The blast of a shofar was not a new sound to the dreamlike Icelandic landscapes I visited with Kosher Travelers – according to a thirteenth century family chronicle of life among the Viking settlers there hollowed out horns were used to call men into battle. But the shofar which we heard every morning at davening, was not a war cry but a call to repentance – we were scant days away from Rosh Hashanah. Is touring Iceland any way to prepare for the High Holidays? You bet it is! Feeling like you are present at the creation of the world is not unusual in this island country of glaciers, hot springs, majestic waterfalls, geysers, active volcanoes, and snow-capped peaks. Signs of creation — maasei breisheet — abound.
The Kosher Travelers – a wonderfully integrated group including participants from age 17 up to 73 – fearlessly (with some trepidation) climbed to the stunning vistas and geological marvels of this unique country. We visited waterfalls (and waterfalls, and waterfalls), and lava-generated dreamscape rock formations – most involving arduous hikes. I had no idea I could accomplish all this. And indeed had it not been for the many helping hands and the warm heartfelt encouragement of everyone on the trip I would have missed three-quarters of the program – I would have made it to the meals, boarded the bus and immersed myself in the thermal spa.
Sailing out in a motorized rubber dinghy (wearing life jackets – how seaworthy is this flimsy craft?) to the largest glacier in Europe which Icelanders talk about as if it were an old friend or a venerable relative, I wondered how long we might survive is these clear waters dotted with diminutive new born icebergs. We toasted our arrival with a shot of Floki – a local single malt whiskey, on the rocks – in this case a chunk of 500-year-old glacier ice. Nervous tension eased slightly.
Our knowledgeable guide, Yossi Ben Ami, was so enamored of the history and geology of everyplace we visited, that his enthusiasm became contagious. Did you know that the Vikings discovered steel? This gave them an edge in conquering much of Europe. Did you know that there are different names for lava? Did you know that … I can’t remember it all.
The waterfalls were lacerated lace somersaulting from on high or thundering torrents rivaling the legendary Sambatyon River which is said to rage six days a week and rest on Shabbos. Several waterfalls, seeding the air with fine mist, produced rainbows hovering sylph-like over the raging currents to which they were inextricably bound.
Our delicious meals, always beautifully presented, were usually in a private dining room – which I think was a type of Kiddush Hashem – a sign at the entrance to our eating area proclaimed “Reserved for Kosher Travelers.”
Another location where we were treated to fabulous food was the Chabad house in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. Rebbetzin Mushky and Rabbi Avi Feldman, our gracious hosts, have been busy since arriving three years ago with their two young daughters. Among their Iceland accomplishments – in 2021 Judaism was registered as an official state religion of this island country. They also appropriately welcomed a a new Torah scroll to the island a year after their arrival, with a festive parade under a chuppah – perhaps a first for this country. The Feldmans are planning a mikve and a school. During some meals Rabbi Feldman serenaded us on the piano with classical music.
We flew up to Akureyri, known as the Northern capital of Iceland. A delightful small town, which boasts the northern most botanical garden in the world, traffic lights which feature a heart-shaped red light and an airport runway in the middle of a fjord. My quirky interests aside, this delightful town is perhaps best known for the Black Castle, a protected nature preserve where huge lava formations suggest birds, synagogues, cathedrals, or whatever your imagination may conjure up.
On our last day we visited the Sky Lagoon – a heavenly ocean-side thermal spa (is heavenly thermal spa redundant?). After luxuriating in the relaxing warmth you can go in for the ‘Ritual’ treatment which starts with a dunk in very cold water (I skipped that part – they have their rituals; I have mine), continues with a salt/mineral scrub, a sauna with an unobstructed ocean view, cold fog-mist space (tolerable). and other delights. Generous towels are provided.
I can’t chronicle everything we did, but it was intense! At home I am proud if I average a daily 7,000 steps. In Iceland I hit between15 to 20,000 steps everyday – not all horizontal. The hotels were well-located and comfortable. The other tour members, from the United States and Israel, were a fun-loving, intelligent, amiable, cosmopolitan group.
Had I known in advance how physically challenging the trip would be and that I, a widow, would be the only single person on the roster (excluding two delightful 24-year old women, and a charming 17-year-old young man), I might not have gone. A great lesson for the year – we cannot predict or know what we are up for, what is in store, what is being recorded in the book of life. So just get out there and do it. And proudly proclaim that you are a Kosher Traveler. NB – bring hiking sticks!
Extra bonus – our flight to the U.S. (for those heading that way) coincided with the arrival of Hurricane Ida – so we were privileged to say Birkat Gomel!