Being Jewish in Oslo

Unity and perseverance best describe the small community of Jews in the Norwegian capital.

The inside of the Oslo Synagogue, erected in 1920, and is one of three buildings that defines the Jewish community in the city. (photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
The inside of the Oslo Synagogue, erected in 1920, and is one of three buildings that defines the Jewish community in the city.
(photo credit: BARRY DAVIS)
As Jewish communities go, Oslo is not quite in the premier league in purely numerical terms. Yet a recent visit to the community center, Orthodox synagogue and senior citizens’ complex in the Norwegian capital conveyed a pleasant sense of the coziness and unity there.
According to Michael Gritzman, a member of the Jewish community board, it made a certain amount of sense for Jews to gravitate to the Scandinavian country in the mid-19th century, even though it took some effort for that to happen.
“This year, we are commemorating 200 years of Europe’s most liberal constitution,” notes Gritzman, who hails from Copenhagen and has been living in Oslo for over two decades. “The only thing that wasn’t liberal about it was that Jews were not allowed into the country.”
Jesuits were also banned from entering Norway.
Jews were finally allowed to settle in Norway almost half a century on, largely thanks to the sterling efforts of Norwegian poet and social campaigner Henrik Wergeland, with the parliament lifting the ban against Jews in 1851. Sadly, Wergeland died six years earlier and, as the ban was still in place at the time, some wheeling and dealing was needed to enable Jews to attend their benefactor’s funeral.
“The English Jews wanted to put up a memorial for him, but that is difficult when you’re not allowed into the country,” laughs Gritzman. “So they negotiated to be allowed to arrive in the morning, be at the funeral and leave by the evening, as they were not allowed to sleep in Norway.”
It wasn’t until 1892 that enough Jews had settled in Oslo to form a synagogue there. The community grew slowly until World War II, and bolstered by the arrival of refugees from Nazi Germany in the late 1930s as well as Danish and Swedish Jews looking to do business there, it peaked at about 2,100.
During the Nazi occupation of Norway, nearly all Jews were either deported to death camps or fled to Sweden and beyond. The Jews fleeing to Sweden were mostly helped by non-Jewish Norwegians, although a number of border guards had to have their palms liberally greased before allowing the Jews to cross to safety.
The Oslo synagogue, which hosted then-president Shimon Peres in May, was built in 1920 and has a charmingly unfettered exterior, the main feature of which is a circular tower topped by a Star of David. “I understand that the architect took the design from the synagogue in Darmstadt, Germany,” says Gritzman, adding that the Oslo edifice became a memento of the source design since the Darmstadt synagogue was destroyed in the Holocaust.
The synagogue is nestled between the Jewish senior citizens’ home and the community building. The latter was built in 1960 and renovated around 10 years ago; part of this work was funded by compensation paid by the Norwegian government for Jewish property seized during World War II.
“Norway was the first country to make a deal over restitution for Jewish property in Europe,” Gritzman notes. “I think it is very important to emphasize that the money came from restitution. People say you got all this money from the government, but they stole it in the first place, and they gave some of it back.” Some of the compensation also went to funding a Holocaust research center in Oslo.
The interior of the synagogue is a more splendorous affair. Interestingly, the ark is located on a raised level, above the cantor’s position, and the ornamentation on the ceiling and walls takes in an eclectic range of styles and historical cultural sources. “Although the outside is a copy of a German synagogue, I am sure that in Germany they did not have [interior] blue walls and Bar Kochba coins. I read that it was in the 1920s [when the synagogue was built] and it went back to the Oriental roots – so the design is German, but I have never seen these colors in an Ashkenazi synagogue.”
Our conversation is interrupted by the arrival of a man called Siggy, a former member of the much smaller Trondheim Jewish community who has been living in Oslo for over 20 years. Siggy has dropped by to do some handiwork. “We all contribute to the community,” Gritzman explains. “Community life in Israel is a little different; here it is based on people taking part.”
The community center also runs a Sunday school for children of various ages, and Gritzman says he is very much in favor of keeping the activities and education as open as possible. “I remember one of the kids asked me why God made the world, and I told him that is the best question I ever heard. I said I was sorry that I didn’t have an answer for him, but that he should keep on asking questions like that. Jewish education is about opening up the mind.”
The kindergarten caters for children from the age of 12 months, and runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Children in the next age group attend the heder, or Sunday school.
Gritzman says the latter is about imparting to the children a greater sense of their Jewishness, and laying the foundation for later life.
“You don’t become a professor of Judaism or Zionism from studies one class a week. But you create a group and they learn to read Hebrew, and they learn about Israel and the Jewish holidays. The heder is for schoolchildren of all ages, from first to 12th grade.”
The upper range of the heder age group, says Gritzman, is an important factor in trying to keep the younger generation on board. “You know, if you only educate children up to bar mitzva, they can lose interest after that. We started a wonderful program here two or three years ago called Footprints. The kids take on a project for a year, where they meet every three weeks or so and prepare to go on a [roots] trip to one of three countries – Poland, Israel or Spain.”
It is very much a hands-on experience for the 15- to 17-year-olds. “We don’t just bring in a lecturer to talk to the children about the topic. The students prepare themselves very thoroughly on the subject matter, and they are their own guides. They decide on their own route.”
Gritzman says the Footprints program, which includes some 60 to 70 youngsters, follows the all-important proactive mind-set. “This is the new way of thinking, instead of just saying all kids should go to Israel and then they bring some guy to lecture to the kids, and no one remembers anything they’ve heard.”
