israel, Iceland and Jews.
I’ve long been intrigued by expired Jewish outposts of the Diaspora. I once visited Harbin, China, which, at the turn of the 20th century was home to some 20,000 Jews, and tracked down the only Jew residing there today, an Israeli professor at the local university. In Augsburg, Germany, a city of almost 300,000 residents, I located the last remaining Jewish family. In Oudtshoorn, once famed as the “Jerusalem of South Africa,” I found few remnants of the hundreds of Jews who had once prospered there raising, of all things, ostriches. In Nome, Alaska, I visited a saloon reputedly once owned by a Jew.
Something about these far-flung ghost towns fascinates me – the notion that wandering Jews momentarily flourished in the most unlikely corners of the world. My fascination, while no doubt hardly unique, marks me as some kind of melancholic anthropologist. Whatever the case, I find it hard to resist the lure.
So when circumstances recently took me to Iceland, of all places, I naturally began sniffing around for members of the tribe.
I soon discovered that, officially at least, none exists. The Icelandic government recognizes several religions, including Islam, but not Judaism – apparently because no one ever sought such recognition. In the entire country, which has “so much in common with Israel,” there is not a single synagogue, and there never has been. No rabbi, no Jewish study house or school, no cemetery, no mikve ritual bath.
This wasn't a country with destroyed or otherwise defunct Jewish communities. This was something rarer – a land where Jews had never collectively settled. According to an article three years ago in the Israeli Hebrew daily Haaretz, a few dozen Jews do currently live in Iceland, but apparently none is native-born. They’ve all washed up on the shores for a variety of reasons – such as studying the disappearing glaciers; simply seeking a change of scenery; world-trekking, or they happened to marry Icelanders (more about this later). In any event, none has done anything to organize a community.
Jews reportedly appear in a 13th-century Icelandic saga, although the reasons for this are obscure, and over the ensuing centuries Jewish merchants periodically popped up in Iceland. However, most apparently preferred to maintain their homes in Denmark, which, until 1944, ruled Iceland. During World War II, Iceland closed its doors to Jews seeking to flee the Nazis. British troops, in 1940, maintained a base in Iceland and Jewish Tommies celebrated Passover there.
American-Jewish troops did the same after the Yanks later established an air base at Keflavik, the site of today’s international airport serving the nation’s capital Reykjavik, which is also Europe’s northernmost capital.
None of this, however, adds up to much of an Icelandic-Jewish history. Anyone thinking of opening a museum of the Jews of Iceland can easily do so, furnishing it entirely with his imagination.
And why not? As I tootled around the country on the island’s largely empty roads, I kept asking myself: Nu, is it any wonder Jews have never been drawn to this place? In Alaska, there was gold. In Oudtshoorn it was ostrich feathers, which for a time were even more valuable, pound for pound, than gold.
In Harbin, it was timber and railroads. Still, with all its obvious similarities to Israel, hadn’t Iceland ever had anything to entice Jews? I racked my brain.
It came to me at breakfast one morning.
Of course – herring! From time immemorial Iceland has had a vibrant fishing industry and one of its chief catches is herring. Just about everywhere I went in Iceland pickled herring was on offer, albeit usually in a cloyingly sweet-cream sauce. Iceland also provides yummy lox and other smoked fishes. But, no, fish couldn’t be the inducement. I couldn’t see Jews ever being drawn to join Iceland’s North Atlantic fishing fleets. Besides, as Joseph Heller observed in his last book, “Portrait of an Artist, as an Old Man”, “… fishing was foolish – you could buy fish.”
So, if not herring and smoked salmon, then what? Let’s see, the Vikings had horns growing out of their helmets, plastic replicas of which are found in all the souvenir shops – but, no, that couldn’t be a connection – that was Michelangelo’s mythology. Then, over by the tea dispenser, it struck me. Steam! Shvitz baths! The hammam! There’s the Jewish affinity! Iceland is essentially a giant natural samovar – remember the volcanic mountain with the unpronounceable name (Eyjafjallajökull) that blew its top in 2010 and whose ash disrupted international-air traffic for several weeks? And in between Iceland’s volcanoes are countless geysers and boiling cauldrons and thermal springs. Reykjavik means smoky bay, and everywhere you go on this lavastrewn island, the earth, like the stage of some elaborate rock concert, percolates with hot-fog machines. So what wandering Jew wouldn’t fancy a free shvitz? It’s this geology that makes Iceland, despite its many commonalities with Israel, virtually unique. One can drive for hours, as I did, and traverse a stony-lunar landscape without seeing a tree (shades of the Negev!), but one is never far from something bubbling up out of the earth. Almost all of Iceland’s energy is hydrothermal, providing residents essentially cost-free electricity and hot water.
