Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Oslo, Norway, Yom Kippur and the Man of Mystery…by Robert M. Katzman

Filed under: Bewilderment,Friendship & Compassion,Humor,Israel,Jewish Themes,My Own Personal Hell,Travel — Bob at 4:30 pm on Monday, May 6, 2019

Every so often, life throws me a curve. Sometimes so often, it feels like I’ve actually lived my life in orbit, and not on the land. This is a true story set in 1992, when on a trip to Frankfort, Germany to attend the world’s largest book fair, when I owned a world-travel foreign-language bookstore named Grand Tour, my wife Joyce and I decided to take a train north to Norway, from where some of her ancestors came a century before.

By chance, that year Judaism’s lunar calendar placed Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish world, the Day of Atonement, would also be in Norway the same time we were there. Our hopes of finding a synagogue to observe that day, were dim. However, God must have a sense of humor, because this is what happened to us on the special day.

It was in October, 1992 when both of us were 42. This was a more prosperous time in our lives where my lifetime of self-employment made that economic status a sometime thing. We tended to seize the moment. Sometimes the moments were rare.

We had taken a train north from Germany and we crossed the border to Denmark, which is a very small country in Scandinavia, 16,700 sq. miles, compared to Sweden: 174,000, Norway: 149,000, Finland: 131,000 and Iceland: 40,000 (all numbers rounded). For comparison, Sweden is larger than California and Denmark is smaller than Estonia.

However, when we heard a polite knock on our sleeping berth room, after we showed our passports to the Border Guards, they warned us to be careful when we crossed over to Sweden because the Border Guards there just swing the doors open without knocking, hoping to catch travelers undressed or having sex. Then they laughed at their little joke. We said nothing.

They were correct about the warning and Joy and I sat primly dressed while holding our passports, patiently waiting for the invasion of our privacy. As predicted, our door swung open without a knock. Still, the Swedish Guards weren’t rampaging Vikings or anything. I did not see one axe. They were quite polite, if possibly disappointed.

After our train traveled up the eastern coast of Sweden to the large and beautiful city of Stockholm, across the Gulf of Bothnia from the small Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania–where my teenaged and orphaned Grandma Rose emigrated from in 1900–then we switched trains and went west to Oslo, Norway.

It is quite obvious to both of us who won the land wars long ago between Norway and Sweden. Sweden took not just 25,000 sq. miles more land, they also took the flatland–the good land–for growing crops and they were closer to Europe’s large cities for trading purposes. Norway got the mountains which still had glaciers then, as we slowly crawled over them moving west, and occasional log cabins. But nothing was growing on the steel grey mountain’s stone. And Norway’s coast faced the fierce North Atlantic Sea and its storms.

If I were a Norwegian Viking, I’d absolutely want to jump on one of their dragon-headed longboats and happily sail far south to France. Normandy (from Norsemen) is named after those bloody conquests a thousand years ago.

In the early morning after sunrise, Joy and I walked all over Oslo, a city with lovely views, buildings and people. My map and guidebook told me where the single synagogue, called Synagogen i Oslo in Norwegian, was located. It was established in 1892 after the small Jewish community was allowed to become citizens of the otherwise Lutheran country, which was also the state religion. Like the other Temples I’ve visited in Europe, it was Orthodox, and the men traditionally sat separately from the women.

We found the simple unadorned white building with Hebrew letters painted high above the rounded entrance, which was behind a black steel fence. The only window to the main sanctuary was a circular stain-glass Star of David. But it was modest and nothing like the elaborate art depicted in many churches all over Europe. It seemed to me the building was whispering:

“This is the Temple of the Jews, but be quiet about it.”

There were no guards, which surprised me, and when we reached the door, it was unlocked and we walked right in. There was a long central aisle between two rows of pews, and the interior was very beautiful, and brightly lit. There was one young man there speaking to someone dressed like a Rabbi, or I decided that’s what he was. They both quickly looked up at us, probably noticing that while pale blonde beautiful Joyce looked like everybody else in Oslo, I was of undetermined origin.

Not just to them right then, but also to every airport security guard station I’ve travel through my entire life. Took me quite a while to accept that genetically ambiguous situation, but I am the randomly selected person pulled out of line whose luggage is searched, oh, about 100% of the time. It’s not that I look especially dangerous. But evidently I seem to appear to be from whatever country is currently undesirable to be from.

To add to this misery, even El Al, the airline of Israel, had two no nonsense serious Israeli women interview me for a long time, my first time traveling there from Chicago in 2000. Longer than other people, I noticed, and eventually they wanted me to name the synagogue I was bar mitzvahed in the South Side of Chicago on 1963, which had closed a few years later when the local Jewish population traveled to other areas. El Al must have had a hell of a data base. But after that, they let me board the plane.

