Dec 16 2014

One light at a time

Tonight is the first night of the Jewish holiday of Chanukah. Chanukah is not one of the major Jewish holidays but because of its closeness to Christmas it has taken on much larger importance in the Jewish calander.

The holiday actually has nothing at all to do with Christmas. It celebrates an event that took place approximately 165 years before Jesus was even born. The name Chanukah comes from the hebrew verb meaning “to dedicate” and that is what the holiday commemorates: the rededication of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by the local Greek-Syrian rulers. Jewish forces led by Judah Maccabee (Judah the hammar) revolted against these rulers and eventually won the war against them and restored the Temple. The story goes that there was only found in the Temple enough oil for the holy lamp to be lit for one day but a miracle happened and the oil lasted for 8 days, enough time to make more oil. So today we light candles for 8 days to remember the miracle of the oil. And eat oily foods like latkes and fried donuts.

But the real story, the back story, was probably not so wonderful. Judea, the Jewish kingdom that Jerusalem was the capital of, was a conquered kingdom, ruled by the Greek-Syrian Selucid Empire, the local remains of what had once been Alexander the Great’s empire. During the time when the events of the story happened the lure of the hellenic culture was very strong, even in the Jewish kingdom. The hellenized, secular Jewish faction was in conflict with the Jews who were much more consevative and felt Jews should live strict Jewish lives and not follow the Greek hellenistic way. When Antiochus Epiphanes, the Selucid Emperor, sided with the hellenized Jewish faction, the conservative Maccabees revolted and cast out him and his forces. The whole thing was in effect a civil war, Jew against Jew, with the help of some outside forces. But the religious leaders who came after the war didn’t want to commemorate and keep remembering a civil war, Jews fighting against Jews, so they came up with the miracle of the oil in the Temple and Jews once again being able to be Jews. They felt it was better to remember the positive and put aside what was evil. So to this day, when we celebrate Chanukah we celebrate by remembering the miracle of light. A much better thing to remember as I see it. And when we light the candles on our Chanukias we always add one more candle each night. Each night we add more light!


I now own 3 chanukiah, as the special 9-armed menorah is actually named. The largest is a silver and gilt one that my mother bought for me sometime after the birth of my son – for us to use as a family. The smallest one, on the right, is a gift given to me by my cousin Karel when I moved here to Stockholm so that I could remember my family back in New Jersey while I celebrated the holiday here in my new homeland. The third one, the middle-sized one in the front, is actually my newest yet my oldest. It is the one that my family lit thoughout my childhood and which I only brought back with me to Stockholm after the death of my mother three years ago. The two larger chanukiahs use the customary chanukah candles one buys in any judaica shop. The small one uses birthday candles.

Tonight, the first night, my son Bevin and I will light all three and Bevin will be given a small gift. The holiday is about the lighting of the candles and presents are not really relevant. The giving of gifts on each night of Chanukah is more a response to the gifts children get for Christmas. The more important thing is to light the candles.

In these dark days, when a member of the Swedish parlament says that Jews can never be considered real Swedes, when Islamists and Palestinians claim that the Jewish people have no right to be in Jerusalem, when synogogues are once again being burned, and Rabbis are attached, I am glad I can light my Chanukah lights together with my son, in freedom, in my home, in the land I live in. The candles remind me that Jews lived in Jerusalem over two thousand years ago, before Christianity existed, before Islam existed. Now we live in many countries. We know how to live as Swedes and as Jews. As Americans and as Jews. Being Jewish is a plus situation. It isn’t an either/or proposition. We can be both a true citizen of the country we live in and a Jew at the same time. We know how to integrate without losing our identity. We have been doing it for over 2 thousand years. In this cross-cultural world we live in, this is something we can teach the world.

Aug 22 2013

Saying Goodbyes

Well, today one more door has been closed. Marit Hansson was laid to rest. It was a simple ceremony at Skogskyrkogården (The Woodland Cemetary) on the southern edge of central Stockholm. It’s a very beautiful place, with gentle hills and tree shaded burial plots.

