Europe Unexpected: Imported rabbis and Jewish girls

As I mingled my way around the community, the ridiculous stereotypes dissolved, revealing compelling insights on the Jews of Stockholm.

Great Synagogue of Stockholm 370 (photo credit: Molly Gellert)
Great Synagogue of Stockholm 370
(photo credit: Molly Gellert)
I knew nothing of Swedish Jews. Would they be taller? Blonder? Serve Swedish meatballs for the holidays? As I mingled my way around the community for a weekend visit, these ridiculous stereotypes dissolved, revealing compelling insights on the Jews of Stockholm.
When traveling abroad, there are a few tell-tale signs of a synagogue. Plastic curlicue communications to a guy’s ear as he peers under the body of a passing car, is one of them. And so, I approached him with passport in hand. He examined its pages carefully while asking El Al-esque security questions:
“And what is the name of your Rabbi in New York?”
“Rabbi Joshua Davidson.”
“And how did you hear of this synagogue?”
“I Googled ‘Jewish community Stockholm.'”
And with this he smiled, handed me my passport and opened the gate of the Great Synagogue of Stockholm.
Inside the gate I walked slowly past a wall with the names of more than 6,000 Holocaust victims related to Swedish Jews. I received, however, a bit of comic relief upon entering the synagogue. Just outside the main prayer hall was a sign with little white plastic letters outlining the days and times of services. While I don’t know my days of the week in Swedish, I did notice that the letters “S”, “H” and “T” were missing from the word SHABBAT: Services on, “ABBA” would begin at 9:15. This didn’t help defuse my stereotypes as even a synagogue in Sweden could be touched by its legendary pop group.
The ceilings of the Great Synagogue are tall and mighty. Its wooden beams are impressive but not gaudy. Despite being over 140 years old, it stands in perfect condition. Towards the front was a man playing a darbuka (goblet drum) and a rabbi who spoke perfect American English.
I slid into a wooden pew towards the back and listened. When the service ended the members of the semi-packed house fled the aisles migrating towards the rabbi, yet the mood seemed somber. Had someone died? The rabbi made his rounds: warmly shaking hands, clutching faces and speaking with each congregant as if they were the only person in the room. As a newcomer, I didn’t expect to receive this same treatment when I introduced myself to him. Yet, the rabbi responded:
“Are you alone? Would you like to join us for dinner?”
Just as soon as I accepted I got tossed upstream by the others waiting to speak with the rabbi. Maneuvering through the crowd, I strained my ear to hear the hushed excited tones emanating from the small circles of people:
“What can we do?”
“We have to do something.”
“We need to have a meeting.”
“We should meet now.”
“Excuse me,” I said, interrupting one of these circles after having bent my ear for as long as I could, “This is my first time here but it seems as though everyone is quite upset about something.”
A young woman with a warm smile and a canvas tote with Rabbi Hillel’s quote “And if not now, when?” answered, “It’s the rabbi, they’re not renewing his contract.”
“But nothing’s definitive,” another woman added. “They’re still negotiating.”
The warmth of Rabbi David Lazar’s apartment was a nice contrast from the chilly April night weather. I was joined by two South African women, two Swedes and Rabbi Lazar’s wife Sascha, who despite her Holland upbringing, spoke, to my ear, perfect Swedish. Though it was clear that the situation regarding his tenure weighed heavy on his mind, Rabbi Lazar still managed to steer our conversations in many directions. Together we chatted about the rabbi’s five daughters, Jewish life in South Africa, and I took a few stabs at my silly stereotypes.
“I thought your congregants would be taller. Are most of the Jews in Sweden of Swedish descent?”
My new friends around the table let out a slight giggle. Then a few chimed in that mixed marriages were common in Stockholm, as were conversions, and that many of the Jews in Sweden have first and second generation relatives from continental Europe, such as Germany and Poland. We agreed it would take a few generations to get the Jewish height average up to national Swedish averages.
