Jews of Stockholm
by Alex Archer
Our second stop - Stockholm, Sweden. My best laid plans had gone crashing around us, or rather they had sunk, after all we were on a cruise! The Jewish Tour of Stockholm, for which our tickets were paid for and hand delivered to our cabin on the first night, had been cancelled!
What was I going to do? I had promised Karen an article for the website and my family were relying on me. For those of you who know me, I spend literally days, not hours on the internet planning these trips. Stockholm was going to be easy.....I was relying on someone else.....what a mistake that was!
Plan B came into action. Make a lot of noise at Guest Relations. I did. Lots of refunds and complimentary tickets and a promise by the manager that she would speak to the shul and arrange something. Quite rightly, I had little faith in a successful outcome.
So Plan C had to be cobbled together. Find a map of Stockholm, get a native to point out the synagogue and head for it. As we walked there, silver lightening cracked the sky in two and thunder roared above. Surely I had got something right!
A short walk and we were outside the Great Synagogue. The gates were locked, there was no one about and the thunder was still roaring above. And as if by a miracle, the kindly Eva appeared out of nowhere.
Eva Aperia was to be our guide for the morning. As we walked inside, the noise of thunder blocked out her voice and the rain poured down. Safe inside the building we learnt about the history of Jews in Sweden and this fascinating shul.
The first Jew allowed into Sweden was Aaron Isaac, a merchant from Germany. He came to Stockholm with his family in 1774. As a condition of accepting his invitation to settle, he insisted on bringing 9 other men and their families in order to ensure there would be a minyan.
By 1870, once the controls of Jewish immigration were lifted, the population in Sweden had increased to 3000 and The Great Synagogue was built.The first congregants were very liberal Jews, but today the community is part of the Masorti movement. The current congregants actually range from very liberal, through to Masorti and Orthodox and there is one Chabad family who do their utmost to encourage orthodoxy.
Interestingly the builder wanted the shul to look like the interior of a church. There is no central bimah, it is just in front of the ark. Having been brought up in Stanmore, my initial reaction was to make the comparison although Stanmore shul was never built with a church in mind - it was more to do with the space and the number of additional seats which could be accommodated with this design!
At the back, there is an organ. On closer inspection, the pipes resemble an open Sefer Torah. Was somebody having a laugh!
The builder wanted the men and women to sit together but the architect thought differently and the interior was built with a ladies' gallery. Strangely however, for several years the more orthodox sat on one side of the shul which was split with the women upstairs; and on the other,men and women sat together! But today everyone sits together.
Unlike other shuls I have visited around the world, this one does not take on the culture of its home country. As already mentioned, the builder based his designs on a church. In addition the roof is held up by Viking-like supports and the design around the ark is meant to be akin to a Syrian temple with pictures of Oriental Lotus flowers and.
The window is framed with a Swedish style symmetrical pattern.
Eva told us about Swedish attitudes towards the Jews. Sadly they are very different to the Danes. There are some very antisemitic views amongst the Swedes. Brit Milah is effectively prohibited on the basis that it is barbaric, although a work around is in place; Shehita is banned as being cruel and all kosher meat has to be imported......we think our meat is expensive! There is a feeling of general antisemitism which in the past year has become very noticeable. However I did note that the building was unusually easily identifiable as a shul.
Within the grounds of the shul is a Holocaust memorial. It is a 42 metre monument and serves as a link between the monstrous past and a future in which there should be no room for such atrocities to be repeated. It records 8,500 victims who are relatives of Jews residing in Sweden and names the survivors together with their family members, stating in which camp they were murdered.
Outside the shul is a round stone memorial to Raoul Wallenberg with the inscription in numerous languages "The road was straight, when the Jews were deportedto death. The road was winding, dangerous and full of obstacles, when Jews were trying to escape from their murderers . Even with this acknowledgement, Eva felt that there are far too few Swedes who have even heard of Raoul Wallenberg.
When we left the shul, the sun was shining and sun cream was needed to get us through the rest of the day. Clearly I did get something right!
If you are planning a trip to Stockholm, first call or email Eva Aperia at the Great Synagogue +46 708 211897 or email@example.com. It would be a shame to go there and miss her very interesting explanations of the history of the Swedish Jews and the Great Synagogue.