Thursday, 7 July 2016

Stockholm Great Synagogue is a great tourist destination

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Stockholm Great Synagogue impresses already with its architecture, but oy, the stories it tells!

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My recent trip to Sweden warranted its own hashtag on my Instagram: #datewithdestiny. And I can tell you it lived up to its name - I've been floating on air ever since (disgusting? God, yes. Disgustingly delightful? Goooooood, yes...)

In addition to that blissful afternoon at Oaxen, I was in store for many, many other equally memorable moments. I guess that's what right company means...? One of them was the tour of Stockholm's  Great Synagogue, which opened its visitor's season the day we went to see it. Guided tours in English are available from Monday to Thursday at 11am and at noon, on Fridays at 11. For more information and email where to sign up, just see here. Admission 150 SEK/ €15/ $20.  

Located in Östermalm on Wahrendorff street, this is one of three synagogues in Stockholm and the only Conservative one. Adat Jisrael on St.Paulsgatan and Adat Jeschurun on Riddargatan are both Orthodox. A fascinating detail about the latter is, that its interior was actually brought over from Hamburg, from the only German synagogue that survived the events of notorious Kristallnacht.

Symbol of resilience, that too - tried and tested over millenia. The faith and these people will live on. 

Photo: Wikipedia

Great Synagogue seats 950 and was dedicated in 1870. It was designed by a Swedish architect Fredrik Wilhem Scholander. It was built in Oriental style and its ornate details remind one of Alhambra and Alcazar Palace in Seville. Very different from, say, the synagogue I visited in Corfu.

The synagogue is a historic and cultural landmark and as such enjoys the protection of Swedish government. 

Stilistically the synagogue has had some peculiar influence from non-Oriental sources, too. The rosette window at the end is typical for churches of Gothic era and the birch trees, lining the aisle the day of our visit could not be any more Scandinavian. 

One local peculiarity is organ - the first I've ever seen in a synagogue. They do have a very Jewish appearance though, as they bear a striking ressemblence to mezuzah, a Tora scroll placed at the doorpost of a Jewish home. 

The organ is played on Shabbat and Holy Days. 

The windows add to the eclectic mix, romatically echoing Swedish countryside cirka 1800's.

The Hanukkah menora with its 8 branches was donated to the Jewish community in 1792 and the swirly letter "G" at the end of each leg is a homage to King Gustav III, the ruler at a time who okayed the donation. 

As the balcony implies, initially women and men were seated separately: men down below and women on the balconies around the main hall. These days there are also family sections where there's a mixed seating.

The ark, Aron Hakodesh, is the holiest of holiest in any synagogue and contains the Torah scrolls that are taken out during services. This synagogue has 20 of them. Oldest date back to 19th century, though some of the silver breastplates go all the way to the 18th century.

The reason behind the significant amount is that when the smaller Jewish communities founded around Sweden in 19th century eventually died, their synagogues were sold and Torah scrolls returned to Stockholm, usually on the condition that they be returned, should new communities be formed in the future. 

Though the synagogue makes an impression purely on aesthetic merits alone, the tour, courtesy of knowledgeable guides sheds light into the history of Swedish Jewry at large.

Owing to her age our guide, wonderful Eva, has already during her own lifetime witnessed many significant changes in the community and the country around it. The number of Jews is diminishing, as is the number of those attending services. Yiddish is no longer spoken in any Jewish home and Jewish weddings are celebrated less and less. Antisemitism is back on the rise and as a result more and more Jews choose aliyah, emigrating to Israel. 

The first Jew permitted to take up permanent resedence in Sweden was a German merchant Aaron Isaac in 1774. Wise man that he was, he brought with him enough Jews to make up a minyan (a group of 10 men over Bar Mitzvah age, required for Jewish prayers to take place).

At the time Jews were subject to heavy restrictions regarding their place of residence and professions they were allowed to practice. Initially Jews were only allowed to settle in Stockholm, Gothenburg and Norrköping. Jews didn't qualify for full citizenship until 1870, by which time the Jewish population in Sweden had reached 3000.

Today there are about 20 000 Jews in Sweden, out of which 12 000 live in Stockholm. Only about 4400 of them are members of the Jewish Community. Biggest Jewish immigration waves were witnessed during Russian Tsar's persecution and after the Second World War.

During the war Swedish Jews had it better than many other countries in Europe. The country remained neutral and never even severed diplomatic ties with Nazi Germany. Instead Sweden stepped up to the plate and played a significant part in rescuing Jews of Norway and Denmark. Half of Norway's Jewish population of 1000 were rescued to Sweden in 1940 and a massive smuggling operation of 1943 saved lives of 7000 Danish Jews. 

Moreover Sweden and a young diplomat called Raoul Wallenberg (only 32 at the time) made history with their heroic bid to save the Jews of Budapest. Hungarian Jewry had appealed to several European embassies, pleading for help but Sweden was the only one that took notice. They granted tens of thousands of  Jews a protective document called Schutzpass, which declared its bearer to be under the Swedish jurisdiction. 

Wallenberg square along with a memorial to this champion of human rights is only a stone throw's away from the synagogue. The man himself was captured by the Red Army and is said to have perished a couple of years later in a Soviet prison. 

Earlier this spring Sweden got the second saint in its history (first in 625 years) as the Pope Francis canonized a Swedish nun Elisabeth Hesselblad. She saved tens of Jews by hiding them in her convent in Rome. 

The victims of Holocaust or its dreadful legacy have not been forgotten here, either. The outer wall of the synagogue features the names of 8000 victims, who had family in Sweden, along with a plea they not be forgotten. 

"It is only with knowledge of those who've been lost that we can continue fighting racism, antisemitism and intolerance", the plaque reminds. 

Seeing these name lists is always as horrible - be it in Jewish Ghetto in Riga, Stockholm or any other one of those hundreds and thousands of villages and cities that were ravaged by this completely pointless and avoidable tragedy.

The stones outside synagogue were brought over from old Jewish Ghetto of Budapest. 

Auschwitz, Dachau, Treblinka... They're just words, comprising of letters we use in our speech every day, but those names, engraved in the stones on the wall are now synonymous with evil. 

Let us never forget. Let us never allow anything like this to happen again. 

What I've heard from so many people who've studied genocides is scary. This never happens overnight. This is just how it all ends; the chain of events that gets off to its start with the exact steps our continent is taking as we speak.

Legitimization of hate speech. Pinning society's failures on certain groups that right wing populistic rhetorics have launched as the perfect scapegoat. Scrimping on universality of human dignity based on person's ethnicity. Inciting people against their own countrymen.

That's how it all started, all those years ago, too.

Sweden does not get full points in this respect either: the country didn't pass the Law on Freedom of Religion until 1951. Until then Swedes weren't allowed to quit the church unless it was in order to join another religion, which itself wasn't even possible until 1860. 

And that full citizenship of 1870 didn't exactly guarantee full rights either: Jewish nurses for instance weren't allowed to work in state hospitals until 1950's. 

Any of you in the habit of visiting synagogues when travelling? Where have you guys been to?





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