Weaving a tapestry of personal narratives in the Swedish countryside

Last Wednesday night, after eating and clearing a dinner of tomato soup, garlic bread and strawberry gazpacho prepared by a camp chef of many years, I found myself, along with eighteen other people, sitting barefoot fireside in a cabin in the Swedish countryside listening to Professor Arthur Green, scholar of mysticism and Neo-Hasidism, sing echad mi yodea‘ in an accented Yiddish at a night of “Music and Musings.”

After singing, and receiving a rousing round of applause, Professor Green reminisced with his old friend Dr. Barbara Spectre about their time together in the 1960s in Jewish summer camp in the Berkshires. We then heard childhood folk songs sung in Bulgarian, listened to slam poetry reflecting on gender and identity in the Orthodox community, and received a virtual tour of Warsaw’s Museum of the History of Polish Jews from a member of its educational department. A German author told us of his upcoming book about community development based on his experiences working for a year with an Israeli NGO in Nepal. A PhD student at Heidelberg University gave us a talk and accompanying slide show about the life of Ida Kaminska and the Yiddish theater in Warsaw. The glow of the crackling fire illuminated the faces of the individuals in the room, each one with a personal narrative to share.

It is rare that I, or any working adult navigating the tricky balance that is life, will have the opportunity to be suspended for a week in a distraction-free world of new experiences, intellectual inquiry, self-discovery, value sharing, culture-bridging, and forging of spiritually nourishing friendships. And yet, that is the world that I experienced last week, being thrown into close quarters, both physically and spiritually, with this group of Jewish professionals, thinkers and leaders, in Glämsta, a remote countryside campsite in the forest of the Swedish archipelago. I am now grounded back in reality and trying to figure out exactly what about this experience has been so captivating for me.

We were brought to Sweden through the Paradigm Program of Paideia, the European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden, which Dr. Spectre founded and directs. We hailed from Germany, Ukraine, Russia, the Czech Republic, Israel, the United States, Hungary, Poland and Sweden. Not one of us knew quite what to expect. We came with varying backgrounds, vastly different personal narratives, wide-ranging conceptions of what it means to be Jewish, diverse levels of textual engagement, wide-ranging levels of Halakhic observance and individualized exposure to cultural and religious opportunities in our communities. Some of us have known about and been attached to our Jewish identities since birth. Others only found out they were Jewish as adults.

And though we came in as vastly different individuals, we emerged as a community. Through our dialogue with one another, our grappling over sacred texts, our early morning tefillah together on the banks of the Baltic Sea, and sharing of personal stories around the fire, we wove together a deep and powerful tapestry of experience that brought us together in a way that seemed almost magical. As one participant on the program remarked, “we sampled a taste of heaven.”

The background to the program, as explained by Dr. Spectre, is based upon “the understanding that we all, and especially in multicultural Europe, are facing the challenge of explaining our affinity for Judaism to friends and colleagues and to ourselves. Either in Europe, the U.S. or Israel we need to grapple with articulations in response to the most basic of questions: ‘What is Judaism?’.”

The program, both in form and substance, addressed the implications of retaining complex and multi-faceted identities. To explore that theme, we were joined by three leading contemporary Jewish thinkers, who, through their presentations, guided chavruta study, follow-up sessions, and informal conversations, challenged us to think long and hard about what it means to be Jewish. We struggled with the questions of how our Jewish identities live, synergistically, with the rest of ourselves. Questions of identity were explored, assumptions were challenged, and stories were shared.

After touring Stockholm and settling in after our arrival, on our first full day together we studied with Mr. Konstanty Gebert, Polish journalist and Jewish activist. Together we explored questions of what it means to be Polish and Jewish in contemporary Poland. Through a discussion of how the March of the Living deliberately constructed a narrative, we talked about the ways that such stories, often detached from historical context, impact on our identities. We raised the issue of how narratives can and should be challenged from the outside. We were reminded of how much of our identity is constructed by others. We analyzed whether or not one can build his/her own story without damaging the story of another. We left day one with the unanswered questions of who ultimately constructs any given narrative.

On day two we studied with Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of IKAR, a Jewish community in Los Angeles that is rooted in a deep commitment to social justice. Through her powerful and deeply emotional presentation, we explored the theme of the Exodus from Egypt as our core and fundamental story. We reflected on the power of our journey and shared history as it relates to our role in the world, both vis-à-vis ourselves and others.