(“Icelanders who go abroad to study or work or whatever,” one native told me, “are shocked to see electric bills.”) The most spectacular manifestations of Iceland-on-the-boil are the geysers (the word itself is Icelandic, probably the small country’s only contribution to international vocabulary). The best geysers are on view at a little place called, well, Geysir, in the Haukadalur Valley, deep in the mountains of southwestern Iceland. The area features some 30 geysers. The most ferocious of these steam kettles regularly throws up a spume some 70 meters high, although periodic earthquakes (just like in Israel!) have caused the geyser to shoot nearly twice as high as that. Visitors are warned not to touch the rivulets that burble throughout the area because they are scalding hot. On the horizon, snow-capped mountains feed the country’s countless roaring streams and waterfalls, again making sub-Arctic Iceland look so much like that Jewish neighborhood in the East African Rift.
Iceland's most popular thermal spring is the Blue Lagoon, which is conveniently located about 45 minutes outside of Reykjavik. The baths naturally bring to mind the hot springs at Hamat Gader, which have been soothingly poaching people at the southern end of the Kinneret since the time of the Romans, if not before. But, at the Blue Lagoon, the Icelanders have outdone the Roman bath designers, constructing a state-of-the-art visitors’ center. Admission (about 35 euros) gets you an electronic bracelet used to access the changing rooms and lockers; dine at the restaurant; or shop for cosmetics and health products compounded from the mineral goo at the bottom of the thermal pools.
The baths themselves are vast, capable of accommodating hundreds, if not thousands, of bathers. There’s even a floating cocktail bar – just use your electronic bracelet to charge your booze. Steam percolates out of the water and from crevices in the surrounding rocky landscape. Everybody paddles about like so many contented spaniels, albeit sipping beer and coating each other with the goo, for which, ladles are thoughtfully provided. Unlike Dead Sea mud, which is black, the Blue Lagoon muck is white – so Israel and Iceland don’t have absolutely everything in common. Okay, and another difference is that Iceland has no army. Makes sense. Who’s going to invade? Back in the capital, I couldn’t help pondering the curious fact that I was in a country that had virtually no Jewish history and no Jewish community or institutions whatsoever. Granted, the entire population of Iceland is only around 300,000, about the size of a Tel Aviv suburb. Still, I’m one of those neurotic Jews who, finding himself in a foreign city, doesn’t go galloping off in search of a minyan but, nevertheless, likes to know there’s a synagogue in the neighborhood. Unsurprisingly, according to New York’s Jewish Daily Forward, a Chabad rabbi from New York has been known, in recent years, to scare up enough local Jews to hold a High Holiday service or seder. But I couldn’t locate any local Jews. I’d heard of a bar run by an Israeli, but couldn’t find the bar. And, although the downtown area was thronged with tourists, to my amazement, I never heard any Hebrew, which, as everyone knows, is invariably overheard everywhere from Patagonia to Phnom Penh.
Well, if no Jews, how about anti-Semites? We all know you don’t need the one to have the other and, indeed, the Anti-Defamation League’s recent (and controversial) global survey of attitudes towards Jews claims that 16 percent of Icelanders are anti-Semitic, same as Brazil and Singapore. Make of that what you will.
Meanwhile, the closest I came to being in touch with my people in Iceland was finding a copy of “Og Davidssalmar” on the night table of my hotel room, thoughtfully provided by the Gideon Society. But I don’t read Icelandic.
The only other book in my hotel room, incidentally, was the phone directory where I was confounded to learn that subscribers are listed by first names. I thought of how helpful this would be in Israel, where every Tom, Dick and Harry is named Moshe or Yitzhak and where you keep running into people with names like David David.
Eschewing the phone directory, I still might have sought out Dorrit Moussaieff.
Born in Jerusalem in 1950 to a noted Bukharian family, Moussaieff married Iceland’s president, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, in 2003. Iceland’s first lady, often described as a flamboyant international fashionista, made the news a few years back when she got into a bitter altercation with Border Police at Ben- Gurion Airport because she was traveling without her Israeli passport. But, even had I looked, I might not have discovered her in the presidential palace. Since, last year, Moussaieff took up legal residence in London, reportedly to manage her family’s diamond business.
Even so, it would have been grand to shake hands with President Grímsson, share a little bread and salt, and affirm how much this delightful little country up there by the Arctic Circle has in common with Israel.