Meet Aaron, a young Jew and lifelong resident of Reykjavik, Iceland. His mother Nora, was one of the most active members of the Icelandic Jewish community in the ‘90s. She organized events for Jewish families and tried to teach others. . . Tragically, she passed away at an early age, leaving two young sons. Aside from the occasional box of matzah, and the printed scroll his brother used in lieu of a real Torah at his bar mitzvah, Aaron did not get much Jewish exposure.
Who were these guys? What did they want?
It's Thursday morning, Aaron is doing some work, and he receives a phone call:
"Hi, my name is Berel. I'm a student rabbi visiting Iceland in honor ofPassover. I would love to be able to get together and if at all possible, to bring you some shmurah matzah…"
Who were these guys? What did they want? His curiosity piqued, Aaron agrees to meet them at a local cafe.
Meet Berel and Aaron, two rabbinical students taking part in the Merkos Shlichut Passover program. They’ve traveled halfway across the world armed with matzahs, Haggadahs, tefillin and a lot of love.
They meet Aaron at the cafe, and the three of them begin to talk. They talk of this and that, of Jewish life in Iceland, and of the Jewish soul found in every Jew and bound eternally to the Creator.
Then Berel takes out the box of matzah and a big smile appears on Aaron's face. Naftoli brings out the tefillin. Aaron's never seen tefillin before and has no clue what they are.
After some explanation, Naftoli assists Aaron in putting on the tefillin and saying the Shema prayer. He shares some insight about this uniquemitzvah. Two non-Jewish Icelandic's approach and start snapping pictures. They ask Aaron what exactly is he doing, and he replies, "This is not my typical Thursday, I don't know what this is and I can't even see it on my head, but it is something a Jew does and I feel good doing it".
AaronIt is something a Jew does and I feel good doing it tells Berel and Naftoli that he hasn't attended a Seder since he was a young child, and feels sorry that he will be in Copenhagen on the Seder night. After his meeting with these two rabbis, the idea of the Seder they will be hosting in central Reykjavik suddenly seems highly appealing.
But nothing is lost!
"Hey,” they say, “We can put you in touch with Rabbi Yitzi Lowenthal and you can go to a Seder in Denmark!"
And what of Aaron’s brother? What are his Seder plans?
"My brother is out in rural New Mexico,” he explains. “I bet there is noChabad there…"
A quick search on Chabad.org and they discover that sure enough there is a full time Chabad House with a Seder in this town with a population of just over 5,000!
Whereas two parties had entered the cafe, now as they left, they were one. Three Jews, bound by their heritage and the Jewish moment they shared.
Iceland has no synagogue, no
rabbis, no Jewish community center or organized structure. In fact, Judaism is
not even one of Iceland’s state-recognized religions.
Still, Iceland has about 100
Jews who call this North Atlantic island home. And last year, roughly 50 of
them gathered in a hall downtown on Erev Rosh Hashanah for services — a
proportion of prayer attendance that rabbis in many other countries would give
their left arms to achieve.
This coming Jewish New Year,
traditional Ashkenazi food will be served once again. And once again, if they
are lucky, attendees that night may see the aurora borealis, in all its green
glory, dance across the sky, as they did on Erev Rosh Hashanah 5773.
A rabbi will also be on hand,
something relatively new for Iceland. Though he remains based in the United
States, Rabbi Berel Pewzner of Chabad, the Brooklyn-based Hasidic group, visits
regularly and is into the third year of his tenure here.The
aurora borealis lights up Iceland’s sky on Rosh Hashanah.
It was in 2011 that Pewzner
came to Iceland to help develop the small Jewish community. He presided that
year over the first kosher Passover Seder ever held in Iceland, and more than
50 people attended that event, too. The rabbi decided to return for Yom Kippur
and came back again in 2012.
“I’ve always been fascinated
with Jewish life in remote and unique locations around the globe,” Pewzner told
the Forward. “I have traveled to quite a number of countries, with the purpose
of connecting with the Jewish communities living there…. So when I came across
Iceland, a country that seemed to have few Jews, but a vibrant model of modern
Jewish community, I was intrigued.”
