On a cold autumnal evening in Oslo the dark and mist needs little excuse to roll in an envelop you in a haunting and vice like grip.
For some the Scandinavian nights are a joy. For Jews though at this time of year Friday night is a problem.With Shabbat arriving ever earlier.Getting home after work can be a task in its self while going on to synagogue is a major operation.
With the total population of Jews in the capital City numbering around 1400 souls, with a further couple of hundred living in Norway’s second City Trondheim, getting a Minyan for a Friday night service is not a given.My oldest son lives and works in Oslo and my wife and I visited him, his partner and our baby grand daughter for a weeks break.
I had barely got off the plane when my son told me that he had volunteered me for the Friday night service as with both the Rabbi and Cantor away they could count only on nine men attending the Friday night service, and that was two days out from the night so even that was not certain.
Everything would be fine , he told me, we could ride there in the bus and only needed to walk back, partly up hill, for 35 minutes , at the service end. At first I thought this was his idea of a Norwegian joke.After all with perhaps the exception of the Danes, cold weather and humour do not mix.
So as it always tends to do Shabbat loomed on the horizon out of no where and suddenly it was late Friday afternoon and a little after half past four in the afternoon. I was instructed that we would have to get going soon or we would be late. Having long forgotten my initial greeting I inquired about what we were late for.
Synagogue was his reply. I lamely said I could not go as I had not brought a kippah with me. That was an excuse easily overcome and soon I was walking through cold streets to the bus stop with my son’s spare kippah in my pocket. He proudly wore his kippah with the word Chelsea and the club’s emblem emblazoned over it. A dangerous thing to do in a town full of Liverpool and Manchester Utd supporters.
The synagogue, very close to the centre, is in a once fashionable district about five minutes from where we had hopped of the bus. You could soon see we were near the synagogue. Two policemen sat languidly in their police car and a row of substantial stone boulders were spread around the road in the vicinity of the synagogue to deliberately stop any potential suicide bomber driving a vehicle into the building.
Norway was the birth place of the Oslo Accords which finally ended in stalemate and bitter recrimination. The people of Norway have generally since been strong supporters of the Palestinian cause blaming Israel for the many break downs in face to face negotiations. Though generally unfair in their outlook they go about demonstrating their displeasure in a typical passive Nordic way.
A substantial minority of migrants from the Middle East and the Indian sub-continent do not enjoy such passive views and hence the boulders and the police. After being checked in to the well secured building the few men inside, mainly in their middle age or elder, with a couple of younger Israelis, greeted me like a long lost brother.
I suppose if synagogues back home gave visitors such an effusive welcome they might be better attended. The service was taken by a Dane who had made his home in the Norwegian capital, in a manner and tone so impressive that only the most educated in Hebrew would have been able to tell the difference. As it turned out eleven men eventually turned out so my exalted position was not quite as exalted as it first appeared.
As we left and walked out into the cold night air past the police and rocks, one of the Magnificent Eleven joked to me that there were more police outside guarding us then were people inside. A sad commentary on the Europe of today when survivors of the Shoah still walk the streets.
Our service leader for the night cornered me as we left. He was an aficionado of British TV detective series. He wanted to discuss the merits of “Foyles War,” written as it happens by a Jew, and “Frost” He was not a fan of the American detective series he told me. They relied on guns , rather than guile, and lots of action. Not clever plots. We agreed that “Colombo” played by the late Peter Falk was an exception.
Soon our group of eleven plus a couple of women, who had looked lost in the Ladies Gallery during the service, split up into ever smaller groups as we wound our way home. Then there was just me and my son.Thinking about what had transpired I realised that this was probably the only Jewish religious service taking place in Norway that night. Quite spooky and intimidating I thought. If my son hadn’t dragged himself to the service and not dragged me in his wake well that would probably meant no Jewish service in Norway at all that night..
Surely, I queried, there must be another Jewish service some where in this town, somewhere in this country. Well, he told me there was talk of a Chabad Rabbi in Oslo. Its always a Chabad Rabbi, but no on has ever met him. Very unChabad if he is indeed here.. and there is a female progressive Rabbi who represents a group called Jewish Spiritual Renewal. But apart from hearing that she ran meditation classes there was no advertised programmed from her and he did not know where these meditation classes, if they existed, took place.
As a boy I used to attend religious education classes six days a week at the Masiche HaDass synagogue in London’s East End. Because of the historic piety of the place it was said that though most synagogues owed their allegiance to the Chief Rabbi the Masiche HaDass owed its allegiance to a higher authority. The long time head master often told us that by doing a single good deed it was akin to saving the world. I had never grasped that concept until the night I became a cold and unwilling Minyan man in Oslo.