After our meal one of my fellow diners helped me navigate my way to my hostel. He talked about his young daughter and his wife, a non-Jew who had a relative who had helped save his grandparents from concentration camps via the famous “White Buses” that brought Jews to Sweden under the protection of the Swedish Red Cross. Just as we were saying our goodbyes he asked, “So can I set you up with one of my friends?”
“Sure,” I said. “I mean, I leave on Sunday but I guess I don’t have any plans for tomorrow night.”
And so it was arranged. I had a date for Saturday night. With a Swedish Jew.
The next morning I went to one of Stockholm’s two Orthodox synagogues, Adat Jeshuran. Prior to my trip I had read that its interior furniture was once part of a synagogue in Hamburg, Germany. Being small and slightly outside of Hamburg’s city center, it had actually survived Kristallacht, the night in November 1938 when Nazis attacked synagogues all over Germany. Those with the foresight of what was to come for German Jews had disassembled the synagogue’s wooden pews and through their Swedish connections, managed to transport them into Sweden under the guise that the shipment was mere wood.
I stood in the cold rain outside Adat Jeshuran’s gate, this time unsure if I was in the right place. An older woman with a pale lime green rain coat and matching rain hat approached and in perfect English assured me it was indeed the synagogue. We entered together, accidentally allowing me to dodge any security questions. The synagogue is actually housed on the second floor of a school. And so together we climbed a floor or two of steps, walked into the humble sanctuary and settled into the Holocaust surviving pews.
During the course of the service this woman and I shared whispered exchanges. I told her that I was living in Hungary and from her I learned that though she is part American and part Swedish she had lived in Israel for many years. In my attempts to gather more information about Stockholm’s Jewish community I asked her if anti-Semitism was a problem.
“Well if what I hear about anti-Semitism in Hungry is true, we don’t have a problem.”
There have, however, been more instances of anti-Semitism in Sweden’s third largest city, Malmö (pronounced by Swedes as meh-mou) causing much of its Jewish population to head north-east to Stockholm.
Giving the sermon in perfect English was a candidate for the community's rabbi. From him I learned that the synagogue was expanding and would have a place of its own, not just on the second floor of a school. I thought of them packing up the German pew I sat on and relocating it yet again. The rabbinical candidate, the synagogue’s third in its quest for a new rabbi, was an American who had worked in Poland and is married to a Norwegian.
“So this candidate is from America,” I whispered to my older lady friend, “and last night’s rabbi was born in America. So there’s no rabbinical school here? You have to import your rabbis?”
She smiled and confirmed. No rabbinical school now nor likely in the future. As we filed out after the service I thought I was dreaming. Two women were speaking in Hungarian. I initiated what I could in their language before switching over to English. Walking with them was a young man dressed head to toe in his toughest rain gear. I wanted to laugh but then realized, it was Shabbat; he couldn’t carry an umbrella. And then in an Austin Powers-esque accent he asked me:
“Would you like to join us for lunch?”
I accepted, excited for a new opportunity to mingle with my Swedish people. Over yet another delicious Sabbath meal in Sweden (no, there were no meatballs) I learned more about the Hungarian women that I had met at synagogue. One came to Stockholm for a PhD program and the other left with Hungary’s recent change of government. My gracious hosts Mikael and his wife Lisa were the second interfaith couple I had met in my less than 24 hours in Stockholm. I wouldn’t have thought anything of it until Mikael suggested I meet his brother while I was in town. Being that I was already booked, I politely declined. Perhaps in Stockholm, nice Jewish girls, like a good rabbi, must be imported.
Molly Gellert is a Jewish World columnist based in Budapest, Hungary. She earned her BA in Politics from Occidental College and MA in Government with a specialization in Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution from the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. Previously, Molly served as a research assistant for the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism and as an intelligence analyst for the New Jersey Regional Operations Intelligence Center.
Contact Molly at [email protected]