Saturday, October 1, 2011

Rosh Hashanah: Oslo Edition

Two of my high school students tried to come in the window of the classroom this morning. As they hung like pendulums with their bellies on the windowsill, heads in the classroom and legs still kicking ridiculously outside, I meant to tell them to go around and use the door properly, but I missed. Okay, actually I was laughing so hard I couldn’t summon up the words. Luckily Anita was there to direct them to the door. Isn’t it wonderful to teach high schoolers and be a part of their maturing process?

We read a short story about society and the individual. Man are these some smart kids; they each had articulate opinions about responsibility and ethics. I brought up bystander effect and it electrified them. They all had examples of their own or thought about what they would do in like situations. Most charged were A’s words about an individual’s responsibility to society. I felt, behind the usual desire to say something intelligent in class, an urgency to communicate that her friends’ deaths at Utøya had given her more responsibility, given every single person more responsibility, to their fellow human beings.

After class, she stayed to talk with me a bit. She’s very close with R, the girl in the class who survived Utøya, and R hung around on the edges of our conversation. I know she’s been having trouble returning to normal life. Finally, as A and I wound down our conversation, R wrote something in huge letters across the chalk board. What does it mean?, I asked her. It’s the political slogan for her party, she told me. Tell me more, I told her. Before that, she’d been like a child who desperately wanted to get my attention, but didn’t know how, and since I don’t speak Norwegian, I hadn’t been able to crack in. But now, as she and A told me about the party and their positions in it, I felt her open. I think, I hope, it helps… I know that regular teenage angst is greatly allayed by adult attention, and if the horrors that she went through can be relieved by any similar means, I’m going to ply her with all I can.

In Amlit I burst out laughing, because while explaining Mark Twain, Ingrid said, joking, “I don’t see no p’ints about that frog that’s better’n any other frog.” You haven’t heard a fake Southern accent until it’s mangled through the soft, hesitant, slightly British tones of a Norwegian. I thought I was going to fall out of my seat. Last class, everyone shrieked because while reading Emily Dickinson’s “I Heard a Fly Buzz When I Died” one intrepid member of that species zoomed its way into the classroom. Literature is never dull.

On the plane to Oslo this morning, I thought about how comfortable I feel here. Living in another country is just a matter of smoothing the edges of that culture over your own skin, softening out the places where it puckers or rubs or juts sharply into your shoulder. But not every culture has a shape that I could fit myself inside of so easily.

In the Americans-in-Norway Facebook group, there was a discussion comparing America to Norway. People debated health care stubbornly (on the one hand, everybody has it and you needn’t be rich to use it, but on the other, it’s paid for by tremendously high taxes) for most of the thread. But I found some of the other points interesting, and am rephrasing the ones that I agree with and adding my own:

Norway:                                                                                              America:
Better chocolate                                                                           More of a produce selection
Roaming Law (you can pitch tent anywhere for three days)               Empty hiking trails
No separation of Church and State, but no God either                        Picturesque Bible Belt
Charming, history-filled cities                                                             Free bathrooms
Less public drunkenness                                                                     MUCH cheaper alcohol
Politeness                                                                                            Volunteering spirit

Trivia of the day: if an ICA and a Rema are next to each other, it spells America backwards.

I’ve started using a Norwegian detergent, and my clothes smell sweet and Norwegian.

I’m in Oslo for Rosh Hashanah. One of the things I’ve been wondering is how such a small Jewish community supports itself. Today, I found out—war reparations. Pretty much all of Norwegian Jewry was shipped off to camps during the war (in Norway, WWII is still called “the war” because there have been none since then. Hear that with longing, Israelis. Hear that with shame, Americans), and the Jewish community here uses the interest from the reparations to keep itself going. Wonderful as it looks from the outside, it’s so terribly sad that instead of the vibrancy of an old Jewish community that struggles to keep itself going, there’s this bits and pieces of a community kept going on plentiful blood money. Wish it was the other way around.

Rosh Hashanah in Oslo has been interesting, and largely lovely. I’m staying by the shlichot, who are the two people in this country having the experience most parallel to mine this year (yes, my shlichut is for America, mah meshanah?). It’s nice to compare notes with them. The davening was beautiful, albeit occasionally more pompous than I’m used to. A chazzan came in from Israel, and community members harmonized with him. At one point, his daughter, sitting next to me in the balcony, and several of the women, picked up the higher parts and everyone below turned to listen to the female half of the choir.

