No Lox on the Bagels!

Yes, when I was a young, newly honed Jewess, I had the chutzpah to make a sign for a festive brunch I was serving that said just that: No Lox on the Bagels! Little did I know then that depriving the bagel of its “lox” is akin to denying a kid candy at a bar or bat mitzvah, or holding back the Manischewitz at a bris (circumcision). Ouch.

When my ex-husband and I were young, and he was opening his first tax-office, I was in charge of preparing the food for the open house. The proud Norwegian hostess with the mostest that I am, some chips in a bowl with salsa wasn’t going to do the trick. I planned carefully ahead and used the requisite 48 hours in advance of the event to cure my own gravlaks, the delicious dill cured salmon that is, of course, a million times fresher, tastier and less salty that its popularized cousin “lox” aka smoked salmon.

There was champagne, beer and Aquavit served, as well as homemade cakes and coffee. The gravlaks was elegantly presented on a platter, with dill and lemon wedges, and mustard dill sauce on the side in a small Norwegian pewter bowl we had gotten as a wedding gift just a year or two before. To go with the gravlaks was a cold potato salad and scrambled eggs. The bagels and cream cheese somehow ambushed the party. I don’t even remember how they got there. But there they were, and I had to do what the only responsible thing was to do. Defend the honor of the gravlaks.

Of course, my valiant efforts of culinary segregation and prohibitive signage (there was actually a sign with the photo of a bagel inside a red circle with a red line through it posted next to the gravlaks) became the running joke of the entire event, and the story that survived an otherwise uneventful morning of polite chit chat and comings and goings.

Since then, I have to admit, that as my confidence has increased in all matters of life, love and letting go, I too, occasionally, put gravlaks on a bagel, schmeared with cream cheese, topped with red onions and capers. And boy is it delicious.

Bagel

One Homesick Jewess

Home as in Norway, that is.

As social media is heating up with news and discussions about the planned “Ring of Peace” outside the synagogue in Oslo on Saturday, and about the young Muslims who stand behind the seemingly positive initiative, as a Norwegian Jew I’ve had a strange day filled with many mixed feelings. But most of alI I just want to go home to Oslo and show support. Support the synagogue by showing up for Shabbat services and not let the heightened threat of terror win. Support the initiative by the Muslim youth who with their symbolic act say “If Muslims want to act with violence, they have to break through us first” as they create human shields to protect their Abrahamic brothers against hatred and violence.

It started early this morning when I was still unaware of the planned event, just the heightened tension and security measures in our Oslo shul. I started up my computer, and as usual expect to first find emails from overseas (Norway, France or Israel, my three overseas main connections) since their day already is half over by the time we wake up in the U.S. In my inbox were two letters to the members from the president of the synagogue in Oslo, Ervin Kohn. In the first, he calmly and like the loving head of a household tells the community to come together and be strong; to be brave and come to services on Shabbat despite the natural urge to huddle at home out of danger’s perceived way; to let members know there would be a warm and comforting lunch served for those who come, so that everyone can gather after services and share a meal at this emotionally laden time. That’s when I felt the first lump in my throat. How I’d love to be there with everyone.

The second letter was to share the information about the support-event planned by the Muslim youth group, and Kohn’s sincere wish that the Jewish community would show up plentiful for the evening service as well, to support their efforts, in a sense to encourage his congregants to face the Other in their attempt to show solidarity. The tiny, Jewish community in Norway is being supported publicly not by a politician with an agenda to win a seat in the Parliment, but by Muslim youth who represent a vocal part of both youth and popular culture especially as it takes on its own often boisterous life on various social media platforms. I’d like to be there and meet them face to face and say, thank you for standing up for what’s right and for choosing to be a role model. I know you had a choice…

Thinking about my fellow Jews in Norway and what it must feel like to be there right now, that’s when I felt the second lump in my throat. And that’s when I began to cry.

I cried because lately I haven’t felt like going home. I cried because I have been thinking about where I’d like to be buried when I die, and “in Norway” used to be my natural response to that, but lately, with all the depressing news around what is happening to Jewish communities in Europe, I’ve thought it would be better to find a suitable place in Israel.