Professor Green joined us on day three, bringing the study of Hasidism back to the soil of Europe. He set forth the key principles of Neo-Hasidism, drawing forth their implications for contemporary religious lives. His words were historical, theological, and personal. We studied classic texts of Hasidism together, grappling with some of the most fundamental questions of spirituality and the quest for leading religiously conscious lives.

The heavy learning and thinking that we did was complemented by long walks together, yoga in the fields, and group-writing reflections at the table. Around fires and in the forest we learned about one another’s Jewish journeys, from classrooms in Communist Russia to the mountains of Nepal, from war-torn Ukraine to culturally vibrant Cracow, from public school classrooms in snowy Maine to Jewish summer camps in Hungary, from poverty and illness in the ghetto of Shanghai to intellectual inquiry in the cafés of Sweden.

We made our beds, mopped and cleaned our rooms together. We plunged into the icy waters of the Baltic together. We listened. We spoke. We heard. We shared. The endless hours of Scandinavian daylight, resulting in a Shabbat that never seemed to want to end, enabled a rich sharing of our songs and native foods, our common beliefs and core struggles. We stopped our lives, disconnected from our loved ones to grapple together with the existential questions that deeply penetrate the essence of our beings.

I have tried hard to come up with discrete episodes and snippets of conversations to share that would offer a clear picture of what our days looked like. But retelling one conversation, narrating one moment in time, reviewing one text that we studied seems to take away from the timeless, free-flowing experience that was had. For a week we were in a different state of mind, operating in a different reality.

I, like my fellow participants, have been thinking about ways to bring our experiences home, back to our families, colleagues and communities. For me, one of the many takeaways has been the exhilarating and soul-nourishing feeling of hearing the stories and catching glimpses into each individual’s experience. We came with individualized stories, but were simultaneously trying to construct some kind of common narrative. In my experiences I have found that too often we focus on the things that divide us. Culture vs. religion? Who is “in” and who is “out”? Who controls the story? Who defines the experience? We build walls. We divide. We push out. We are quick to label. And we are quick to judge. Of course, at times, this exercise is appropriate and important, as it sharpens and defines our uniqueness in a vast and diverse world. But by overemphasizing the process, we lose out on the fabric and richness of experience, and the wonder that is the individual.

Over the course of our learning together, we encountered many texts. The one that stands out in this regard is the mishna in Sanhedrin 4:5, where witnesses in a capital case are examined. After describing the procedure, the Mishna reports a final warning given to them; the life of a human being is in their hands, and the witnesses must fully understand the value of this life:

“…Therefore, the first human was created alone… to declare the greatness of the Holy One, blessed be God, for a person mints many coins with one stamp, and they are all alike, but the King, the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed be God, mints each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his or her fellow.”

We studied this text in chavruta one day, and late that afternoon discussed its implications with Rabbi Brous. A charged discussion of Halakha and core values ensued, and one participant, whose Judaism is cultural rather than religious, got up and offered an emotional thank you. She had never before experienced this kind of intellectual inquiry and value-laden discussion related to a sacred religious text. She had not thought that Torah spoke to or could inform her Western values; they were different spheres. Judaism for her was culture, not religion, but suddenly there was a moment in which ideas, values, texts, culture, and religion merged into one thread. For me, her reaction was quite revealing. I have taught this mishna in many contexts and to many different audiences. Somehow, however, learning it this time seemed different. Woven into the very fabric of our being are our individualized experiences and personal journeys. Our values come to the fore when we contend with contradictions and ambiguities. Sharing them with one another enlightens us, enriches us, and affords us a glimpse of God in the wonders of the individual. Sometimes, it takes a suspension from reality and a blazing fire in the Swedish countryside to remind us of that.

About the Author
Shira Hecht-Koller is an educator, attorney and writer. She is currently Director of Education for 929 English, a platform for the daily global study of Tanakh and is a faculty member at Drisha, where she teaches Talmud and designs immersive text study experiences. She has taught at SAR High School and practiced corporate intellectual property law at Debevoise & Plimpton, LLP. She teaches, writes and speaks on topics of Bible, Jewish law and creative living. She is also a graduate of the Bruria Scholars Talmud Program at Midreshet Lindenbaum and holds a certificate from M²: The Institute for Experiential Jewish Education. She is an avid tennis fan, an amateur photographer, and more than anything, she loves learning about and exploring the world with her husband Aaron and children Dalya, Shachar, Amitai and Aiden.