There weren’t many people at the service. When you live to be 92 there aren’t many friends left to see you off. The Swedish präst or pastor was very young, maybe thirty. We got the conventional service – 2 psalms, the Lord’s Prayer, some words about Marit and of course some words about The Lord. The young pastor didn’t know Marit, he didn’t know any of us. He had spoken perhaps once or twice to my husband, Håkan, Marit’s son. So what was he to say? He probably knew that the woman lying in the casket wasn’t a big believer in God or even religion. And he probably assumed that those of us sitting on the hard benches in the chapel weren’t especially religious or serious church goers either. So he just did his job. He seemed kind at least.

As I sat there in the lovely chapel listening to his words, I kept thinking back to my own mother’s funeral just a year and a half ago. Two mothers, two funerals, so close together in time. My mother’s service had a rabbi who didn’t know her either. The rabbi for the congregation she had belonged to had retired many years back already. And since she stopped driving, she was unable to go to services even if she wanted to. The rabbi who did the service for my mother was the one who came with the Hospice care that took care of my mom during her last days. By the time he met her, she couldn’t really respond to anyone, even him, anymore. But he and I had a chance to talk those last days and get to know each other a bit. I was glad and relieved when he said he would be pleased to do the service for my mom.

And it was a good service. Coming so close together, I couldn’t help but to compare them in my mind. Mom had a good send off. We filled the small New Jersey chapel. My mom still had friends young enough to drive the distance to be there. Mom’s baby brother and his wife were there. Their three children, my cousins, came with their families. Even the hospice people came, who I had gotten to know those last weeks. And of course my husband and my son. The rabbi said the words he needed to say, in English and in Hebrew. And he had charisma, he held the stage, he made one feel that he saw you, he was there for you. That what we were doing there in that chilly stone chapel was important. He made me feel welcome, to come up and talk about my mother to the gathering. To bring my uncle up to talk about his sister, to say goodbye to her. And I think that was the big difference between the two services for me. While the Swedish pastor was kind and almost overly polite, he was also so unintrusive, so retiring, so grey, that it was like he wasn’t even there. No charisma. Nothing. Dried up, like dust. And this was a representative for God? Well, he certainly wasn’t going to be able to get me to believe. While on the other hand, Rabbi Bill Krause’s service, though being contemporary, modern and very Reform, made me feel like I was participating in something that was part of a 3000 year old tradition, a rite of passage that was part of life and connected me to my people. It was a good service.

After the paster was finished, we slowly moved out of the chapel into the sunlight. Once outside again, after saying a few words to each other, everyone separated and we drove off to another section of the cemetery to look for the gravesite of Marit’s sister Else. Håkan’s cousin Anne Marie and her husband Tord and their son Fredrik were also looking so we joined them. After locating her gravestone, everyone stood around talking for a bit. I went in search of a stone but all I could find were small pebbles on the walking path so I took a pebble back to where everyone was standing and put it on the top of Else’s and her husband Berth’s gravestone. I explained that when Jews visit a cemetery they leave a small stone to show that they had been there.

There had been 10 of us there at Marit’s service – a minyan. And though it hadn’t been a Jewish service it nevertheless felt good to me that we had at least been able to gather 10 people on a bright sunny day, to say goodbye to Marit.

Apr 14 2013

In defense of a Rabbi

For almost 3 years now, the Jewish Community of Stockholm has had David Lazar as its chief Rabbi. The Community is now on the verge of losing him as Rabbi because they are unwilling to offer him a permanent position and possibly for other reasons unknown to me. I disagree with this decision of theirs.  This is the letter I am emailing to the Ordforande (Board Chair). I am only one member of this community of 4300 members but I want to express my opinion. Words need to be spoken and to be heard.

Dear Lena,

Friday evening I went to the Friday evening service in the big synagogue. I admit I rarely go to services but I felt it was important to go, to show my support for Rabbi Lazar. It was a good service: beautiful, spiritual and participatory. By participatory, I mean that the people in the congregation didn’t just sit on the benches like stiff cardboard cutouts, expecting those on the bimah to do all the work. The congregation sang, together, the prayers – filling the room with sound. It was very moving. This was the type of service I’ve been waiting for since I joined the Judiska Församlingen 20 years or so ago.