But once in Israel, this situation continued. One woman working as a guide in the Tel Aviv Museum told me she was certain I was from Western Turkey. Some Palestinians spoke to me in Arabic. Sometimes in the crowded Old City in Jerusalem, some of the merchants there spoke to me in Greek. The Armenians thought I was, of course, Armenian. Italian tourists thought I was Italian. I didn’t knowingly run across any Druids or Samaritans, but I assume the situation would continue, although the Samaritans would most likely be “good” about it.

I’ve been accused of being French, Spanish and Mexican, but never in an admiring way. So far, never Chechen, Bolivian or Azerbaijani. If I ever made it to the Moon, I expect they’d assume–not in a good way–that I was from Mars. But sometimes, the situation has been horrible.

In April 29, 1968, two plainclothes Chicago cops grabbed me as I was walking on the street in South Shore and beat the living hell out of me, without any explanation whatsoever. I was then handcuffed, thrown face down on the cold metal floor of a paddy wagon and drive to a police station, blood pouring from my mouth where my braces had lacerated the insides of my cheeks from repeated punches to my face.

At the police station I was informed that I was being booked for resisting arrest and for being the elusive young Arab house thief whom their cops had been hunting for months. All the cops were smiling, and then I began screaming my head off at their idiocy, that I was a fucking Jew and, Jesus Christ!! Couldn’t they tell the difference?

This swiftly silenced the room, and the smirking mob of German, Polish and Irish cops working there quickly decided among themselves that in fact they could not tell the difference. Black people know very well what this feels like.

This led to a sudden scrambling for the one Jew who worked in the building, a detective, and who did not want to be known as that, and now here was a punk screaming he was the same kind of person as the detective. He was one unhappy cop.

But he suddenly transformed into a very angry Jewish cop.

He knew immediately what I was, I was swiftly released, my father called, hell was raised and a couple of careers ended. It was a bizarre Kafkaesque situation where how do you prove what you are if no one knows what that is?

Oh, yeah, and the next day, April 30th, my birthday, I turned eighteen, but there was no party for me in the hospital. Black eyes, swollen face, arm in a sling, I was a real beauty.

Once, in 1990 while walking late at night in Paris near the red neon lit Molin Rouge, the coolest strip joint in the world, a man appeared out of the shadows, grabbed my arm, breathing alcohol in my face and demanded to know: “Es-tu Algerian?”

“Are you an Algerian?”

France’s former colony before a long deadly battle for their independence. Algerians were not popular in Paris. I knew about this history and also knew to say nothing, because he was drunk and I had to get away from him.

I silently peeled his sweaty fingers off of my arm and walked away from him, as he stood there, looking angry. Another day, another nationality I was assumed to be that again was undesirable. Now I was supposed to be a Berber?

So, in that Oslo Synagogue, Joy and I approached the two apprehensive men, quickly identified ourselves as American Jews and they instantly relaxed and we talked for a while about the history of the Temple, the challenges of being a non-Christian minority in Norway, and the Rabbi who had an obvious, to me, Israeli accent, told us he was flown north twice a year to officiate at Passover Service in Oslo in Spring and the Jewish New Year in the fall, whenever the ancient Judean Calendar decided it was to happen. Yom Kippur is the end of the New Year’s celebration and period of deep contemplation. The Christian (or common era) year of 2019 is 5780 according to the Jews’ Calendar. I was born in 5711.

They both told me their names, and when we asked if it were possible for us to participate in the holiday in their synagogue that night, they both said of course, no problem. Then they told me that Norway had a population of about 4 million people and of them only 1,000 were Jewish. Lots of intermarriage, too.We all shook each other’s hands and turned to leave.

But before I left, I saw a prayer book lying on a seat and decided to take a look at it. Just kinda curious about a temple that has Norwegian members, an Israeli Rabbi and both of them spoke perfect English. The book was in Hebrew which I can still read, but v-e-r-y- s-l-o-w-l-y. The organization was pretty much the same as my own Temple’s was in Chicago, except all the book’s passage’s translations were in Norwegian.

I thought about that. Something about “going with the flow” ran through my mind. Like:
We’re in Norway now, so let’s make sure we all speak good Norwegian.” Maybe.

So we left the Synagogue and wandered around Oslo seeing whatever there was to be seen. I saw a thousand versions of Joyce. Time went by. All our holidays begin at sundown, so we quickly turned back in the direction of the services so we wouldn’t be late. After all, a shofar, a ram’s horn, would soon be blowing to announce the New Year.

This was happening all over the world, including 2,250 miles south of Oslo in Jerusalem.

When we were much closer to the one traffic-less secondary road which led to the Synagogue, we saw this long, long line of people waiting to go inside of it. So long, we both speculated, that maybe all 1,000 of Norway’s Jews were lined up to celebrate the New Year. Then we imagined how long the line would be in Chicago with 250,000 Jews lined up. And we smiled. We often smiled when we were together.

