Sunday, February 5, 2012

Profaning the Sacred

I woke up early one morning, after it had been snowing all night, and walked to Løvstakken to ramble about its base. As I shimmied and shuffled through the powdery heaps of white, my footsteps became the first to imprint on the landscape. I was here. I was here. I was here. Each print an affirmation of self-in-place, of joy in the dawning day and intrepid slip-proof courage.

I rejoined the main path only to leave it again, following the trace of a track through the woods eastward. The strip of white led me under pine boughs laden with winter, past delicate twigs twirling white, and into a clearing. I sat on a fallen log to watch the snow fall. It spun dizzily into the grove, lacing the firs’ deep piney richness with pure pearly cream. When I looked up into the grey sky, the world imperceptibly slowed to the pace of the snowflakes’ descent, an unhurried dreamy drifting.

I reached the bottom and, my mind still immersed in the clearing, trudged down the main path towards Gamlehaugen. Slowly, something strange began to impede on my consciousness. I looked up. To the left of the path, there was a swathe of barren ground, trampled and broken. I swung around to my right. A truck, laden with the corpses of trees, was tucked half into the woods as though in shame. Logging. The American in me forgot that I’m in Norway, that Norwegians prize the meadowland aesthetic above woodlands, that they have plenty more timber where that came from. The American was unreasonably angry for a moment. That anyone could dare to disturb the peace I’d felt on Løvstakken, fail to understand the near-holy sanctity of trees, flared a momentary and deranged spark in me. Then I saw the humorous side of the situation, and seconds later was bombarding the truck with snowball after snowball in what I believe is called a childish fit of pique. Finally, I heard voices approaching, and subsided to continue down the mountain, hands in my pockets. Would’ve whistled if I could.

As I was passing through the English department hall at UiB after a meeting Friday afternoon, one of the professors called me in to meet her husband, a professor of religion. He’d just given a lecture on the new Norwegian translation of the bible: this one is better because in certain places instead of saying “brothers” it says “siblings,” and other such politically correct improvements. I suggested that such a disingenuous cleaning up of the Scriptures may obfuscate the true nature of the Holy Word. Zeljka (another English prof) joined us and they began talking about a recent editorial in the student newspaper—a much-needed response to some crazy fundamentalist venting his Islamophobia.

“They shouldn’t have booed him to silence—they should have answered him with argument, and shut him up!” announced Zeljka.

“The booing is dangerous, with these people,” answered Øyunn, “then they just feel as though they haven’t been heard, and then who knows what they’ll do.” We all nodded solemnly. “Hannah, Norway has such a problem with fundamentalists.”

The Fantoft Stavkirke
“I thought you were all meant to be so secular,” I answered. Some unruly part of my mind was thinking, “burn the fundamentalists!” but I shut it up firmly.

Zeljka laughed. “Yes, that is the image we want to give. But there are some crazies here. Oh, don’t look at me, I’m a lapsed Catholic.”

“Hannah, are you religious?” Øyunn’s husband wanted to know. “We should find out before we say anything.”

I squirmed. “Jewish.”


“Yep. Practicing.”

They began to decide what that meant. So no cheeseburgers? Kosher and all? And the sabbath? But it’s Friday? Oh, two hours from now? Orthodox or Reconstructionist, or what’s that one in the middle? What does post-labelist mean? A joke? Ah, I like that you included feminist in your religious definition of yourself!

It was sometime right after they were trying to trap my exact degree of religiousness into a label, while Øyunn’s husband was still engaged in listing the names of every Jewish sect he could think of, and Zeljka, her arms crucifix-wide-open, began singing “always look on the bright side of life” and faux tap dancing across the office, that I decided was an opportune moment to disappear. I headed back to my apartment, which was soon full of shabbat smells and my lone voice singing Yedid Nefesh out into the snowy evening. 


  1. I am far more ignorant than the professors at UiB.
    That means I cannot and will not try to label you.
    I just appreciate that you are a practising Jew, and thereby keep your people alive in every sense of the word, that God may fulfil his promises.
    Being born curious, I just had to google "Yedid Nefesh"
    and here his an audio link I found. Made my tears flow, not from sorrow though.

  2. Getting carried away with themselves is pretty much what Øyunn and Zjelka do, which can be quite entertaining unless you're the topic of discussion I imagine. Whenever I walk into one of their offices with something particular in mind, I always end up walking out with so much more in my head, which if you're prepared for it going in can be really stimulating. :)