I’ve been a member for all those years, continuing to pay my dues each year. Not so much because attending services has been so important for me personally but because I feel very strongly that the community should be supported and should continue to exist and be there for my child and his future children. And I am involved in other ways, sitting on the board of Progressive Judendom i Stockholm, being part of Församlingens informationskommitte and taking courses with Rabbi Lazar. I think it would be a terrible thing if 50 years or more from now, people would say that yes there once was a Jewish Community in Stockholm but it no longer exists anymore.

Since the retirement of Rabbi Narrows, the community has had 3 different Rabbis and gone rather long periods without any at all. Rabbi Spector, while pleasant, was in a holding pattern till his own retirement. Dov Vogel was displeased with the community as much as the community was unsatisfied with him. In my opinion, Rabbi Lazar has been the best thing that could have happened to the Stockholm Jewish Community. He has attracted young people back to the Community! He has brought life and spirituality into the services. I think he is the perfect asset needed to drag the Stockholm Jewish Community into the 21st century, kicking and screaming if necessary. And the Community must change if it is to be viable into the next 50 years. It has to offer the young people, the next generation, what they want and need to continue to be Jews. Just changing the Community Stadgar won’t do it!

Of course I can never know what goes on behind closed doors during negotiations. I find it hard to imagine that Rabbi Lazar is here just to earn a lot of money so he is well set for his retirement. He could probably go to the States for that. But for a person to want to make the effort to truly be part of a community, to put down roots in it, he must be offered more than just a promise of a 3-year contract. He must be assured and told “We want you to live here with us, among us, into the future” without a defined end in sight. I feel that to lose this great asset would be a monumental mistake on the part of the leaders of the Stockholm Jewish Community. Please offer him a permanent position as Rabbi of the Stockholm Jewish Community. Those people who have trouble working with him are NOT the ones who are contributing to the continued existence of the Community. They are standing in its way. Don’t let them be the ones who decide it’s fate.

I am glad that we once got to know each other when our boys were very little. And thank you for taking the time to read my letter.

Sincerely yours,

Hilarie Cutler

Apr 11 2013


It’s now been 26 years since I left New York City and moved to Stockholm, leaving behind friends and family. For the past 15 years, I have been celebrating Jewish holidays here with a group of Jewish/American/Swedish families which, except for some occasional changes, have stayed pretty much the same. When we first started gathering, most of our kids were about the same young age. Now, a number of those kids are no longer kids but young adults starting their journey of independent life.  Throughout the years, we have tried to gather together each year to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Passover. This year we managed it once again. Everyone contributes something to the evening and I’m the one who assigns out the jobs – what to bring, who helps with what, etc. I am also the one who leads the service. I usually try to say a few words before starting the age-old ritual of telling the story of the Exodus to our children. The following is what I said this year.

Hi Everyone,

I am very glad to see you all here. Just in case no one remembers, I’ll remind you all that I usually like to tell a little story as an introduction to our Seder celebration. Last year, we didn’t have a Seder because it was fairly recently after my mother died and I didn’t feel up to organizing one.

I wasn’t sure if I was up to it this year either but here we are. I seem to have learned something this year and I think it relates to the reason we are here now, today and I want to tell you about it. One of the main characters, in the story we are about to tell, is this guy named Moses. Now while Moses ended up becoming a great leader of his people, he was far from perfect. He had a temper, got mad at things which he thought weren’t right, and wanted things to be done the way he thought they should be done (or depending on what you believe, the way God told him they should be done). Well, the past few weeks I’ve been feeling a bit like Moses. And I want to explain why.

This year the process of getting all of us to this place, here, this evening, had quite a few twists and turns. When I first floated the idea of doing our Seder again this year, I was very hesitant, but I was told “Don’t worry Hilarie, you don’t have to do it alone. We will help you.”  So I gathered my strength and decided to go ahead with it.

