From Iceland — On The Frontier

On The Frontier

Published February 25, 2013

On The Frontier

Even by generous estimates, there are less than 100 Jews in Iceland. The community’s infrastructure is sparse, their celebrations un-elaborate. Their leader, although he disputes the title, is Mike Levin, a Chicago-born Jew transplanted here after meeting his Icelandic wife through a music instructor in Vienna. Mike embodies the community’s nearly pathological—he says practical—eschewal of publicity, and only after much coaxing did he agree to sit for an interview at Kaffitár in Reykjavík. As he later told me, “Sometimes you talk to reporters, there’s an article about you in the paper, and suddenly your barber is looking at you differently.”
Despite that, he has a dream.
Due to good fortune, Mike had what he considers a solid Jewish upbringing in Chicago. As a child, he attended Jewish summer camp, Hebrew school and Sunday school religiously. His synagogue had a Rabbi, a Board of Directors and a Hebrew Sisterhood. The other synagogue members noticed that, when Mike started attending services, everybody sang in the same key. As he puts it, a “bunch of old men moaning turned into a choir.”
One of the most striking memories from his childhood occurred after Mike joined the Boy Scouts of America at age nine. He remembers his father driving him all day from Chicago to Wisconsin for a Scout dinner, only to leave without ceremony when he discovered that ham was, indisputably, the only option. In Mike’s last experience of the Boy Scouts, his father “stuck to his guns”—a fact Mike remembers with pride.
Even outside of the Boy Scouts, Mike couldn’t refrain from living out his identity as a frontiersman. At age 11, he accepted a challenge and started paid work as a Jewish cantor. Music paved his way to the University of Illinois, and afterward his travels took him to Vienna, where an Icelandic music teacher introduced Mike to his future wife.
In Chicago, he had learned how to conduct services by participating in them; in Vienna, the same services seemed cloistered from him and remote. Attending service made him uneasy, so he simply stopped going. His interest continued to drift from his Jewish roots until he set foot on a particular Atlantic rock in 1986. Then, as now, Iceland had no synagogue, no Jewish community centre, and no publicly organized structure. It was a harsh contrast to note that Judaism was not even one of Iceland’s state-recognized religions.
As he began to reach out to Iceland’s scattered population of Jews, he came to understand that with regard to Judaism this country truly was, in his words, “the frontier.” There were no rabbis and Hebrew Sisterhoods, nor Hebrew schools for kids. If Iceland’s coarsely combined assortment of Jews wanted to get something done, they would have to do it themselves.
Confronting the void and an oceanic feeling, Mike decided to immerse himself in what resources were available—slender phone trees that mapped the Jews in Iceland; Iceland’s religious leaders, including the Lutheran Church’s bishop; and academics at the University of Iceland. Soon, it was Mike who was leading meetings at coffee shops and community gatherings for Jewish holidays.
But the strongest impetus for Mike’s involvement came from his kids, who are now ages 17 and 19. “I wanted my kids to know their heritage. I didn’t want them to grow up unaware, like so many people do, or just to hear about it from their friends,” he says.
As Mike sees it, even if many Icelanders are unreligious, Icelandic society remains permeated with religion. When neighbourhoods are designed, a Lutheran church is put into the area’s plan from the very beginning and without debate. In schools, religion classes focus on Christianity, with scant mention of Judaism, and Christian holidays dominate the calendar year.
Mike wasn’t interested in opting his children out of those classes and holidays, but he wanted Judaism to be more than a small satellite orbiting the Lutheran church, more than a single page of his children’s cultural memory. What he really wanted was something to weigh against other influences—to “counterbalance” Icelandic culture, as he says—and to show his children their heritage.
Which leads to Mike’s dream: a synagogue in Reykjavík.
“The experiences you remember as a kid, they have a lot to say,” Mike says. “That’s one of the most important reasons for me to participate—so that my kids can experience first-hand my own religion.”
It’s an ambitious dream, to say the least, for a community with less than 100 members. And it’s a dream that immediately begs several questions, the first of which is, where would you put it?
“The funny thing is, there’s a building here built by a Jew, and it would be the perfect place,” Mike says, referring to the Jacobsen building on Austurstræti, built in the early 20th century by the Jewish trading agent Fritz Heymann Nathan. “What I would love to do is get the second floor of that building, somewhere above the Laundromat Café,” a space currently occupied by a restaurant.
But if procured, a synagogue in a space like this—right in the heart of 101—brings other questions to mind. Namely, how does the Jewish community expect Iceland’s public to react to such a development?
One has only to think of the Islamic community’s struggle to build a mosque to gauge the recalcitrance with which foreign religious institutions are granted shape in Iceland. In 2000, the Muslim Association applied to build a mosque in Reykjavík. Only after more than a decade of waiting in silent bafflement has the Association received from the city the land it requested.
“There’s conflict between the two groups [Sunni and Shiite Muslims], which is supposed to be the reason there’s no mosque there. There are over 600 Muslims here, why no mosque? It seems very strange to me,” Mike says. The Muslims in the Muslim Association continue to worship, in a chapel on the third floor of an office building at Ármúli 38, which is safely outside of the city’s cultural core.
“The chapel today is not making a statement—nothing like the huge building they wanted placed downtown,” Mike says. Observing the Muslim Associations efforts, Mike says, he feels compelled to think, “What if this was me and I was looking for a place to make a synagogue?”
Mike concedes that the obstacles the Muslim Association faces are probably similar to what the Jewish community would face, but he notes that the Jewish community’s modest bank account would be completely unable to finance projects on the scale of the Muslim Association’s.
But what if, against all odds, the money was raised—perhaps by foreign Jewish organisations or untapped donors with generous pocketbooks? Beside finances, what opposition to a synagogue has the Jewish community run into, in concrete terms?
“The sad truth is we’ve never really applied for state recognition. There probably aren’t enough community members willing to go in and self-identify,” Mike says, referring to the 50 members of a religious organisation whose signatures are required on the application for state recognition and the attendant financial aid.
Mike believes that the Jewish community could win the designation with a delegation numbering far less, but even rallying a smaller group could be difficult.
