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Creating a Norwegian-Jewish Family Identity

Sept. 22, 2010

My Jewish identity, religious practice and culture are very important to me. This was one of the reasons that my original plan was to marry someone Jewish. And this was definitely why, when I married my non-Jewish husband, that I negotiated so hard to raise our child(ren) in a kosher, Shabbat-observant home. But perhaps because my heritage is so important to me, I knew that ignoring my husband's heritage did not make any sense. I had this reoccurring idea of directing my theoretical children's attention like a magician to my Jewish culture in one outstretched hand, while hoping they would not notice my husband's non-Jewish culture curled up in my other hand. Needless to say, it was not exactly a healthy model.

My husband was born about a year-and-a-half after his parents came to the United States from Norway. His father was on an exchange program, and it was many years before it became clear that the family would remain in the States for the long haul. Birger's first language was Norwegian and he often spent his summers in Norway visiting his extended family. His family's diet was Norwegian (fish and potatoes). His parents' closest friends were other Norwegians living in the States. I asked my sister-in-law how important being Norwegian is to her family. Her response was: "Very! It is our identity. How important is it to you that you are Jewish?"

My first idea was to try to create a more integrated Jewish-Norwegian identity for our family. To this end, I went looking for other families that were both Jewish and Norwegian. I didn't have to look beyond our own local Jewish community to find a couple of families who had a mixture of both heritages. They were as excited to find us as we were to find them, and for the last three years we have hosted them for lunch on the Shabbat closest to the 17th of May (Norwegian Independence Day). At the lunch we put out all of our Norwegian treasures, dolls, flags and books and serve traditional Norwegian foods.

This is a lovely tradition, and I hope we continue doing it for a good long time. However, I found myself wanting to know more about the "real" Norwegian Jews. The families in our 17th of May group are, like us, all products of intermarriages. We are all grabbing things from our Norwegian heritages and trying to make them fit into our Jewish practices. I wanted to know more about the people who don't even have to create a Jewish-Norwegian identity--the Jews in Norway. So I started doing Google searches and found out that the Jewish community in Norway is very small. The Norwegian parliament lifted its ban against Jews in 1851, and by World War II the population was up to 2,200, but all of the Jews who had not fled Norway were taken to Auschwitz in the late fall of 1942. Currently, the number of Jews in Norway is somewhere around 1,000. There are two organized communities, a larger one in Oslo and a smaller one in Trondheim.

I corresponded with the cantor at the only synagogue in Oslo. He promised me that when our son was ready for a pen-pal, he would set us up. He also informed me that geitost, a quintessential Norwegian food (a goat's milk cheese that is to Norwegians as vegemite is to Australians), is actually considered kosher by the Orthodox rabbi in the community. I was starting to believe at a much deeper level that our home could be both Jewish and Norwegian.

My next idea was to start a Facebook group for Norwegian Jews; it now has more than 70 members. Through the site I have met Jews born in Norway, Norwegians who converted to Judaism, Jewish partners of Norwegians, Norwegian partners of Jews, Israelis and other Jews currently living in Norway, and Norwegians who like hanging out with Jews. They live in Alaska, Seattle, Southern California, Minneapolis, Chicago, Montreal, Jerusalem, Tromsø and Oslo. Each person's story was different, but there were themes. For example, unless the person lived in Oslo or Jerusalem, he or she was pretty isolated and knew very few other Norwegian-heritage Jews, if any. Another theme was that there did not seem to be a "Norwegian-Jewish way" to do things. To the extent that people had found ways to integrate the two cultures, those practices were pretty specific to their own families.

I have met wonderful people. For example, Leif Knutsen is a Norwegian convert to Judaism who recently moved back to Norway after living in the United States. He works as a consultant, and writes and fights avidly for the best possible life for his autistic son, Jacob. When we first met, he was still trying to find his place in the Jewish community in Oslo. Margrit Rosenberg Stenge is an amazing 80-year-old woman living in Canada. Margrit translates Holocaust memoirs into English, including the book "Counterfeiter: How a Norwegian Jew Survived the Holocaust." She has also written her own story of hiding in the Norwegian countryside before her family fled to Sweden during WWII. Margrit is an incredibly gifted storyteller.

I reunited with a dear friend from college, Daniel Gutstein, who married a lovely Norwegian-American woman named Kari. Daniel and Kari are modern Orthodox. They live in Chicago, the city where they both grew up and are now raising their three boys. Kari's mother, Jorunn Scheiderich, is very active in many of the Chicago-area Norwegian groups, and this year was the grand marshall of the Norwegian 17th of May parade in Park Ridge, Ill. When we first reconnected, neither Kari nor Daniel knew any other Norwegian Jews.

I feel very grateful for the people I have met. I appreciate their willingness to tell me their stories. I love that the next time we travel to Norway (and many other places), we will be able to visit with Norwegian Jews. I now have a whole shelf filled with books and stories about Norwegian Jews. If my son wants to do a school project on the history of Norwegian Jews or the experience of Jews during the Holocaust, I will be able to help him.

However, I think the biggest gift of all from my Norwegian-Jewish research is that I now feel more comfortable being the type of Norwegian Jewish family we actually are. I wanted our son to learn about "real" Norwegian Jews so that I could make sure to bring him up to be a part of that community, so when he went into the wide world and met up with other Norwegian Jews, he would know the secret handshake and would be able to say with confidence, "I am one of you."

In the end, the fact that I haven't been able to uncover the ways real Norwegian Jews do things is a good thing. My search for the "real" Norwegian Jews is really about my struggle to feel legitimized in my choice to be a religious Jew in an interfaith marriage. While I would still love to know more about how other Norwegian Jews integrate their Norwegian and Jewish traditions, the most important thing I can do for my son has very little to do with what other people out there are doing and much more to do with how comfortable I am with who I am and who our family actually is. My son is going to be much better off if we can joyfully celebrate and embrace the richness of both cultural heritages.

So it's time for me to think about how the ways in which we already celebrate the holidays and Shabbat reflect my family's traditions and values, and consider how they also could reflect my husband's family's traditions. It's time for me to learn to cook some of my mother-in-law's favorite fish and potato dishes and hear some of my husband's stories about his summers as a child in Bergen and his experiences as a first-generation immigrant to the United States. I have to say I am looking forward to it.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. A member of the Jewish clergy who leads a congregation in songful prayer. ("Hazzan" in Hebrew.) Hebrew for "fit" (as in, "fit for consumption"), the Jewish dietary laws.
Juliet Stamperdahl

Juliet Stamperdahl lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her amazing husband and their adorable 2 year-old son. She holds a PhD in psychology and writes Statistics for Psychology course work for a living. She remains an active in the Orthodox synagogue in which she was raised and feels privileged to write this piece for InterfaithFamily.com.

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