Jews are relatively new to
Iceland. The first observant Jew settled in Iceland in 1906, according to
records. Fritz Heymann Nathan started one of Iceland’s most successful
businesses at the time, Nathan & Olsen, a food distributor, after arriving
from Denmark. He stayed for 11 years before returning there.
It wasn’t until 1940 that the
first Jewish congregation was established on Iceland’s soil, when Jewish
soldiers from Britain were stationed there. The arrival of American forces in
1941 brought more Jews to the country, with roughly 2,000 Jewish soldiers based
in Iceland by the end of World War II.
Jewish numbers fluctuated over
the decades until the United States Army left Iceland in 2006.
Prior to that, Iceland’s
government had a troubled history with Jews. In the 1930s, when Jews were
trying to flee Germany, and Iceland was still affiliated with Denmark — though
formally sovereign — the government refused to open its doors, following
Denmark’s lead. Furthermore, most of the small number of Jews who were already
on its shores were deported.
Today, Iceland’s Jewish
community comes from around the world. There are no native Icelandic Jews to
speak of. The Jews who reside in Iceland came, at least initially, to study, to
work or because of marriage to an Icelander.
So, what’s it like to live in
Iceland as a Jew today? Most of the Jews who reside in Iceland come from
secular backgrounds, and the community’s identity does not lie in religion.
Indeed, most of the Jews here today are in interfaith marriages. Many in the
community, however, are interested in retaining a connection to their Jewish
“Overall my experience living
here as a foreigner has been great,” Jovana Alkalaj said. “Being from Serbia
and being Jewish, both somewhat controversial, have never been an issue for
anyone I have met [in Iceland].”
But Alkalaj’s connection to the
community is a cultural one.
“Jews in Serbia have been
through a lot, including my late grandparents, and I do identify with them and
what they went through,” she said. “I am a member of the Jewish community in
Serbia, as well, and have taken a year’s worth of Hebrew classes. Being Jewish
is more of a personal statement in honor of my family and what they went
through, and a sign of identification with other people whose families suffered
the same way.”
Alkalaj, who moved to Iceland
in 2010, is married to an Icelander.
Roughly 80% of Iceland’s
residents are members of the Lutheran Church, which is state funded, as are
several smaller religious communities that have chosen to register with the
government. So far, the Jewish community has chosen not to do so.
One woman who came to Iceland
from America to live with her Icelandic husband, said such demographics take
their toll. She and her husband have one child, who has been baptized.
“There have been some
sacrifices on my part, but that is something that I had to accept when I moved
to Iceland,” said the woman, who spoke only on condition of anonymity to retain
her privacy. “In many ways I did lose my Jewish identity. But it was a choice.”
Others in the community do
practice their Judaism, though not in a traditional sense, to keep tradition
Julian Burgos, a marine
biologist who grew up in Ecuador, considers himself a secular humanistic Jew.
“But I do practice,” said Burgos, who has lived here for four years with his
wife, a nonpracticing Catholic. “At home we celebrate the Sabbath and the
holidays, albeit from a humanistic, nontheistic point of view…. The Jewish
people have always also included theapikorsim, those who do not accept
the dominant rabbinic religion, and I guess I am one of those.”
Like other community members,
Burgos says he has never experienced anti-Semitism in Iceland. Israel, and the
politics that come with it, however, is a very different issue. Politically,
many Icelanders are quick to criticize the Israeli government, and Iceland’s
previous government came out strongly against Israel at times.
“Many Icelanders are very upset
with Israel because of the occupation of the Palestinians,” Burgos said.
“Sadly, in some cases people cannot distinguish between the actions of the
Israeli government or the settlers, and they blame ‘the Jews’ in general.”
During the most recent conflict
in Gaza, in November 2012, Burgos said, some comments in the media and in the
social networks against Israel and the Jews “were virulent.”
Össur Skarphéðinsson who at
that time was minister of Foreign Affairs, criticized Israel’s military
incursion into Gaza, taken after rockets from Gaza landed on Israeli soil.
