Bringing the history of Norway's Jews to light in the Land of the Midnight Sun
Here’s a question you’ve probably never asked yourself: When sundown occurs closer to the witching hour than rush hour, what do you do about Shabbat? No one wants to be lighting candles and sitting down to dinner at midnight, right? And what happens if the sun never goes down?
During summer in Norway, the sun can be visible for up to 24 hours a day, depending on how far north you go. One way some members of Norway’s Jewish community have solved this question is to simply begin Shabbat at the same time it begins in Jerusalem (a nod to the Ba’al Shem Tov’s observation that we are all always walking toward Jerusalem).
Granted, you may not associate Norway with Jewish life the way you would, say, chocolate with peanut butter, but there is most definitely a Jewish presence in the capital city of Oslo, as well as in the city of Trondheim, roughly 310 miles to the north. If you’re like many Jewish travelers, who feel that Judaic sightseeing helps them connect with the locales they visit, both cities have surprisingly satisfying Jewish landmarks to explore.
A Capital Idea
Any trip to this land of the midnight sun begins in Oslo, where Gardermoen International Airport welcomes flights from the United States (there are currently no nonstop flights from Philadelphia, although Star Alliance airlines offer numerous connections). The capital city of this nation of five million people is also home to the largest concentration of Jews in Norway, estimated to total somewhere north of 1,000, or more than two-thirds of the country’s Jewish population.
As visitors to the Jødisk Museum (Calmeyers gate 15 B; www.jodiskmuseumoslo.no) soon discover, there are a few very good reasons for that minuscule number. Jews weren’t even legally allowed to settle in Norway until 1851, when Eastern European immigrants began to trickle in. By the beginning of the 20th century, there were a little more than 2,100 Jews in Norway. For comparison, Stockholm’s Jewish population at the same time was triple that, at an estimated 6,500.
The museum, which is housed in an old shul, contains two exhibits: an exploration of Jewish customs and holidays; and personal histories of Norwegian Jews lost to the Holocaust — more than two-thirds of them were either murdered in concentration camps or fled to other countries, never to return.
It may seem strange at first that a Jewish museum would devote nearly half of its exhibition space to something as basic as Jewish holidays and traditions, but it turns out that Jews are not the Jødisk Museum’s — or, indeed, any of Norway’s Jewish destinations’ — target audience. That would be the rest of the country’s population, including schoolchildren, who are required to learn about Judaism as part of a curriculum that teaches tolerance and acceptance of other religions and cultures. (For a more in-depth look at what happened to the Jews and other minorities in Norway during World War II, be sure to check out HL Senteret/Center for Studies of Holocaust and Religious Minorities in Oslo, which is housed in the former residence of notorious collaborator Vidkun Quisling — and yes, that is where the word “quisling” came from.)
After bearing witness to the past, you can experience a bit of what Jewish life is like today by visiting the Oslo Synagogue, a lovely, two-storied stucco building on a steeply inclined residential street. In addition to functioning as the only synagogue in the city, the building houses a Jewish pre-school, day care, community activities and a tiny kosher grocery that stocks frozen kosher meats, challah and Israeli products. If you want to keep kosher in Norway, this is pretty much your only chance to do so: Shechita, the ritual slaughter that must be performed to make meat kosher, has been banned in Norway since 1929.
When you’re ready to discover more about Norwegian history, there is no better place to start than at the Viking Museum (Frederiks gate 2; www.khm.uio.no). The size, craftsmanship and sheer grandeur of these boats from the first millennium —which range in condition from bare bones to almost-seaworthy — is remarkable. The well-designed exhibition spaces have been gently curved to allow natural light to wash over the hulking ships, which could accommodate dozens of seamen. The museum also contains an impressive number of related artifacts, including cooking equipment, shoes, wagons and more, all recovered from the same burial mounds that preserved the ships so well over 900 years.
For something a little more recent and a lot more outdoorsy, take a long walk through Vigeland Park (Nobels gate 32; www.vigeland.museum.no/), the largest sculpture park in the world devoted to the works of a single artist. Between 1939 and 1949, the sculptor Gustav Vigeland created more than 200 works to be placed throughout the park, which is extremely popular with the outdoors-oriented denizens of the city. In fact, at the merest sign of temperate weather, Oslo’s streets and open spaces teem with life, nowhere more so than the neighborhood of Tjuvholmen. Built on a former complex of docks jutting out into the Oslofjord, the area is now home to numerous restaurants that keep their outdoor seating areas stocked with shearling throws to drape around customers intent on sitting outside. If you have the time, be sure to plan a dinner at Tjuvholmen Sjømagasin (Tjuvholmen Allé 14; www.sjomagasinet.no), a combination fish market/restaurant that melds molecular gastronomy with regional ingredients to create dishes like hake with white chocolate and a lemongrass-ginger beurre blanc, and a dessert of chocolate and hazelnut “dirt.” If you need to work up an appetite before your meal, spend some time at the stunning, Renzo Piano-designed Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art.