However, today, as I have read hundreds of comments on Norwegian social media by people of diverse backgrounds that express hope, courage, solidarity and call for dialogue and bridge-building rather than hate-speech and finger-pointing, I have second thoughts. Perhaps it is important after all that when I’m gone, even if I wasn’t always there when I lived, there’s another stone that says a Norwegian Jewess is buried here. I was here. Norway was my country, and I witnessed this time.

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A Viking in the Desert and a Jew in the Forest

We are zooming south on Highway 40 in Israel on our way to a hip B&B in the Negev desert, and my friend Yosefa who’s at the wheel doesn’t realize yet my heart is beating faster not in excitement, but in some undefinable, vague angst. We’re headed somewhere south of the small town of Mitzpeh Ramon and my friend, an Israeli woman recently returned after years in the U.S, where we met and raised our kids together, is driving confidently, rambling on about her memories of her days in the army, when she and her husband were young and in love, and she was based somewhere here in the desert. She is almost giddy and becomes increasingly animated, I can see the excitement in her eyes, and it seems that the deeper we delve into the curvy road and the sandy landscape with its moonlike dunes, the faster words like “freedom,” “open sky” and “happy” pour from her mouth. I, however, feel myself getting tenser in the passenger seat, expecting foes and mirages, rattle snakes and kidnappings at every turn. And there are many turns.

My worries do not stem from the many tensions the region has known since Intifadas and suicide bombings. It’s from a deeper place, seeds and images about deserts planted in my impressionable mind when I was a youngster growing up in Norway. From Westerns on TV or movies in the theater, mostly. You die from thirst and the merciless sun in the desert. Scorpions sting you, rattlers bite you, and you get lost. I don’t know. There are mysterious tribes there that will sell a blond woman for camels, right? The plethora of scary impressions confuse and fuse my imagination all at once, and if I let it take hold, it could get ugly.

“You know, Yosefa,” I say as she veers off to the side of the narrow road, as I grab onto the handlebar above the passenger side window, having a brief it’s now you’re going to die moment, “as much as you love it here, I’m feeling a bit claustrophobic.” The oncoming dusty and dented pickup truck barely skirts our side door whizzing by in the opposite direction, taking up part of our side of the road and not showing any sign of moving over as it approaches at lighting speed. Swarthy looking men crowded into the cab of the pickup sneer at us in passing. Or were they just smiling? “Ach, those Bedouins are crazy,” she yells, doing her best to get our SUV back on a smooth path. “I can’t wait to show you my country,” I add, “I’ll take you to the woods, and there, there you’ll smell the moist, delicious green of plush moss and sprawling evergreens, dripping sap and wet leaves.” Just talking about my native land’s natural beauty gives me courage to face the unknown dangers, doubtlessly lurking ahead in the barren landscape. My rapid breath even seems to slow, and I can almost feel the refreshing coolness of running water the way it rolls over rounded stones under fallen tree trunks in brooks deep in the Norwegian woodlands.

Norway forest

“The forest!? I can’t stand the forest!” she states bluntly. Yosefa always had a way with words. I look at her with a smile, because I am reminded of why it is that I love her so much as a friend. “All the forest reminds me of,” she continues, “is the Holocaust. Every association it brings is overshadowed by the memory of Jews hiding, running, being shot into mass graves, massacred…” she pauses. He father was the only one in his German family who got out in time. She grew up without any grandparents, and just a few uncles and aunts on her mother’s side, a Jew from England. Yosefa’s “memory” is that of her dead family’s, a phantom memory bequeathed her from the testimonies of others who survived, and whose stories allowed grand children to imagine the lives and deaths of the grandparents they did not yet have, since they were not yet born…

Along the way southward we stop at sights to hike around for a bit on trails leading into well know canyons and wadis, or historically significant spots to take it all in. Yosefa tells me stories, from her childhood, from Israel’s history or from the Bible, that all relate in some way to where we tread.