“What I’ve been waiting for is a core of 15–20 people, or a grassroots group. I don’t want to do this by myself,” Mike says. And at this moment, the layers of self-abnegation drop from his guard. The contradictions he’s sprinkled in; the denials that he’s a community leader in any way, or has been since arriving to Iceland in 1986; the portrait he desperately wants to portray of himself as non-essential to the organisation of the Jewish community, even while constructing their Torah ark and running their services all these years—all of it evaporates in this moment, into the wind lashing the glass windows outside Kaffitár.
“I don’t want to do this by myself,” he says again—a man who has expended so much on the community’s behalf in the quarter century he’s been here.
But is that what it feels like? That the synagogue—a glass ceiling for the small community—can’t be breached because the nucleus of the community doesn’t extend beyond a single person?
“That’s how it’s felt for me. Well, for me and one other woman,” Mike says.
Sigal Har-Meshi, the community’s treasurer, tentatively agreed to meet with me at Café Babalú only because Mike, in the previous interview, had an opportunity to vet me against the legion of reporters he’s met with representing Iceland’s other publications—a legion for whom Mike is the token Jewish voice in articles, and to whom Mike, after frustrations with the simplifications of journalism, has decided to stop talking. Somehow in our meeting I pronounced the shibboleth, and he agreed to open Sigal’s node of the community phone tree to me.
Sigal was born in Israel and lived there until deciding, in the midst of extensive travel, to work a stint in an Icelandic fish factory with her sister. They both married Icelandic men, and since then, Sigal has raised three children at different lengths in both Iceland and Israel.
Silences often fell between us. Much of the time I felt that Sigal was not in my company at all, nor I in hers. Sometimes she only fixed me with the mild, half-focused gaze of a dreamer, and although she spoke of so much happiness—a year ago, in the same café, they held an informal Hanukkah celebration and were now preparing for another—there was in this look something witheringly sad and lost. And she was still afraid: afraid that some Icelander might recognise the Jewish symbols with which she imbues her jewellery, afraid of being photographed for this article, afraid of speaking openly about her culture with her children’s classmates and with her own Icelandic relatives.
“The synagogue? That’s Mike’s dream,” Sigal Har-Meshi says. “All I want is a Jewish funeral for myself,” she says, referencing the open-air ceremony which trades stones for flowers as tribute to the dead, and which, to date, has never been performed in Iceland.
The year 2011 was, by all accounts, a historic year for Jews in Iceland. In the spring, the Orthodox Jewish organisation Chabad made clear its interest in developing the Jewish community here, sending Rabbi Berel Pewzner as its emissary to preside over the first kosher Passover Seder ever held in Iceland.
More than 50 people showed up for the service. The rabbi decided to return for the High Holy Days in the fall. They were the first formal services with a rabbi and kosher Torah scroll held in the city since World War II, when U.S. soldiers observed the holidays, even as Iceland followed other European nations in suit, denying German Jews sanctuary in Iceland.
In 2012, the rabbi came back and again presided over services. He insists on enthusiasm:
“We are now going through a very exciting stage of community building, with monthly meetings and children’s programmes, and hopefully we will have a synagogue and a permanent Jewish community centre in the very near future,” he said in an email to the Grapevine.
And yet, it is telling that when Mike mentioned feeling alone in his struggle, along with one other person, that that person was not Rabbi Berel Pewzner. It is telling that, when rabbis in strict adherence to kosher principles and decorum in services set their sights on a small community, the former leader of those services is displaced. It is further telling that, of the hundred or so Jews in Iceland—from the Argentinean coral researchers to the Venezuelan videographers, from the president of the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association to the handful of Jewish musicians here, not a single one is, like the rabbi, an Orthodox Jew, though none strictly oppose him.
“When the rabbi came, it was interesting to see how the services were performed, to see more culture,” Sigal says. “But the truth is that the Jewish community in Iceland isn’t very religious.”
There’s no escaping the fact that most of the Jews in Iceland come from secular backgrounds, and while they may be interested in occasionally meeting foreigners with similar cultural backgrounds and having their kids discover their ethnic Jewish roots, the community’s identity may not, in the end, lie in religion. The decision of Jews in Iceland not to push for a synagogue may not be cowardice, but honesty.
The community found in Mike the leader it needed. Not someone who could carry out the services perfectly, or someone insistent on a kosher Torah as opposed to a paper one, but someone who takes symbolic constructions like the ark for that paper Torah into his own hands, someone who can be their broker when the rabbi shows up and tell him that instead of kosher meals for services, they’d rather partake in an informal potluck.
With a synagogue, a more rigid hierarchy would replace skeletal phone trees and the same services Mike now cherishes might become alienating once more, as they were for him in Vienna. With a synagogue comes the question of who would lead those services, for it is a task for which Mike is not qualified, in the strictest sense. Indeed, when faced with the choice of presiding over a formal service like a Jewish wedding, Mike’s anxiety about his floating position has led him to decline the honour.
But still, though he’s served his community plenty, served it perhaps as much as it wants him to, there remains his unquenched ambition and his dream. There remains the impulse of the frontiersman to clear a path and break new ground.
Looking at the new generation of Jews in Iceland, and especially his own children, who were his most cherished reason for becoming involved in the first place, he can’t help but feel like the seeds he’s tried so hard to plant have either fallen on rocky soil, or weren’t the seeds he thought he’d planted all along.
“Why is there a synagogue in Oslo? Why are there synagogues in Copenhagen? There should’ve been one a long time ago, but there’s something that’s working against it,” he says.
Within days of our interview, Mike decided that my own study of the Jewish community was counter to its aims. In a zealous push, convinced that any press was bad press in a state where Jews are often misunderstood, he refused to let us take his photo. After much coaxing, he finally agreed to it an hour before print, but said he had a bad feeling about it.
In the summer, Mike will return with other community members to tend a plot of trees and new seedlings in Hei•mörk forest. They’ll pour mulch and clean a picnic table that is publicly used.
“Our plot doesn’t have the biggest trees,” he said to me. “But some of them were planted before I came here, over 25 years ago.”