Israel is very much at the forefront of the Oslo community’s agenda. “We define ourselves as a Zionist community, which these days is very important, and we encourage them [youngsters], as much as we can, to participate in programs in Israel.”
That brings up the subject of the cultural- national identity of young Jews in Norway. Do they feel Jewish as well as Norwegian? “I believe so,” says Gritzman.
“When Shimon Peres was here, he came to the synagogue for an hour. His people wanted him to be here two minutes, and we wanted him to be here five hours. We insisted that the main part of the program be that he talk to our youth in the synagogue. The youth presented themselves to Peres, and he was charmed. He relates to young people so fantastically.”
Peres certainly got the picture.
“They said to him that they have a Jewish identity, but no one knows if they will go on aliya,” Gritzman continues.
“We cannot educate people to go on aliya; we can educate them to be Zionists and to take a good decision. Some will go to Israel and some won’t, but it is very important to define the framework of what it is to be Jewish and to be Zionist.”
Zionist aspirations or not, at the end of the day the members of the Oslo community are members of Norwegian society, and have to deal with all sorts of aspects of life there – including some of the less savory ones, such as anti-Semitism.
“We put a lot of pressure on the government a few years ago to carry out research on anti-Semitism, and there were quite a few shocking findings,” says Gritzman.
Yet he notes there are worse places in the world for Jews. “But you can’t compare the situation here to, for example, Paris or London. I think there is a lot less [anti-Semitism] here. On the other hand, you can’t say the problem doesn’t exist.”
Gritzman intimates that young Jews don’t display their religious affiliation to all and sundry. “Very few wear a kippa. I do, and I have had very few anti- Semitic reactions over the 20 years I have been living here.”
Does Gritzman feel anti-Semitism is on the rise? “The demographics in Europe are changing, and there is a very big Muslim minority in Europe now.
But I believe that most Muslims, like most Jews, are decent people. I don’t like tagging groups.”
Despite the community’s efforts to keep its younger members in the fold, Gritzman says assimilation is a serious problem, but “the way to tackle that is not to tell people they should be religious, or this or that. You cannot say that to young people. But you can say to them that they should be part of the community, of Jewish life.”
Again, this is not a matter of dictates, rather showing the youngsters some aspects of what it means to be Jewish, and inviting them to share some kind of Jewish ambiance from time to time.
“Here, at the community center, of course we give them kosher food, but we know that 90 percent eat what they eat at home,” Gritzman says. “Most don’t keep a kosher home.”
“We define ourselves as a liberal Orthodox community. That means we keep a framework here, but there are atheists and right-wing and left-wing, and we try to find a common denominator. But if you don’t tell the next generation about Judaism, you can’t expect them to even be excited about gefilte fish.”
The idea, says Gritzman, is to keep the youngsters within reach. “Everyone is different. If you create positive, engaged, thinking, creative, careful, interested Jewish young people, I think that’s the future. But if you just follow the idea that this is what the rebbe says, and we should all do the same, that will lead nowhere. Small communities have to get people engaged, and to inspire one another – especially the younger generation.”
Benjamin Alexander Geelmuyden certainly seems inspired, challenges notwithstanding. We came across the 12 year old outside the synagogue, en route to a pre-bar mitzva lesson. “It’s hard studying for my bar mitzva,” he declares, “harder than I thought.”
“The kids, like Benjamin, come to study for their bar mitzva after a full day at school,” says Gritzman. “And they have all kinds of other things to keep them busy.”
“I used to dance every day after school,” confirms the boy. “I did hip-hop and some ballet; I used to do around six hours of dance a day. I don’t anymore.”
Even so, it’s not that easy for Geelmuyden – whose parents are Canadian and Norwegian, and whose maternal grandmother hails from Iraq – but he is determined to put in the hours.
“It is very important for me to have my bar mitzva, and to be part of the Jewish community,” he continues. “There is not a lot of Jewish community in Norway.
I lived in Canada last year, in Vancouver, and the Jewish community is much bigger there. I went to a Jewish school and I learned Hebrew, but I forgot it all. That’s what happens if you don’t keep up with it.”
Geelmuyden was due to be called up to the Torah at the synagogue earlier this month, and read part of the weekly portion. This was to be followed by a party for family and friends. “I’ll give a kind of talk at the party,” he explains.
“It will probably be about the Jewish community in Norway.”
The youngster does not generally spend his days in a Jewish environment.
“There are only three Jews at my school – my older brother and I, and my mother works at the school.”
Geelmuyden says he has hardly ever encountered anti-Semitic behavior, although he doesn’t exactly advertise his religious leanings. “There was one kid who gave me a hard time, but he had [emotional] problems and he left the school. I would feel kind of scared wearing a kippa around where I live, which is outside Oslo. I come here, to the community center, especially for my bar mitzva lessons. In town there are some bad areas and my friends live there, so I don’t wear a kippa when I go to them.
“There are a lot of Muslims there who don’t like Jews. I have seen swastikas in a couple of places. I don’t know if that is from the Muslims, but it is not very nice to see that.”
Geelmuyden has yet to visit this country, but says he may come here on a Bnei Akiva program this winter. “I hope to meet you in Israel someday,” he says as we part.
Over 20 youngsters from the Oslo Jewish community did make it over here a few weeks ago, hostilities in the South notwithstanding. “There was a summer camp in Israel, and about 55 kids were supposed to go,” says Gritzman. “I think in the end about 20 went, in the middle of all the bombs.
“It is very hard for parents to send their children to Israel when there are rockets flying around, but they went. I think they should be congratulated for that.”