Skarphéðinsson called Israel’s response “tragic and unequal.” Ögmundur
Jónasson, then Iceland’s minister of the Interior, opined that Icelanders
should protest the attacks. And they did.
The protests took place in
front of the U.S. Embassy last year, with roughly 1,000 people attending.
When confronted with such
protests, Burgos himself feels conflicted. “Even though I am Jewish and I love
Israel, or perhaps because of it, I am also very upset with the situation in
the West Bank and Gaza, and the intransigence of the Israeli government,” he
said. “At the same time, you do not see people complaining, for example, about
the situation in Syria, so there is a particular focus on Israel.”
Iceland’s closest tie to
Israel, however, lies in a personal relationship. In 2003, Iceland’s president,
Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, married Israel-born Dorrit Moussaieff — bringing yet
one more Jew to Iceland and to an interfaith marriage with an Icelandic native.
While Moussaieff is secular and has lived in London since age 13, she was born
in Jerusalem’s old Bukharian Quarter and is the great-granddaughter of Shlomo
Moussaieff, one of the quarter’s well-known founders. Some in the community
have credited her with bringing positive publicity to Iceland’s Jewish
community, though she herself has never reached out to the community directly.
Still, the tie has not
necessarily helped burnish Israel’s image. During a private visit to the land
of her birth in 2006, the Icelandic first lady was taken out of line at
passport control and denied permission to leave the country after a three-day
stay because she did not have an Israeli passport. An immigration officer
refused to accept her British passport, noting that Israeli law requires all
citizens to arrive and leave the country using an Israeli passport only.
According to the Israeli daily
Yediot Aharonot, the president’s wife was allowed to leave only after an
hour-and-a-half, culminating in a shouting match between Moussaieff and the
female border patrol officer.
“This is about to become a
serious diplomatic incident,” Moussaieff reportedly said. “This is why everyone
In an interview afterward with
Iceland’s national broadcasting authority, Moussaieff did not deny the comment.
“I lost my temper,” she said. “I couldn’t say anything else…. At that point,
[the immigration officer] didn’t know that I was married to Ólafur. And I said
something like: ‘How can you do this to the first lady of another country? I’m
not your possession.’”
The immigration officer’s
response, according to Moussaieff, was: “I couldn’t care less who you are. I’ve
never heard of Iceland, and the people there don’t interest me at all.”
Sunrise over Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa. Photo by Michelle Vink
Iceland is a small place that is big on surprises.
Scandinavian in its roots, the society has a reputation as being a homogenous, quaint and relatively uneventful place — Björk and her infamous swan dress aside. In the last several years, however, an influx of tourists, expatriates and an arts scene makes it more international — and Jewish — than ever.
It’s all relative, of course. There are only 50 to 100 Jews estimated to live in the small island country of 320,000, located northwest of the United Kingdom at the edge of the Arctic Circle. It remains best known for being home to glaciers, geysers, geothermal pools, volcanoes and a name meant to scare people away.
Still, there are small signs of a Judaic past and present. In the capital city of Reykjavik, just visit Kolaportið, the weekly Saturday and Sunday flea market by the town harbor. The former warehouse features a fresh fish market as well as a neatly organized collection of stalls stocked with vintage clothing, hand-knit sweaters and accessories, nicely crafted costume jewelry and antiques and, on at least one occasion, a menorah. The dealer explained that it was a remnant from the American military presence during World War II.
While a small number of Israelis traveled to Iceland to work in the fishing industry a couple of decades back, newer Jewish arrivals from the United States, Canada, Australia, Israel and Europe are slowly but steadily growing the community. Most prominently, these include the country’s first lady, Dorrit Moussaieff, who was born in Jerusalem, and avant-garde Australian fashion designer Sruli Recht.
Mike Levin, a longtime resident and native Chicagoan whose career and desire for a life tied to nature led him to Iceland, is the president of Iceland’s Jewish community, which has Jews from various denominations and nationalities. He has worked tirelessly to organize events to give his children and other families a Jewish experience.
More recently, Chabad Rabbi Berel Pewzner first came to Reykjavik in 2011 to organize a Passover seder, High Holy Days services and the first minyan in Iceland since World War II. This year, he said, there were two seders attended by more than 70 people.
