Being Jewish in Swedish

Once again this is something I wrote awhile ago, around 2004. In the years that have passed, my son has had his Bar Mitzvah and I now sit on the board of an organization called Progressive Judendom i Stockholm. We are working to bring Reform Judiasm to Stockholm. And the group of J.A.P.S. that formed all those years ago still (with some comings and goings) meet for holidays and other times. Our children are like cousins to each other and the adults in the group are more than just friends. They have become family.

An American Jew in Stockholm

It’s funny how things change the older one gets – one’s sense of immortality, one’s idea of how to live a good life, the color of one’s hair, the list of things that are important.

I’ve spent a long time living here in Stockholm. I’ve spent an even longer time being Jewish – pretty much from birth, actually. My parents were Jewish. Both sets of grandparents were also Jewish. All my family and the relatives around me were Jewish. But I didn’t grow up in a Jewish neighborhood. From the time I was 4 years old till I was 18, I lived in a small town in the middle of northern New Jersey. All through grammar school I was the only Jewish kid in my class. And if there were any Jewish kids in the large regional high school I attended, I didn’t know them. I always had to get special permission to be absent from school on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. I then had to explain to my friends why I wasn’t in class. Getting permission wasn’t a problem and the explanations finally became routine but having to go through that process did contribute to making me feel different from all the rest.

In December, if Chanukah came early that year, I remember waiting until after Christmas vacation was over before telling my schoolmates what presents I got. That way I could share in the conversations about new toys and clothes. And if I just didn’t mention the word Chanukah when describing my gifts then I could pretend that I was like everyone else. Because being different was not what you wanted to be when you were a kid and it was even worse when you were a teenager.

Sometime while I was still in grammar school my parents joined a brand new Reform Synagogue – Temple Shalom. They were charter members. They helped start it, in an area where the Jewish population was rather diffuse and scattered. They had both grown up in the New York area, in Jewish neighborhoods and my mom discovered that she missed being a part of a Jewish community. We went to services every Friday evening and to Sunday school on Sunday mornings. Every Passover we celebrated with my cousins, with my mother and my aunt taking turns hosting the huge, noisy, emotional affair. We weren’t strictly religious and we didn’t keep kosher. We ate shrimp at Chinese restaurants and pork chops at home. But we never decorated a “Chanukah bush” even though there was pressure to do so.

Until I reached High School age, I didn’t bother to question what being Jewish meant for me – I simply accepted it as part of my reality. I spent a lot of time during my teenage years trying to figure out the meaning to life. (Still working on that one actually) Questioning, examining and ultimately judging all that I saw, heard, learned, felt, and experienced were full time activities for me at that time. By the time I was around 14 or 15, our Temple had finally raised enough money to construct their own building. It was a fairly simple building with a medium sized auditorium, folding chairs and a row of windows along one wall looking out over farmland. At that time we had a young Rabbi, who as far as I was concerned, was totally lacking in that quality necessary for a leader of people – charisma. I was 16 years old, sitting among the congregation on Rosh Hashanah (or maybe it was Yom Kippur – my memory fails me on that point) and the Rabbi was droning on. I glanced out through the sanctuary’s windows and looked upon one of those glorious fall days that one sometimes gets in New Jersey, bright sun, blue skies, scattered, white fluffy clouds and the air – not cold, not warm, but crisp, fresh. I turned back inside and saw a warm stuffy room, children coughing, adults gossiping, and an uninspiring service. I decided then and there, that God wasn’t inside that room; he was outside, in the wider world and I didn’t have to be sitting there, inside, either. Since then, I have rarely attended religious services, usually only at the request of my parents while visiting them. Shortly after that year, I moved to New York City, and for the next 20 years I lived a pretty much secular life in a very “Jewish” city. I had no need to make any special effort to be Jewish because it, very simply, was all around me.

And now I live in Stockholm, in the land of the blue-eyed blond. For the first 4 years here my Jewishness lay pretty much dormant. My husband and I exchanged Chanukah presents and we didn’t have a Christmas tree. For Passover, I returned “Home” to my family to celebrate with them and that sufficed. But then my son was born and it became very apparent to me how important it was for me that my son was raised as a Jew. But how to do that in the land of the tall and the blond? I realized that I could not do it alone. I needed some sort of Jewish community around me to help. An American woman I met told me that there was a mother/baby song and dance group at the Jewish Center and she had the name and number of the woman who led it. I had no idea that a Jewish Center even existed here in Stockholm. Jewish life here was all but invisible to the eyes of a former New Yorker. I signed us up right away and for the next year, Bevin and I danced and sang to Swedish nursery rhymes with a group of other Jewish women and their babies. Afterwards, we would take our babies and go eat lunch nearby while the babies slept in their carriages. It was my first contact with the Jewish Community here. From the moment that I first walked into the Jewish Center it felt both different and familiar; different from the world outside in Stockholm and familiar to the world I had left behind back in New York. There was Hebrew on the walls, the people had darker hair, and there was a different sort of energy there. I felt immediately at home. I became a member of the Jewish Center