Norway’s other center of Jewish life is in Trondheim, the country’s third-largest city. Situated in an old train station painted Delft blue, is the Trondheim Synagogue, considered to be (depending on whom you talk to) anywhere from the northernmost to the fifth-northernmost synagogue in the world, and its jewel box of a museum (Arkitekt Christies gate 1 B; www.jodiskemuseum.no/). They serve both the region’s few hundred Jews and the citizens and tourists looking to learn more about the history of Norway’s Jews through exhibits like “From Shtetl to Township,” an unsparing look at the difficult lives of Jewish immigrants in Norway from the late 19th century to World War II. There is also a poignant tribute to the city’s Jews who lost their lives after being deported during the war. The city’s recognition of the loss of Jewish life during the Holocaust isn’t just confined within the walls of the museum; one of the most visited places in Trondheim is the statue of a girl named Cissi Klein, who was deported and murdered at age 13 in Auschwitz in 1943. To this day, schoolchildren lay flowers at the base of the statue every Oct. 6, the day the Nazis came to her school to take her away.
Trondheim, despite being over 1,000 years old, feels like a young town, thanks to the tens of thousands of college students who fill the town square, the bars, the shops and, occasionally, the classrooms. Another place you can find them — as well as a wide cross-section of the country’s population — is at Rockheim (Brattørkaia 14; www.rockheim.no/), a state-of-the-art museum dedicated to the history of Norwegian popular music. With six floors of interactive exhibits to choose from, it’s best to set aside a few hours to devote to exploring a beer bottle-filled re-creation of a 2000s-era death metal band’s no-nonsense rehearsal space, a virtual 1970s tour bus, getting virtual guitar lessons from local rockers and more. And you thought there wasn’t anything more to the country’s pop legacy than a-ha — shame on you.
If all of that rocking has built up an appetite, there are plenty of excellent options in town, including the charming Bakklandet Skydsstation café (Øvre Baklandet 33; www.skydsstation.no), a warren of homey decorated rooms in a circa 1791 building filled with diners enjoying rustic pates, soups and sandwiches; and a phenomenal farmers’ market just off of the town square that draws everyone from a chocolatier who fills his creations with everything from pine to moose, to pancake artisans, salmon smokers and cheese makers. But the one meal not to be missed in Trondheim, as in every other place you will visit in Norway, is breakfast. And the one restaurant breakfast you must — must — try is the buffet at the Rica Nedelven Hotel (Havnegata 1-3; www.rica-hotels.com/hotels/trondheim/rica-nidelven-hotel). Norwegians take their breakfast seriously — even a budget hotel’s offerings will include three types of herring, multiple varieties of yogurt and toppings, waffles and good, strong coffee. The Nedelven, which proudly trumpets its status as the seven-time winner of the country’s best breakfast, has a spread unlike anything you have ever seen for the day’s first meal. A dedicated juice chef makes multiple types of fresh-pressed juices, two baristas stand at the ready for any kind of request you throw at them and, in addition to the hallways and rooms filled with all manner of eggs, meats and fruits, there is a table dedicated to no fewer than six different kinds of smoked salmon. And that’s before you have even gotten to the bread table, an embarrassment of leavened and wasa riches.
At a Glacial Place
After immersing yourself in so much of the lesser-known aspects of Norway, there is only one thing to do: explore the country’s best-known landmarks, its fjords. Until you are standing at the bow of a ferry, cruising down the Sognefjord, riveted by the austere beauty of your setting, watching the frothy ballet of countless waterfalls pouring forth from the mountainous snowmelt above, you simply have no idea of the majestic beauty that radiates from these waterways. One way to experience the fjords is by taking advantage of a program called Norway in a Nutshell (www.norwaynutshell.com), which combines fjord trips with stops in hamlets like Flåm, which is situated on one of the Sognefjord’s arms. This tiny town has a few things that make it worth a visit, including the Aegir brewpub, named after the Norse god who was Odin’s favorite brewmaster. There are always at least five beers on tap that have been brewed on premises, including, if you’re lucky, Thor’s Hammer, a powerful barleywine that you’ll still be tasting the following morning.
Don’t sleep too late, though, or you’ll miss the Flåmsbana (www.visitflam.com/flam-railway/), a train ride that will take you through spectacular mountain vistas while traversing up an incredibly steep 55 percent grade on the way to the town of Myrdal — 865 meters above sea level. While the mountain scenery is indeed beautiful, nothing can prepare you for the hypnotizing power of the Kjosfossen, an enormous waterfall (with a 225-meter drop) that comes complete with Huldra, its own maid of the mists. Your photos of her may come out a bit dewy because of the spray from the falls, but then, aren’t all of the best memories?
Greg Salisbury recently visited Norway as the guest of Joseph Jacobs Advertising and Innovation Norway. This article originally appeared in Inside Magazine, a Jewish Exponent publication.