In an effort to be democratic and not dictatorial I asked which day would the group prefer to meet – Thursday or Friday. Pretty much everyone, except Janet (who told me she had to work a half day that Thursday) said both days would work fine. So in trying to be considerate towards Carly’s plans for vacation, the Shevin’s plans for the countryside, Risa’s undecided vacation plans, Marina’s busy schedule and Barbara’s, too, I choose Thursday. But then 2 weeks later, after I’ve sent out the plans for the day, suddenly everyone is coming back with telling me that they are working on Thursday. And will be late, and don’t have time, and can’t do the complicated things. As I sat there reading these emails, I wondered how come no one told me this earlier? Where was all the help that I was promised?

And like Moses I got angry, and annoyed and very disappointed. I didn’t know what to do with those feelings. So last week I spent my whole session at my shrink’s talking about it. First she asks me, “But why do you have to be the one to do all the planning and organizing?” I sat there and looked at her for a while. It’s not the first time I’ve discussed this group with her. Finally I said, “Because it’s my tribe, I’m their Rebbe.” Now like Moses, I too, am far from being a perfect person. One of my less likable traits is that I often have a hard time accepting people as they are. So my shrink listens to what I said, and she sits back and says, “hmmm… But you know these people Hilarie, you know what they are like, who they are, what to expect from them. Why can’t you accept them for what you know they are?” I sat there and suddenly this calm came over me and I realized she was right. And all the anger, the annoyance and the disappointment disappeared. So I set to work to solve whatever problems there were to organize this evening. And here we all are. I am among my family, surrounded by them. 

So let us now start to tell the story of how a much more important, imperfect leader led a very unruly folk out of slavery in Egypt to freedom.

And we did. We told the story of freedom, we asked the 4 questions, we talked about the 4 types of people and we blessed 4 glasses of wine. And then when the ritual was all over we served up the dinner and ate, food from our memories – hard boiled eggs, gefilte fish, chicken soup with matzah balls, lamb with roasted potatoes and parsnips and lots of desserts. Our children ate and talked and joked with each other like cousins. And these friends, these parents, these new “siblings” that I have gathered and brought together to eat with me and share with me. My minyan, my Jewish family here in Stockholm. And it was a very good Seder.

Dec 22 2011


Tuesday, December 20 – the 12th day I am here with my mom and the first night of Chanukah. And I am not with my son or husband this year to take out the candles and organize the celebration or even to make latkes. But my husband called me on SKYPE and asked where the menorah was and if there were any candles. I told him where the menorah was kept and that candles were in the same place. So after about 15 minutes he SKYPED me again and I could join them for the Chanukah candle lighting and watch Bevin say the prayer. Its a Star Trek world and videophone is alive and well. But as far as latkes are concerned they will probably have to wait till I get back home.

Last night I met with my mom’s doctor. I want him to tell me how my mom is. Actually, I want him to play God – to know how long she has left, to tell me for certain. But he isn’t God – just an ordinary, geriatric specialist type of doctor and he doesn’t know. I asked him if we could take a few blood tests to see how her body chemistry is but he said if we do that and discover how badly she is doing then he would have to do something to try to fix it. Because he is a doctor. So we will just let her be, let her body do what it has to do.

So I wait. I sit in her room, sometimes next to her bed, sometimes in front of my computer. I help to feed her. She is given puréed food now. She would at least open her mouth when she felt the spoon near her lips. But now she is hard to wake up for meals. She sleeps. Peacefully. Seemingly without pain. And I wait.

December 30th keeps coming closer. That’s the date on my return ticket. Whenever I think about it I get very anxious. Worried. Scared. What will I do if she keeps continuing this way? I can change my ticket but not for too much longer than that – I have a job I need to get back to. A life. Do I leave, only to have to return a week later? Do I stay longer but its still not long enough? I can feel the anxiety building. So once again, I tell myself “One day at a time, just take it one day at a time.”

And tonight has become Wednesday already, the second night of Chanukah, commemorating God’s miracle of light.