The Jewish Center also offered a “Family Hour” for parents and their pre-school age children to attend on Sunday mornings once a month. I started to take my son when he was 3 years old. The teachers changed over the years but together, we learned about the holidays, sang Hebrew songs, colored pictures, tasted Challah. I took Bevin to the Center’s Purim and Chanukah parties. Most of the time when we attended these functions we were often the only English speakers in the group, but we both spoke Swedish and it gave me a chance to meet and talk to other Jewish families in the Swedish Jewish Community. Eventually the faces started to become familiar and people would recognize me and say hello. But something was missing. Even though I used Swedish all day long in my daily life, being Jewish didn’t have the right feel in Swedish. As far as I was concerned, Moses said ”Let my people go” to Pharaoh. ”Släpp mitt folk” just didn’t do it for me. (Yes, yes, I know that he never actually spoke English either)

So in the fall of 1997, I placed ads in the magazines of the American Women’s Club and the American Citizens Abroad Club. I asked if there was anyone else interested in helping me to form a Chavarah, a fellowship of friends, with the goal of fostering a Jewish identity in our children and to do it in English. A number of women called to say they were interested. Like me, most of them were married to non-Jews. The funny thing is that almost all of them were women whom I had met at one time or another in the previous 6 years. But nothing had ever come of those earlier meetings.

We gathered with our children in early march of ‘98 and we decided to call ourselves Jewish American Parents of Stockholm or J.A.P.S. for short. How about that! I had finally become a JAP and I didn’t even have to polish my nails! We started out by just going together with our kids to Jewish functions at the Jewish Center. For Passover that year, we organized 2 big Seders. Last fall we organized a big Rosh Hashanah dinner. There were 30 of us gathered, counting parents and kids. We said blessings over the wine, and bread, and candles in Hebrew and English. Then, we all put on coats and walked to a lake, where we threw crumbs on the water (called Tachlich in Hebrew, it symbolizes casting off all our old sins). The day had been gray and dreary but as soon as we finished with the crumbs, the sun peeked out from behind the clouds and shined down on us. Everyone wanted to know how I had managed to arrange such good “special effects” and I felt that God had just blessed our endeavor. We then went back and ate – foods we remembered our grandmothers making, recipes from the “old country” – recipes which most of us had never had to make ourselves before. After dinner, I took out the Holiday Bag – a cloth bag filled with objects symbolizing different aspects of Rosh Hashanah and each of the kids took turns pulling something out of the bag. We then discussed what everything symbolized. I felt that I had found a new family in my adopted land, not a family to replace the one that I left behind, but new family members to be added to it. Since then we have gathered for more of the Holidays: Chanukah, Passover and Rosh Hashanah once more. The Holiday Bag appears at each of them. We have baked Hamantaschen together. We went to hear the Megillah read at Purim and to dance with the Torah at Simchat Torah in the Great Synagogue in Stockholm.

I became a dues-paying member of the Judiska Församlingen, the Jewish Community, and every Tuesday afternoon, together with several others of my American moms, I take my son to Jewish Religious School, nicknamed Rellen. There, I see many of the same faces I first met 8 years ago at that mother/baby song and dance class. Together, my American and my Swedish activities form my Jewish community, that, like my mother before me, I missed and was searching for. I’ve come to believe that if you don’t see what you want, then you have to work to create it for yourself. I am still not satisfied though. I was raised within a Reform community and that is what I feel most comfortable with –especially now, since my husband is not Jewish. The Religious services here are conservative (leaning towards the orthodox instead of the liberal) and therefore do not really serve my needs. Just as I was 30 years ago, I am still searching, demanding and judging, looking to find spiritual meaning in the things I do – not just empty rituals. As with an ala carte take-out menu, I select from the available offerings the things that feel right to me; I add a few things of my own and in this way I compose a dinner that I can enjoy and feel proud of and can share with the people close to me.

As a Jew living in the Swedish society, I find that I still have a lot of explaining to do. When my son’s best friend came over after school on Friday and stayed for dinner we had to explain to him what we were doing as we said the blessings over the candles and our grape juice. I had to ask my son’s teacher for permission for him to be absent from school on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah and Bevin had to explain to his friends why. And last year, when the same teacher taught her class about Joseph and Mary and Jesus at Christmas time, Bevin and I arranged a lecture in the class about Chanukah. We came in with a menorah and lit it and said the Hebrew blessing and I explained about the holiday and we taught his classmates how to play draidel with raisins and then we all ate pepperkakor in the shape of Menorahs and Dreidels and Stars of David. This year we are going to do Passover.

Like I said earlier, its funny how things change as you get older, but, in spite of all those changes, what’s even funnier is just how much things stay the same.


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