The first night, I ate dinner at the annual Israeli dinner and sat with a fun gay Argentinian couple who made aliyah recently and are traveling through Scandinavia for a month. Lunch was at the old age home next to the shul. The residents spoke only Norwegian, with tiny chunks of scattered Yiddish and English, so the room stayed pretty quiet. I walked around trying out my Norwegian, but sat next to a man who spoke English. Into the silent room he shouted that his parents had been murdered in the war, that he had fled to Sweden, returned to Oslo after, worked in the chevra kadisha for fifty years, but he didn’t believe in God. Then we sang “bashanah haba’ah” together, and I helped him clap on beat.

That night, I walked down to the Akker Brygge alone. As I passed Karl Johann, two drunken Norwegians started tailing me. There were a lot of people around, so I wasn’t scared, but kept a courteous and dismissive expression so that they wouldn’t take offense or start anything. Then one of the men put his hand on my coat. He didn’t grab me, just tapped my shoulder for a moment. All I did was look at him. He slunk away. Funny how an unwanted touch instantly galvanizes me into a person that's incredibly scary and ready to lash out in defense. Unfunny how so many of my female friends are held captive in their houses after dark by fear of such an experience.

I passed the Nobel Peace Center. Outside of it stood a walk-through exhibit. As I approached, I realized that the pictures of dusty empty streets had captions describing dehumanization in Gaza, and the West Bank. The captions sidled and slipped around the truth, telling half-facts and showing photos zoomed in close without showing the larger picture. Every tourist to Oslo walks past this area, and sees this propaganda. An ugly feeling settled in my stomach as I squinted through the lies. 

The Akker Brygge was quiet. I followed the string of fountains down to the wharf, and out onto an empty dock. On either side of me, boats sagged against the wall. A ladder led down into the lapping black water, and I pondered slipping in for a moment, as I always do when on a dock. In the distance, eating up my Rosh Hashanah ambitions and introspection, a green light mocked me by blinking cliché across the water. So I returned to Bergstein.

For lunch the second day, one of the families invited the greater part of the Jewish community to a huge meal. I met a couple who work at the US embassy and had already heard of me (you know, the other Jewish American in Norway) from the Fulbright staff, a family from Christiansand who converted two years ago and were ostracized by their former friends, and people who asked me again and again what on earth I was doing in Norway, and why I wasn't Israeli since I was speaking Hebrew. After lunch we all sang classic songs together, a small enclave of Israel in the middle of Oslo.

At lunch on shabbat I sat next to the security guard for the Oslo shul. She's the woman who interrogated me the first time I entered the shul. Getting inside the Jewish community center for an hour was harder than getting into Norway for the year. She's getting a degree in international relations, and had strong opinions about immigrants taking over European countries' identity. I suppose, if my job was to sit day in, day out, behind bullet-proof glass and inspect visitors for potential threat, I might also have a cynical approach.

The shlichot and I watched Savta Chaya Maitah after shabbat. It's an iconic early Israeli comedy whose hero reminds me strongly of Napoleon Dynamite. Tomorrow I take the train back to Bergen, armed with a block of kosher cheese bigger than my face. A good way to start the year. 


  1. "We read a short story about society and the individual. "
    The English teacher in me is curious; even more so after reading your students' reactions.
    And yes, why did you choose Norway?
    Enjoy the cheese. Is it Danish? A lot of kosher cheese in Europe seems to be Danish.

  2. Hi, Hannah,
    I'm so sorry we have a 24/7 occupation nursing, helping, training, and motivating my mother, so for the time being I have no time. No time of my own that is, no time for reading, writing my blog or entertaining.

    I do read your blog now and then though, and I have a lot to say about the issues you mention.

    I do wholeheartedly agree with you that the Palestine propaganda in Norway is frightening. It has been going on for three decades, long before the Muslims began to have an impact on Norwegian society. (They do have today, no doubt about that.)
    The very left lefties in Norway started the propaganda campaign in the early seventies. The greatest threat to a democracy, be it American or Norwegian is lack of knowledge about history. Then people can be manipulated into believing anything people in power want them to.
    The first 2 1/2 decade after the war the leading politicians were pro Israel.
    Then the oil crisis happened about the same time as Norway was drilling her first oil wells.
    Follow the money. Nothing shapes stronger bonds than those where money is involved.

