A kosher visit to one of the most beautiful places on earth

Iceland remains a breathtaking land of volcanoes, hot springs, geysers, craters, glacial lakes and glaciers.

iceland 311 (photo credit: MARION REISS)
iceland 311
(photo credit: MARION REISS)
Before we began our trip to Iceland, we were told that there were no Jews living there, except for the president’s wife, who was Israeli.
This point was brought to the fore by our delightful Icelandic guide, Hulda, who laughingly explained to us early on that though President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson was really “one of the guys” and could be found on any given day in a hot tub in the popular spots in the capital, Reykjavik, chatting with whoever happened to be there, this was not “true of his wife [Dorit Moussaieff], who never accompanies him there – she is Israeli, you know.”
This did not detract from the overall charm and clear tolerance for all people that we found in the Icelanders we met daily on our 10-day AACI tour in June.
Indeed, we were told that Iceland has a democratic constitution, with freedom of worship for all people, although the official state religion has been Lutheran since the 16th century.
This was predated by the 11th-century resident Vikings’ acceptance of Christianity in a compromise edict enacted by the Althing – incidentally the first formal parliament in Europe, formed in 960 CE. This compromise allowed private worship of the pagan deity Thor, but forbade privately or publicly eating horse meat – a pagan custom – from then on. Our guide showed us the waterfall, Guttfuss, where it is believed the Vikings threw over their idols after this edict. She also explained that unlike the rest of Europe, priests in Iceland married and conducted conjugal lives.
Created from the sea by a volcanic eruption some 4,000 years ago, Iceland remains a land of volcanoes, hot springs, geysers, craters, glacial lakes and glaciers, all of which we traversed, traveling on the coastal road throughout the island since there is very little access in the center.
From the major cities of Reykjavik and Akureyri, we drove past tiny villages and farms nestled under the huge volcanic cliffs, punctuated every so often by spectacular waterfalls so plentiful that, except for the major ones of Gullfuss, Guttfuss and Dettifuss, we did not learn their names.
When at one point we took a new and unguarded road through a mountain, with a cliff on one side and a clear glacial pool on the other, it seemed like a scene from Journey to the Center of the Earth. This was primeval volcanic topography, and with the clear, cold air above and the hot lava seething below, it seemed to us as close to the core of the earth as we could come on this planet.
We were told that after the volcanic eruption of 1993, a new island was formed off the southern coast. Access to it is not available to the general public yet because it has become a scientific laboratory site for observing the development of flora and fauna as a possible clue to the development of the major island – i.e., Iceland itself.
In the North, we boarded a whaling vessel and experienced the North Atlantic, to the surprised seasick reactions of some of the members of our group. I was among the most vulnerable and so did not leave my bench on the starboard side while the loudspeaker repeatedly called out the sightings at 10 o’clock, one o’clock, etc.
Imagine my surprise, while everyone else was rushing about at 11 o’clock, to find a huge whale surface right in front of me at three o’clock. Unfortunately I had given my camera to my granddaughter, who had to rush back across the deck but managed to get a shot of the diving tail.
The Eastern coast gave us another view entirely of Iceland, with one after another of spectacular fjords, sparkling sea, and ice-covered mountains in the distance.
Fishing was the main occupation in the fjords, but the isolated life, especially during the three almost totally dark winter months, has resulted in a diminishing population.
Our guide explained to us that of the current population of 300,000, the great majority lives in the large cities, particularly the capital.
Traveling on the southern coast, we were again treated to spectacular vistas of stone outcroppings and lava formations. The only sea port here in centuries past was Vik, which had the only natural harbor.
One of the Viking sagas tells how one Viking carved his name on two barrels and threw them overboard. When they landed near Vik, he established his homestead there. This occurred also in Reykjavik and other early habitations.
The Icelandic Folk Museum is located on this coast, and in addition to many lovely homesteading artifacts from the 18th century onward, as well as whaling exhibits, we found a huge tapestry depicting the saga of Gunner and his wife Hallgerd.
Attired in full Viking regalia, Hallgerd is portrayed with thick blonde hair covering the length of her body.
JUNE IS the beginning of summer in Iceland, and we were there for the solstice on June 21, the longest day of the year. We had quickly become accustomed to the lack of “night” as we knew it in the lower latitudes, and sun-blocking curtains or eye-pads made sleep hours close to normal.
However, it was disconcerting one night to find the sun streaming in at 2 a.m. I awakened on the 21st at about 1 a.m. to notice a sort of muddy darkening outside. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them some minutes later, it was full daylight again.
