The fledgling Progressive community of Oslo invited me to visit them and run a shabbaton this weekend. I decided I'd do it, but use the excuse to have a little weekend break in a new exotic (to me) city. And cartesiandaemon was brave enough to agree to join me.
I couldn't get away from work before 1 o'clock Friday afternoon, which made the timing a little tight. Happily, I was able to find a cheap flight from the real Stockholm airport to the real Oslo airport, and got to the church the community borrow by 7 pm, going immediately into running the first activity, a Friday night meal with a little service and a talk on lulav. The community were incredibly welcoming and helpful, and listened to me with enthusiasm, and fed us a very tasty meal including tea. They had attempted to order a lulav of their own, but it got stopped at customs as a foreign plant potentially harmful to the biosphere, so we had to do with just talking about it.
We stayed in a mildly nasty chain hotel, called Thon Munch, based on the fact that it was just about vaguely affordable. (The community had actually offered to put me up in a member's home, which I will probably take them up on if they ask me back, but I wanted to have a bit more independence this time.) It's in a nice area of town though; Oslo has some really interesting architecture, some nineteenth century, lots of really classic early twentieth century (it's as much a centre of Art Deco as Glasgow) and some fascinating modern buildings.
Saturday morning I led a morning service in a living room belonging to the couple who run the community. I read from a toy Torah, which is what they have, one of those souvenir things which have a copy of the actual Torah text in. It's very endearing, but almost too small to read. I also turned a blind eye to the fact that they didn't even slightly have a minyan, as requested. And they decided they were going to improvise a lulav even if they didn't have their much awaited real one, so we waved a bunch of a rose, an ornamental cabbage, some ferns and an apple.
After taking us out for lunch in a dear little Palestinian restaurant (!), the community let us have some time to ourselves for the afternoon. It was autumnal, not horribly cold but damp enough to be rather uncomfortable. Several people recommended visiting the newly built opera house, which is a really striking piece of architecture, all white and shining against the sea, and full of non-right angles as opposed to the curves you see in most self-consciously modern architecture.
We went into the tourist office at the station, which is a glass tower with a giant caterpillar for a logo, and picked up a leaflet which suggested that the university had a museum of Viking boats. We walked up the main shopping street, past a small but old and pretty cathedral and an impressive neoclassical theatre, only to discover that the museum is administratively part of the university, but not physically located in its campus. We were a little tired and damp, and even if we hadn't been discouraged it was an awkward time of day to traipse to another part of town in time to find a museum that was still open.
So we headed in the direction of a restaurant that had been recommended to us, Mother India. Nobody could quite explain to me why Oslo has a major immigrant community from Pakistan / Bangladesh / north India, but apparently it does, and I was feeling homesick for decent Indian food. The restaurant was cosy to the point of being almost physically too small; we were nearly bumping elbows with diners at adjacent tables. The food was nice, though, and if it was expensive (we ended up spending about £25 a head for a fairly ordinary curry), that's what you expect in Norway. Then we went to the home of another member of the community for tea, and she was very charming to us. We were a bit worried about walking back, as it was late and we'd already done quite a lot of walking, but decided it wasn't worth trying to figure out a foreign city's tram network, and it turned out that Oslo is a lot smaller than it looks, walking all the way across the map took only 20 minutes.
Sunday we had glorious sunshine, just the best way to get a positive impression of Oslo. Like Stockholm it's very wooded, even quite close to the city centre, and we had a wonderful display of autumn colours against a bright blue sky. We spent the morning at the Jewish museum, newly opened in one of the town's two former synagogues. The history of the Norwegian Jewish community is like a microcosm, or an exaggerated version, of the story of European Jewry in general. Jews were first allowed to settle in the country in the mid-nineteenth century, gradually achieved some measure of acceptance and experienced a major wave of immigration from Eastern Europe from the 1890s onwards. Then Norway was occupied by the Nazis in 1940 and offered little resistance and often tacit collaboration with the deportation of almost the entire Jewish community. After the war, a few survivors trickled back to the country and just about kept the remnants of the Jewish community alive, but barely. The thing is, though, that at the peak of Jewish existence in the 1920s, the community numbered 2100 people in total in the whole country (that's fewer than attended Stockholm synagogue for Yom Kippur this year).
