Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Weekend of Peace

This weekend I went to Oslo as a chaperone for a Bnei Akiva shabbaton, a gathering of Jewish youth from across Scandinavia (Bnei Akiva is a worldwide Zionist youth organization that I grew up in, and the way that kids across Europe learn about and connect to their roots). Friday morning, I was out the door at 6 am, and after one step promptly landed on my tush. Bergen is slippery this time of year.

I met Ziv, the fifteen year-old who was my excuse for a free ticket, at the airport. We made it to the Oslo shul at the same time as the Dansk contingent, made up of ten or so kids from Copenhagen, who’d come over on the boat with the Danish shlichim (shlichim literally means messengers, and in this case was informal ambassadors from Israel made up of dad, mom, and gurgly baby Aviah who was surprisingly verbal for a 15 month-old and knew who I was after about two tries of “zot Hannah” by her ima). The Danish kids spoke Danish, and Ziv had some trouble understanding them. It seems the lingua franca of this weekend is to be English, and myself the only American in the room.

Friday night was your average shabbaton. Lots of singing, coercive good cheer, power-hungry teenagers windmilling everyone into participation. God, I used to hate these things. I saw my favorite Oslo kid, a curly-headed big-eyed lanky little guy whose every movement is either understated chillness or exaggerated humor (think Clint Eastwood meets a Marx brother). I taught him the Ohio sign, just for the heck of it, and he spent the whole weekend “O-H!”ing me.

Friday night, after activities were over, I went back to the shlichot’s apartment with Racheli and Inbar (the Oslo shlichot), the Copenhagen shlichim, and Yonatan, the guy in charge of Bnei Akiva shlichim in Scandanavia (he’s based in Stockholm). There they hashed out the situation of world Bnei Akiva today, how to deal with the communities they’re working in, why the rabbis of these tiny European communities stay and don’t go back to Israel (as Yonatan said, here they can be certain that they’re doing something important, and almost nothing tops that), and how to handle the culture clashes they face. How to both influence and respect the traditions of the communities they’re plopped into. Honestly, listening to them speak, I kept thinking that Americans would make much better shlichim than Israelis, because they can understand secular Jews better. Obviously, the whole point is bridging that culture gap, so my idea is ridiculous, and yet an Israeli who has lived their whole life in a Jewish bubble can understand so little of what’s happening in these Norwegian kids’ lives, that in some ways I think it makes sense.

Shabbat morning I met Amanda (the Ås ETA, went to Dublin together) outside the shul. She’d been curious and wanted to see services. We went in together, and I had that weird mind twist one gets when seeing one’s own world through another’s eyes. I noticed the beauty of the congregation singing together, and the adorable children trooping up to the bimah to sing adon olam, and the intensity of the story of Dina’s rape, as though I was seeing it all for the first time.

At kiddush, people kept assuming Amanda was Jewish, which was fine except when the husband of the American attache here in Oslo said something about so many of the Fulbrighters being Jewish and how we’re always being brilliant disproportionate to our numbers. Awkward dose of Jewish exceptionalism—I half expected him to pull out that list that shows how many Nobel Prizes we’ve got and match it to our .03% of world population, but he blessedly didn’t.

The kids in the shabbaton had a discussion with the chazzan of the community, an Israeli who’s lived in Oslo for a year. They asked great questions, about free will and God’s omniscience, Christians not keeping the rules of the Old Testament, and the reasons for kashrut. I cringed and cringed again as he explained things from his religious Israeli perspective, as he placed ultra-orthodoxy top on a scale of righteousness, gave an answer about the new testament that began with his never having read it, and explained that he keeps kosher because it’s his blueprint for life. It was when he was making a hash of free will that I jumped in and gave the kid the obvious philosophical answer about God being outside time in the simplest English I could drum up. They kept looking at me after that, expecting me to give a real answer after the frum Israeli equivocation, but I kept quiet, just thinking that it’s no wonder Scandinavians don’t want to be frum, their only model for it is the obnoxious Israeli presumption of having all the answers. Americans would definitely make better shlichim.

Shabbat lunch was a hilarious round of all the camp lore I know and love. We stood up on our chairs singing “I’m gonna be a pizza man,” did rounds of “ivdu et Hashem,” and the gang of little siblings at the end of the table led us in “Yibaneh Hamikdash.” Bnei Akiva lives!

Karl Johan in December
Shabbat ends so early here that we had a half hour break, and then it was time for seudah shlishit. The singing was all on a very high key, but then we had havdalah. That was, truly, beautiful. Incredibly sonorous and sway-y and just gorgeous ritual.

Walking down to Domkirken with Amanda, we talked over the day and religion in general. She’s got a thoughtful perspective on everything. She’s never read Anne of Green Gables, but is a kindred spirit nonetheless. At the Domkirk, we met up with other Fulbrighters—Sean and his wife and daughter from down in Kristiansand, Andrea, Ted from Trondheim, Sarah Anderson (the roving scholar who’s come to Bergen twice and possibly changed my life as much as anything else this year through conversations about education), and her daughter Kaila, who is the most thoroughly with-it ten-year-old I’ve ever met. Some of them I remembered from orientation, some of them I really thought I had never seen before, but all of them were interesting and, in that indefinable way, “good people” people.