We eventually arrive at our destination without any other scary incidents, and as we settle in to the spa-like tzimmer, as the B&Bs are called here, our room stocked with boutique wine from a local winery and artisanal cheese from the neighboring farm, the sun sets over the dunes to the West, and I find my peace. Nestled into a cozy hammock suspended from the rafters above the stone patio of our private bungalow, it’s not difficult to relax and enjoy the surroundings. No doubt the glass of wine helps. Desert as far as the eyes can see; stars already twinkling in the dark blue sky; a stillness that so palpable it reverberates a sense of existential awe I feel privileged to notice. As Saint-Exupéry said in the classic The Little Prince: “One sits down on a desert sand dune, sees nothing, hears nothing. Yet through the silence something throbs, and gleams…”

Yosefa has yet to come to Norway. When she does, I hope to share with her some of my favorite places including the deep green forest, where the smells, sights, and sounds are bound to impact her preconceived ideas. I will hold her hand and I will guide her. And I am pretty sure that eventually, the same intense beauty in the natural surroundings that I experienced in Israel – that in the end helped me break through some of my mental and emotional barriers given me as a child – will win her over. I am no longer scared of the desert, and my friend will overcome her dread of the forest. What are friends for, if not to be there for you when you break through mental and emotional blocks; to walk along by your side when you’re pushing yourself into new territories, while gently and playfully nudging you on? We may not have Bedouins in the forests in Norway, to make things interesting, but we do have trolls…

A Silver Spoon in My Mouth

I wasn’t born with a silver spoon in my mouth, but today I began my day with one. And I like it. Why not begin every day like this, I asked myself as I loaded the dishwasher after breakfast.

I can thank my now retired hard working career woman of a mother for enabling me with this delightful early morning experience of luxury; both enjoying my oatmeal on a regular weekday with a silver spoon, and then the freedom to put it in the dishwasher. It’s not that she bequeathed me a trust fund from her earnings, nor did she suggest I never work a day for the rest of my life, as the idiom might suggest; if anything, it is from her that I have learned the value of structure, discipline and persistent effort in all of life’s undertakings, whether great or small, intimate or public. Not to mention the importance of a resilient attitude through all the requisite ups and downs.

But she (as well as my dad) did lead by example and say with so many words: Life is short, enjoy it and all you have while you can. Use your beautiful, luxurious silverware every day, and why fret and make more housework for yourself than necessary: run it in the dishwasher. While it’s being washed, go out for a walk in the park instead, smell the roses. Write your blog.

One of our few family heirlooms, my grandmother’s pure sterling silver ware has intricate curlicue carved handles inspired by the traditional rosemaling or rose painting pattern of the Telemark region in Norway (as seen below). To give an idea of its preciousness today, one table spoon is about $150; a dinner knife, $200. So for a wedding gift, you might get one knife. I inherited place settings for 8 people, including many serving pieces. Lucky me.

It was around the time of my parents’ divorce when my mom was moving to a smaller apartment and was about to retire, that I noticed her silver ware had also moved from the “special” drawer in the dining room breakfront where it had been wrapped in plastic bags and felt pouches to prevent tarnishing, to being casually placed and exposed to oxygen in her kitchen drawer. While in Oslo for a visit, she served me dinner on my day of arrival, a weekday meal of fishcakes, carrots and potatoes, using her silver. “Wow, mamma, what’s the occasion?” I asked with a wink, thinking my visit, as marked by the Norwegian flag waving form her 3rd floor balcony, might be the catalyst for the fancy cutlery. “Oh that. I’ve decided, why not enjoy it every day?” Bringing a glistening carrot neatly pierced on the tines of the Telemark silver fork to her mouth, she gave a slight shrug with her upper body suggesting she felt justified and had mostly come to terms with her own “transgression,” as if she was responding to the ghosts of generations of raised eyebrows questioning her on this and her other radical indiscretions when it comes to tradition. She might have said “Every day is a celebration! I am letting go!” but this exuberance was left for me to write later. However, it came from her. My mother.

If you are of Norwegian stock, you may have groaned in disapproval (or heard your mother in the recesses of your mind) at the mention of the silverware in the dishwasher. This is one of the great cultural taboos, suggesting perhaps my utter lack of respect for safeguarding the traditional handling of the family jewels by hand washing them. Alas, as the VikingJewess of perpetual cultural and traditional in-betweenness that I am, it is possible I have lost some of my touch with, or reverence for, one tradition as I have been hard at work learning about and safeguarding the other. While both my born Norwegian heritage and my adopted Jewish one deeply move and inspire me, I have also come to realize that life is too short to do anything to perfection. And what is that anyway, perfection? Imperfection summons curiosity and inquiry; the story is found in the flaws, lodged in there like a gift to be unwrapped and enjoyed.