I noticed, but Joy didn’t mention it, that the long line had a certain unusual quality to it, to a Chicago Jewish boy’s eyes. Blonde hair. Everyone seemed to have blonde hair. I scanned the line and saw blondes everywhere, and pale complexions, too. I kept that oddity to myself, but I noticed it. Soon, so would somebody else.

When our part of the line reached the door as the sun was beginning to set, there were two large beefy-looking security guys there, both with weapons and not looking very kindly. They were tall thick-necked Norwegians and not likely from the University of Oslo, either.

They waved one couple in after another, the line continuing to move ahead, until we reached the door. Then the line stopped. The two security guys both looked at me, ignoring Joyce, and then at each other. They asked me these questions sort of in English: Where was I from? Why was I here now if I was an American Jew on this holiest day of the year?

Their English wasn’t very good and my responses didn’t seem to have any effect. Then people behind us began to make noise about what was the problem and that they were going to miss the beginning of the service.

I had no clue about how to resolve this unexpected situation and Joy looked very uncomfortable, because to her, my being assumed to be a hostile presence to strangers was an old story. Then the security guy pulled out this long electric wand that was a metal detector and waved it all over me looking for hidden bombs or something. I knew my being exasperated would not get me anywhere with these guys. What could I do?

Divine intervention occurs here.

I suddenly remembered the names of the two men we met that morning, especially the name of the flown-in Israeli Rabbi. So I told this information to the two rough men, then turned around and more loudly told it to the people piling up behind us and asked them to help explain this in Norwegian to the security gorillas so the Yom Kippur logjam would break up and we could all get inside of the Synagogue.

It worked. Rapid Norwegian ensued. The two tough guys relaxed, smiled even, at the “too dark for their comfort” American Jew. Rebellious soul that I am, I wanted to snarl at the two Lutheran security guys that their Jesus Christ most likely looked a hell of a lot more like me than them. But Joy’s civilizing presence stilled my tongue. We went in. She was comfortable living with “The Other,” whomever I was assumed to be, depending on which country we were in.

The service was beautiful, and amazingly, to me at least, the songs were the same. I was able to surrender to the moment and ask God to forgive whatever sins I had knowingly or unknowingly committed the year before so that I might be allowed to live another year.

Twenty-seven years later, God has evidently decided that I had already been punished enough and forgiven me repeatedly, so far.

Except Joy’s gone now and there is no one else left to know or tell about this very odd situation that happened to us so long ago, and so far away. I think storytellers ought to tell their stories so the stories don’t disappear. Hope all of you out there, somewhere, reading this agree with me.

Yom Kippur will begin, at sunset, five months from now on October 8th this year–even in seriously Lutheran Wisconsin!

I wish all of you a very happy and healthy New Year. May everyone’s sins be forgiven, knowingly or unknowingly committed.

Publishing News! 

Bob Katzman’s two new true Chicago books are now for sale, from him!
Vol. One: A Savage Heart  and Vol. Two: Fighting Words

Gritty, violent, friendship, classic American entrepreneurship love, death, heartbreak and the real dirt about surviving in a completely corrupt major city under the Chicago Machine. More history about one man’s life than a person may imagine.

Please visit my new website: http://www.dontgoquietlypress.com
If a person doesn’t want to use PayPaI, I also have a PO Box & I ship anywhere in America.

Send me a money order with your return and contact info.
I will get your books to you within ten days.
Here’s complete information on how to buy my books:

Vol 1: A Savage Heart and Vol. 2: Fighting Words
My books weigh almost 2 pounds each, with about 525 pages each and there are a total together of 79 stories and story/poems.

Robert M. Katzman
Don’t Go Quietly Press
PO Box 44287
Racine, Wis. 53404-9998                                                                                                                    (262)752-3333, 8AM–7PM

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4 Comments »

Comment by Cynthia Andersen

May 6, 2019 @ 4:49 pm

Hi Bob,

When are you going to finish this article? To be continued? I thought it was well written and very interesting.
Cindy

Comment by Don Larson

May 6, 2019 @ 6:12 pm

Hi Bob,

Another great story!

Thank you.

Don

Comment by Brad dechter

May 6, 2019 @ 6:31 pm

Bob,
That’s the one nice thing about being Jewish- wherever you are, if you can find a Temple, you can go into the Synagogue and participate in the service- and you’ll know the prayers, many of the songs, and can feel part of the group. When you’re 10,000 miles away from home, it’s a very comforting thought- whether you go or not- it’s comforting to know you can go and be part of this larger group to which you belong.
Loved the story- thanks for sharing.
Brad

Comment by H

May 7, 2019 @ 1:26 am

Interesting story. Found a synagogue on my 2nd trip outside Frankfurt. After 2 gates in a hidden area of town I was initially welcomed. Then a man showed up who was visibly upset at the sight of me there.
Someone I know was in Norway in Feb. absolutely gorgous photos.

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