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Jewish Journal

Iceland’s inner warmth

by Elyse Glickman

June 19, 2013 | 4:51 pm

Sunrise over Iceland’s Blue Lagoon, a geothermal spa. Photo by Michelle Vink

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.”

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