    Which leads me to point 2:
    Healthcare versus taxes.

    I'm an old woman of 61 with a fairly good memory.I grew up in the fifties with the major changes in Norwegian law of society took place.
    There were no revolutions, hardly any strikes,just negotiations and a strong common urge to rebuild the nation after what the Germans had tore down for 5 years.
    What did we get? Step by step; pension for the elderly and disabled, for widows and children. Better housing for everybody, but never up to American middle-class standard. A fond, Stantens lånekasse for studerende ungdom, which enables any youth to study in Norway and abroad, without being dependant on wealthy parents. The loan must be paid back, but both Gunnar and I managed that without much trouble. A bank loan opportunity for first home builders at fairly low interests. Equal healthcare for all, where we all are contributing with a small amount even with the pension check we receive. I cannot even begin to tell how important this is, and you young, rich and healthy, can hardly be expected to understand.

    I have lived, taken my degrees, worked hard, become long term ill in this country. Never a day have I felt that our taxes were too high. They are investments in common goods.
    The few very rich, can of course afford to buy what they need of any services anyhow, so they are reluctant to pay taxes. But not so reluctant that they immigrate to other countries. They only move their money, factories and ship fleet out of Norway.
    And complain about expensive liquor.
    Gosh, I don't have time for this.

    Only a third comment.
    Buy a map over Norway and study where people are living in small towns scattered along the slim coastline. The rest of the country are criss crossed with real hiker trails and cheap huts where you may sleep safely at night. Den norske Turistforening, The Norwegian Tourist Association, will be happy to provide you with what you need for real hikes.
    You will be amazed. Fløyen and Ulrikken are kind of Bergen's Central Park. You wouldn't expect to be alone there.

    I should have written much more, about the Jews donating their goods to the Mosaic Society on board the boats to extermination camps.
    The stories can rip your heart apart. I'm so glad that their legacy and sacrifices were not in vain.

    Now my family will not get their proper Sunday dinner because of me not being able to stop writing in time.
    I'll just say, your coming to Norway was so important and right. These are important times to build bridges and seek deeper understanding. If you live with the Lord, you will be lead by Him. I'm so happy you are here.

  3. Hi Felisol,

    Wow, thank you for that response. I hope your family got dinner in the end!

    The explanation about Norwegian politics with regard to Israel makes so much sense: the same thing is happening in the States, though to a lesser degree. Like you said, it’s very frightening to see government-sponsored “information” that, even if parts of it may be true, are only a tiny part of the whole picture. Yes, life is hard in the territories, but it’s not as hard as they made out in that exhibit: there were no pictures of the water parks and swimming pools that exist! And those pictures of people waiting in line to cross into Jerusalem to work mean that Israel allows a group of people who have repeatedly declared it doesn’t have a right to exist, and in whose cities live fanatics who would try to suicide bomb the civilian population of Israel, to work in its capital. But struggling against misinformation feels so hopeless.

    Ahah! I see. As an outsider, I don’t really get much of a view into healthcare, taxes, and government services, so hearing your perspective really helps me understand. THIS kind of lifestyle is what I wanted to learn about, and think about in connection with US policy.

    I have already found the Turlag in Bergen! My problem will be finding time to go hiking…

    My thoughts and prayers are with you and your mother right now. Hoping that all is well.

  4. Ilana, it was "Empty Seat" by Yuan Qiongqiong. It was in our English textbook, Stunt. It wasn't on a high enough level for my kids-- I think they can do much tougher stuff-- but it brought up some good issues for them to discuss.
    Norway! Because, I wanted to live in a place with a very different approach to social/political values from the US, and a beautiful place where everyone hikes, and a place where I would be teaching English on a high level. Norwegian culture clicks with me.
    The cheese is actually from the first batch of kosher yellow cheese made in Norway! The rabbi of Oslo himself ran the machines and everything. I'm going to Stockholm next week, though, so I'll look out for Danish cheese there.

  5. Stockholm is an awesome place and I hope you'll enjoy it. Are you going there for Yom KIppur?