“I live in New York City and visit Iceland as often as the budget allows,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I do hold biweekly Torah lessons via Skype for members of the community in Iceland. There are small monthly meetings in which community members just gather and share some good times.”
Pewzner said his ultimate goal is to establish a synagogue and Jewish communal center in Iceland that would serve the locals and Jewish tourists.
Most Jewish residents ended up on the island as a result of marriage to native Icelanders or a career move. (Only a very small number of third-generation Icelandic Jews exist.)
Pewzner does not shy away from the fact that a Jewish life in Iceland can be challenging. For example, he noted that starting Shabbat services can be difficult during summer and winter solstice times, based on when the sun goes down near the top of the world. While keeping kosher is difficult, it is not impossible, as imported foods from the United States and United Kingdom can be found in local supermarkets, and Icelandic smoked salmon (complete with OU certification) abounds, as do root vegetables grown in the country’s rich volcanic soils.
While street art and music festivals are infusing energy and edge into the serene gingerbread-style Nordic architecture lining Reykjavik’s streets these days, several Jewish residents are making their mark in the expanding arts scene, too.
Among them is Glenn Barkan, a New York-bred graphic artist and former L.A. resident who owns Café Babalu. Below the restaurant, he oversees an art gallery that includes the jewelry of Israel-born Sigal Har-Meshi, which integrates Israeli jewelry-making techniques and symbols (hamsas, Magen Davids) with materials unique to Iceland, such as polished lava beads. Barkan, who lived in the Los Angeles area between 1999 and 2004, moved to Iceland to be with his partner, Thor.
“My experience as a non-Icelandic man, a Jewish man and American has only been positive,” he said. “If anything, there is a lot of curiosity about Jewish culture. When I got married and my family came in for the wedding at the time of the High Holidays, I was working my first job at a local kindergarten. My mom, a retired kindergarten teacher, visited me at work and talked with the kids about what it meant to be Jewish. The kids and their parents were genuinely interested and asked a lot of questions.”
Cafe Babalú in Reykjavik is owned by musician and former L.A. resident Glenn Barkan. Photo by Michelle Vink
Café Babalu, whose customers have included Björk and members of the internationally popular Icelandic pop band Sigur Rós, has played host to Sunday brunches and Chanukah parties where Barkan introduced foods and traditions from his childhood — matzah ball soup, dreidel, chocolate coins and latkes — to his non-Jewish friends. (Oh, and there’s his popular New York cheesecake, too.)
As for Har-Meshi, the cook-turned-jewelry designer first came to Iceland in 1986. While she and her Icelandic husband went on to live in Israel for 11 years, she feels that since her return to Iceland eight years ago, she has come into her own as an artist while the Jewish community is coming together, thanks in part to Pewzner’s efforts.
“I really like what Rabbi Pewzner is doing,” she said. “Although there has been a Jewish community for about 25 years where people gathered to celebrate holidays even without a synagogue, he came at the right time. This [reorganization of the community] taught us new things, especially as many Israelis are secular. Even at my age, I like learning something new. I think it would be nice if it evolved into something like Chabad.”
Three and a half hours north of Reykjavik, Andrea and Jacob Kasper, originally from Israel and Boston respectively, embraced the simple lifestyle of Skagaströnd, home to about 530 people, with a thriving fishing industry, superb hiking and an unusual bar — Kantry — that is a shrine to American country music. The Jewish couple moved to Iceland in 2008 so Jacob could complete a master’s degree program in coastal and marine management.
While in north Iceland — they recently moved to the United States — the Kaspers were the only Jewish family in their town. Still, they said they found their neighbors to be interested and supportive. Attending events and services, though, meant that they had to make several trips a year into Reykjavik to connect with other Jewish families.
But that wasn’t so bad either, said Andrea Kasper, an educator.
“We have forged some very special friendships because of the coalescing of the community. When Jacob went to sea for a couple of weeks to do research, my children and I spent time with another family we had met two weeks before during Rosh Hashanah at one of the rabbi’s services.” A version of this article appeared in print.