There are certain advantages for those who like to keep touring into the night, but Shabbat posed a dilemma. When would it start, and when would we end it? After much research by our group, it was decided to bring in Shabbat at 10:30 p.m.
on Friday and to wait until Sunday morning, after the Shaharit morning prayers, to make Havdala.
Some of the more hardy actually stayed awake until the exact moment of night and made their own Havdala, but most of us fell asleep and were satisfied to wait until morning before breakfast.
Though this was a strictly kosher tour, kosher food is not readily available for purchase. However, on some of our rest stops we visited supermarkets, where we saw some packaged products with American or British kashrut seals of approval.
One side benefit of involving oneself in various kitchens is meeting people one would not ordinarily meet.
In Reykjavik, where many Lithuanian and Polish women have come to work, we met a young woman who related how her grandfather had saved Jews during the Holocaust and had received recognition by the Lithuanian government. On our return to Reykjavik 10 days later, she brought her mother, who remembered the incident, to meet the group.
Language barriers notwithstanding, we were able to make our appreciation felt.
One of the special pleasures of this trip was traveling with my 14-year-old granddaughter Dvora. Originally planned with the idea that she would increase her scientific knowledge, particularly in the areas of geology and geography, the trip turned out to be much more. Listening to all the nuances of Hulda’s explanations, she was able to clue in to the everyday culture of Iceland. She was impressed that education and healthcare are free in Iceland and that all energy is cheap because it is supplied by thermal plants using natural resources.
We visited the Hellsheidi Geothermal Power Plant near the capital, which is a hitech model for the entire world, and at the same time a startling contrast to the raw wilderness of the glaciers, the endless fields of lava and the beautiful, clear-water fjords of the East.
We were told that there were no poor or homeless people in Iceland because of the natural resources and governmental policies.
Dvora took all this in, as well as observing a wedding on an isolated farm in the highlands and learning that the bride and groom were in their late 30s, something common in the country. She was also impressed with the fact that there are 70 universities in Iceland, although some have as few as 30 students, since each university has a specific specialty. All students attend school until age 16, after which most go on to college.
While we were in Akureyri, we observed a graduation celebration for these 20-year-olds.
We were in Akureyri for Iceland Independence Day, June 17 – the day in 1944 that it received its independence from Denmark.
Part of the celebration consisted of busloads of graduates arriving from all over the country. We could observe all this from our hotel, and since it was daylight all night, the proceedings continued accordingly. Those of our group who walked to the center of town to observe the festivities related that the students and their families had done some kind of a circle dance.
Independence Day had another kind of celebration in Akureyri as well. For three days and nights, people came from all over the country, driving whatever car or vehicle they owned, to display it in its finest polish. The parade – also right outside our hotel – included, for all three days, the drivers revving up their motors to announce their arrival.
When I asked Dvora which geological formation was most memorable, she immediately replied, “The geyser, Strukkur,” which erupted every few minutes.
She also recalled happily dipping her fingers in the icy glacial pool emerging from among the lava rocks high above the Dettifuss waterfall.
The plentiful water was a constant source of amazement to this young Sabra, who had insisted on drinking down every last bit of water in her bottle at the airport, rather than wasting a single drop.
Walking through the Great Atlantic Rift in the Thingvellir National Park, she marveled at the rift that separated North America from Eurasia. At the Myvatn crater lake, Dvora donned her field glasses to find migrating birds, but she was equally fascinated by the lava rock formations and glacial pool, which enabled her to pick up enough snow to make a snowball.
For myself, I would have to say that climbing the Skaftafell glacier was the most challenging. From the time we were fitted for our crampons and handed our ice picks, it was clearly a test of individual stamina, despite the cheerful encouragement of our two young guides.
We had two immediate surprises: First, the glacier was black instead of white due to the nearby volcanic eruption two weeks before; and second, we discovered that glaciers are not smooth – they have rifts, crevasses, hills and valleys, which must be negotiated with the heavy and unfamiliar crampons.
I luckily had the encouragement and help of a lovely group member, Tabby, who refused to let me topple over on the ice, which I managed to do anyway while she wasn’t looking. Getting back to flat land, we all knew we had properly experienced Iceland.
Incidentally the volcano that had blackened the ice was considered a “friendly” volcano – i.e., one that does not do much damage – as opposed to the one that is expected to erupt any time soon after a century of quiet, and due to which the villages below hold monthly evacuation practice drills.
Driving back through the green meadows with the volcanic cliffs on one side and the sparking sea on the other, I could not help feel that this must be one of the most beautiful places on earth.