The museum is trying very hard to be positive; they had exhibitions about Jewish artists (there was a major Jewish presence in the musical scene, partly because music allowed Jews to avoid employment restrictions), and about Jewish contributions to Norwegian military history, as volunteers in the 1905 war of independence and as resistance fighters during WW2. And they have restored the magnificent art deco doorway from the original synagogue. The guide who introduced us to the exhibition looked as if she'd stepped out of a National Geographic article on Norwegian culture, and also really sweet and really knowledgeable and enthusiastic about her subject.
We went out for Vietnamese lunch, in a restaurant I wouldn't have chosen as they looked to have nothing vegetarian, but they were helpful in preparing rice and noodles without meat. And it was full of real Vietnamese people. Then our hosts took us to tourist destinations; one of them has worked as a guide, so he was able to give us lots of really informative commentary on the sights we visited! We made up for our previous disappointment with a trip to the Viking ships museum. I've seen quite a bit of Viking stuff in Sweden, and even in York, but this one is totally different. They have several complete ships, retrieved from burial sites (it seems some tribes buried their funeral ships rather than burning them), and they let them speak for themselves, a few placards with factual historical commentary, none of this "yay Vikings were cool!" stuff. It's pretty awe-inspiring to see an almost intact ship from the ninth century, not to mention the treasures recovered from the cargoes.
We ended up at the Vigeland sculpture park. This far surpassed expectations; we had worried that it would be hard to appreciate Oslo after coming from Florence, but the sculpture park is really breathtaking. It's a whole park that is a single work of art, created over a forty-year period by Vigeland, to represent the human lifespan and contribute to a truly Norwegian aesthetic after independence. The sculptures are not exactly beautiful, but very striking and expressive, all these people in different life situations, made of granite with pretty simple lines, yet really communicating a strong emotive impression. The emotional range is very broad, covering cute couples and triads of various gender combinations, children who are sometimes sweet and innocent and sometimes disturbing (often both), both positive and negative aspects of aging, and a major theme of domestic violence. They are also anatomically accurate nudes, not titillating at all but with a lot of erotic energy in many of the pieces. And the setting is lovely, with a view out over the whole city. Our guide noted that Vigeland himself came from a violent home, and campaigned for women's rights particularly in terms of getting recognition for partner violence as a crime (which was extremely progressive for the early part of the last century), but at the same time was somewhat of a misogynist and continued the pattern of abuse in his own family.
Finished off with another Indian meal, this time in the House of India by the station. This is a much more modern place than Mother India, more spacious and somewhat cheaper, but the food was really tasty if a little basic; I had a really superlative palak paneer. And the journey home was actually surprisingly easy, just about five hours door to door, which is pretty good for anything that involves a flight and the attendant hanging around for two hours in an airport!
I really enjoyed working with this community. I got the impression that they really need me, not just someone, but me specifically. I'm not saying no-one else can contribute anything to them, obviously, but they like the fact that I'm young and clearly a lay person, yet coming from a position of knowledge, and they really seemed to respond strongly to my approach to Judaism. They also asked me how I felt about being "the token heterosexual", so of course I answered that I'm not all that het (um, yay bi visility?), and asked cartesiandaemon how he felt about being the rabbi's wife! Actually this is the first time I've dragged the Beau to a service; I was so committed to community stuff this weekend that we'd have had no time together if he skipped the boring religious bits as he usually does. He was very noble about it, anyway.
On the negative side, cartesiandaemon has given me his cold, but at least I had fun catching it, unlike my usual habit of picking up lurgies from all my colleagues who are parents of small children. I have to go to a conference tomorrow, and I'm speaking first thing on Friday morning, so I'd better get well by then. Not to mention I need to write my talk!