In Youngstorget we amassed behind banners that read, “More Women, More Peace.” People up on the balcony were speechifying, but we didn’t listen much until one woman shouted into the microphone: “Black! Gifted! Not weak! Not afraid!” It was both incredibly awesome and kind of as though she was thumbing her nose at the western crowd who had deigned to bestow a peace prize on such talent. While we’re on the topic, how wonderful that this was the year that women’s rights activists were recognized? Though cramming them all in together like that, as though we want to get all the women out of the way before we can get back to men, kind of ticked me off.
The people on the podium stopped speaking, cuing the end of our chatting. Slowly, the crowd began to move forward. As we crossed the road back towards Karl Johan, people in vests at either side of the avenue held torches up, and the crowd slowly lit their candles at the torches and then passed on beneath the ribbons of Christmas lights and the night’s stars. It was an incredible, glowing flow of be-mittened humanity. I bet Ted five kroner that someone’s hair would catch fire by the end of the night—all that enthusiastic flame in the crowd.

We neared the Stortinget and gazed expectantly up to the balcony of the Grand Hotel. The doors opened to give the crowd the impression of action, and after a few false starts, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee, and Tawakkol Karman came out to the sound of roars from the crowd. We shouted, and they waved. Then the noise died down, and they waved again, and once again we screamed our approval at them, at the world, our endorsement of peace. I snuffled up tears as we watched them bow to the crowd. Mostly, when you get this many people clapping, it’s at a basketball game or when a Republican says something really stupid. But this was cheering for peace. A massive celebration for peace. You can see the video here.

Gbowee, Karman, and Sirleaf, from left to right
Check out the dynamic between Sirleaf and Karman; always fun to watch the dignified fight with the crowd-pleaser.

The one thing that bothered me a bit was that, after all, this was in Norway. And Norwegians just don’t whoop and holler  all that well. These women have accomplished incredible things, the least we can do is yell for them a bit. I grabbed Kaila and together we war-whooped and aiaiaiaiaied and cat whistled into the candle-lit night, giving the women the ovation they deserved. The truth is, Norway is… too peaceful. The last war they had was when the Germans invaded them a little bit seventy years ago. So perhaps they can be excused from lacking enthusiasm—without seeing war, how can you appreciate peace?

Afterwards, we met more Fulbrighters back at Sarah’s for a party. Her husband had cooked up a storm of traditional Norwegian Christmas food, including lefsa, apple cake, and something that looked like butter soup called rommegrøt. He’s playing househusband for the year and definitely exhibiting some Friedan-like symptoms: perhaps it’s not the feminine mystique so much as the staying-at-home-without-a-career mystique.

I got back to Bergen with no voice, and a cheider class to teach in an hour. So I cleverly jotted down some of the main points of chanukkah, stuck some knickknacks in a bag, and told the kids that they had to find a way to perform the story of chanukkah using all the stuff in the bag. That kept them busy the whole time, and then we all enjoyed a chanukkah play, traditional-style. Two of the dads were there, too, and I found it touching how one told me that both his sons say Kiddush every Friday night, no matter what. He really wanted me to know they had some connection to their roots.

I taught my last class of the year this morning. Anita brought in Christmas treats: pepperkaker (christmas cookies), clementines, and gløgg (A Norwegian holiday drink much like mulled wine with raisins, nuts, and spices) to start off the class, and explained that we were having Christmas early because this was my last class before I left. Anna raised her hand in quick panic—“wait, are you… are you coming back in January?”
“Yep, I’ll be here until the summer. You guys are stuck with me until June.” Then, they surprised me. They started to clap. There was a fierce burst of applause for about five seconds. I was startled, and rather emotional. I’m not sure how it feels to be a nobel peace laureate with all of Oslo applauding you, but standing at the front of that classroom with my students clapping to hear I’d be back gave me a warm yummy feeling that had nothing to do with the smell of gløgg.
Happy holidays and happy New Year, everyone. 


  1. Speaking of Nobel Prize winners, don’t forget about Dan Shechtman, the Israeli that got this year's Nobel Prize in chemistry. Kavod!

  2. My friend in Stockholm says chabad organized a dinner with him for the young adults in the community, how cool? Peace is the only prize in Oslo, but I think we got the best one ;-)

    Chaim, sorry for the question, but I'm always curious about who reads this-- are you Chaim from Memphis, or a Chaim that I don't know?

  3. Chaim that you don’t know. I live in Israel. My aunt and uncle live in Columbus and when I was there for a short time, they mentioned your blog so I thought I'd check it out. It's very interesting so far.

  4. Oh, cool, who are your aunt and uncle? The Columbus community is small enough, I probably know them.

  5. Um, and if you're Israeli, were you offended by all the stuff I said about "obnoxious Israeli presumption" in this post?

  6. My uncle and aunt are Aryeh and Judith Cohen.
    I actually thought about commenting on those remarks, but I decided not to. But now that you mention it, I would like to say that I think that drawing a conclusion about the quality or ability of Israeli Shlichim from one case might be a little rash. There are plenty of Israelis that could have probably answered those questions that the kids asked in a much better way. Also it sounds from your description that this Chazzan was more of a Charedi, and Charedim might not be so used to answering this kinds of questions. Some times Dati'im Le'umi'im (דתיים לאומיים) have more experience with this questions because they spent time in the army and get they religion questioned all the time by their fellow soldiers.
    But don’t worry, I wasn’t offended by what you wrote

  7. Ah, yes I do know them, cool people.
    I agree completely about the danger of generalizing, and am glad you weren't offended ;-) But the scary bit was that the chazzan IS dati leumi. I I think it may be because datiim leumim in Israel all live in one community, and chilonim in others... everyone's so locked up in boxes!