The First Jews
1625 – The first documented Jew arrives in Iceland. Daniel Salomon, originally Polish, resided in Denmark and converted to Christianity before arriving in Iceland.
1815 – The first Jewish ship arrives in Iceland. The Ulricha belonged to Ruben Moses Henriques, a Danish merchant of hats, fabrics and paper.
1850 – The Danish Crown enacts a law giving foreign Jews the right to settle land in Denmark.
1853 – The Danish Crown requests that Iceland allow Jews to settle there. Al•ingi rejects this request in a decision that it would be overturned two years later. No documentation from the period exists of Jews choosing to settle in Iceland, however.
1874 – The first practicing Jew is recorded in Iceland. Max Nordau, physician and journalist, arrives from Hungary to provide an account of the country’s celebration of its millennium anniversary.
1906 – The first practicing Jew settles in Iceland. Fritz Heymann Nathan establishes one of the period’s most successful businesses, Nathan & Olsen, after arriving from Copenhagen.
1917 – After 11 years in which he married and saw the completion of the first five-story building in Reykjavik, Nathan leaves Iceland to return to Copenhagen. The complete lack of Jewish culture informs his idea that a Jewish life cannot be conducted here.
Era of WWII
1933 – A Nazi party is founded in Iceland. One year later, it forms official ties with Germany’s National Socialist Party.
1937 – Icelandic Prime Minister Hermann Jónasson discusses a Jewish family facing the threat of expulsion with the Danish legation. In a diary entry that mirrors the sentiment of many Icelanders at the time, he wrote, “Iceland has always been a pure Nordic country, free of Jews.”
1938 – Iceland follows Denmark in closing its doors to Austrian Jews. Several Jews are expelled from Iceland as Icelanders’ attitudes grow increasingly hostile toward Jews settled here.
1939 – The Aid Association of German Jews concludes that refuge in Iceland from Nazi Germany is impossible.
1940 – The first Jewish congregation is established in Iceland. Jewish soldiers among the British forces practice the first non-Christian religious ceremony in Iceland in 940 years.
1941 – More Jews, including a rabbi, arrive to Iceland with the American forces.
1944 – Iceland becomes independent. 2,000 Jewish soldiers are stationed in Iceland. 500 Jews are present at a Rosh Hashanah service at the Naval Air Station Keflavik.
1945 – Nine Jews reside in Iceland, according to Iceland’s Statistics Bureau.
Jews In Modern Iceland
1947 – Iceland votes in favour of the Partition Plan at the United Nations. The plan is widely perceived as a boon for Israel.
1955 – Jewish author and journalist Alfred Joachim Fischer visits Iceland. He notes that almost all Jews settled in Iceland have taken Icelandic names.
2003 – President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson marries Dorrit Moussaieff. Dorrit, though secular, was born in Jerusalem to a wealthy Bukharian Jewish family. She is credited with bringing positive publicity to Iceland’s Jewry, though the community says she maintains her distance from them.
2011 – Rabbi Berel Pewzner of the Orthodox Jewish organization Chabad presides over a Passover Seder in Reykjavík. Over 50 attend, and he is encouraged to return for more services in September.

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