Telemark rosemaling blue

Women in the Holocaust: In Memory of Gisèle Braka (1920-2013)

This in observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day late.

In 2013, I wrote this poem in Israel the morning I heard the news of Gisèle’s death. I was attending a conference on Women and the Holocaust in Israel, and my talk was about her heroic and unusual life as a Tunisian Jewish woman who joined the resistance during World War II, and experienced the war both in France and in Tunisia.

On This Day

On this day, women gathered to remember women, like you

Turning a flicker of hope, an act of kindness, a mother’s touch into a flame of eternal Memory

A humbling act indeed, for me, to name you

Hero

I shall not easily forget the twinkle in your eyes that told me you

Resisted

Persisted

Subsisted

Even after you had stopped using words, your actions spoke for you,

For your

Memory

On this day, women, young, old, and in-between, shared stories of

Survival

And even those who did not live, who do not live, who cannot live

Forever

Will always be among us now; their stories become ours as we

Resist

Persist

Subsist

Even after we stop using words, our actions will speak for us,

For our

Memory

In your

Memory

And so the flame remains eternal

On this day, you will be remembered

N.B.L., Nahariyah, Israel, March 5, 2013

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Did You Say Snow?

In honor of this snowy morning, when the state is in lockdown, and words such as “smowmageddon” and “Blizzard of 2015″ are heard, I share some other words…

Ode to Snow

S-ilky, soft and silently serene
N-early Norwegian in nature and name
O-pens opportunities for other original ordeals
W-hen we walk with wonder in its wetness

S-ymbiotic sensations seize our senses
N-either numbed nor neglected, no!
O-ften only to be ostentatiously opened
W-ith windy whisks wherever we will go

S-ow, snow, see such splendid snow!
N-ow Nina knows a natural nirvana
O-h, organics of my origins, offerings I owe.
W-hen waking with wild and whimsical wishes

S-entences with snowy scenes sublimely shared

N-oticing neat nuances, never negative nonsense

O-f this other, often omitted and audacious ogre.
W-hy wail, rejoice! Winter welcomes, with wonder!

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A Prologue to Memoir

Working title: Tribal Matters: Diaries of The Viking Jewess

“So, are you going to stay Jewish?” the woman asks me as she had learned of my recent divorce. We stand in line at the local Starbucks and she says it just loudly enough for the man in front of us to hear. Holy crap, is it possible she thinks I divorced my identity? Holding a stainless steel coffee mug, with a Bluetooth blinking from his left ear as if he heard what I was thinking, the man turns and glances at me in a way that probably feels discreet to him, but the added attention makes me just feel more flustered. A wave of indignation mixed with frustration flush through me. I am in my late forties, and I have been Jewish since, at the age of twenty-three, I immersed in a mikvah[1] just a few weeks before I married my Jewish boyfriend in an Orthodox ceremony. Somehow, the timing and formulation of this woman’s question made a seemingly mundane instance in the Sunday morning line at the coffee shop feel like I was hurled into the epicenter of the sudden impact of all the moments –the good, the bad and the beautiful – of my Jewish life thus far, and that it was up to me to justify it all. And she wasn’t even my own conscience. Or God. She was an acquaintance whom I knew from various synagogue events and run-ins at the kosher market. Before I respond, with as much patience and compassion as I can muster, I take a deep breath. I swallow. Be kind. Don’t cry. “Sure,” I begin, “it’s not like that’s a switch you can just turn off.” I think I even manage an optimistic smile, but it was probably a smile that I couldn’t help lace with a slight air of surprise, hoping maybe my interlocutor would notice; my eyebrows raised just so. She smiled back at me the way you might see a person labor to beam sympathetically at a handicapped participant at the Special Olympics who bravely battles through an event only to win the consolation prize. As if she were thinking, “Poor soul, after everything she’s been through.”

But the truth is, the journey had been extraordinary so far, and was only just beginning.

Journey

[1] A mikvah is a Jewish ritual bath or pool consisting of part rainwater and part tap water, used for immersion in conversions, for monthly use by women after menstruation, before the Sabbath and holidays by some orthodox men, and by some to immerse new household kitchen utensils, in order to render them “kosher” and fit for use in a Jewish home. The main idea is ritual and spiritual purification.