Yom Kippur in Stockholm

It was probably a good sign that as we streamed toward the outer gate of the Great Synagogue the lady in front of us made a surprised sound and I bent down to pull her shoe out of a grating where the heel had stuck. I felt gallant, her friendly and grateful look was welcoming, and we exchanged Shana Tovas with her and her husband. Although there were more than a few police, no one checked on us.

The synagogue is imposing, built on the same plan as the main one in Budapest and the one in Berlin destroyed in 1938. Inside was the most beautiful sanctuary I have been in since services one Shabbat in Padua: seating 900, it has a large area of dark benches divided in two and a balcony around the top supported by elegant wooden columns that reach the ceiling.

It is in the architectural style of the Assyrians, which seems odd since they were oppressors of Israel—but then again so was everyone else. It does evoke Middle Eastern climes. The space is majestic, forty feet high, with elegant tall windows. On the eastern wall, the aron kodesh, the holy ark holding the Torahs; and above them a great stained glass window. It is called a rose window, after the ones in cathedrals, but this was a six-petal flower, a kind of Star of David, its petals a rich, intense blue. There was one large menorah on the bima—interestingly, with nine branches, not the usual seven; it wasn’t lit, but a number of smaller candelabras were.

Surrounding the ark, three Hebrew inscriptions: on the right, Torah tziva lanu Moshe, morasha kehillat Yakov—Moses gave us the law, the heritage of Jacob’s community; on the left, Ki lekach tov natati lachem,Torati al ta’azovu—For I give you good teaching, do not forsake my Torah; and across the top, V’zot ha’Tora asher sam Moshe, lifnay b’nei Yisroel al pi Adonai, b’yad Moshe—And this is the Torah Moses set before the children of Israel, on the lips of God, in the hand of Moses.

Women who wanted to sit separately were in the balcony, easily visible behind a low, delicately carved wooden barrier; behind the women were tall, stately lancet windows. On the left side of the floor was men-only seating, on the right, where we sat, mixed, and densely packed. As we waited for Kol Nidre to start, we got into a conversation with the friendly but dignified sixty-five-ish man on my right, Erik Lempert. When he heard we had just come from Uppsala, he said he worked there.

He turned out to be the Chief Judge of Uppsala. Uh-oh, I thought. Divine judgment in front of me, worldly judgment to the right of me. Fortunately, to my left, leaning toward me, was Ann, who to me means first of all forgiveness. (Any man surrounded by judgment on three sides had better keep his back to the wall.)

But Erik was not judgmental–he was kind, wise, and even funny. His wife just retired from her job in Stockholm; she was a justice of the Court of Appeals. As he said, “She overturned my opinions in the courts . . . also.” His father was American and he was born in a town near Rochester, New York, but had his bar mitzvah and education in Sweden.

Kol Nidre began with one of the best voices I have heard in a synagogue–a subdued, almost restrained tenor, ethereal in its spirituality yet frequently capable of immense power. His name, I later learned, is Paul Heller. Ann, who was trained in singing, had no doubt he was an opera singer—which would put him in a long line of cantors who did both.

Some cantors, whether or not their voices are good, seem to be performing for a hypothetical music critic who isn’t even there. This one was clearly trying to speak to God. There wasn’t a show-off moment in the service, but there were many when I was greatly moved not just by his exquisite voice, but by his lucid shaping of the words, full of sadness, awe, and longing.

Next morning I was early, and they did check my passport and ask a few questions, but I was soon inside chatting with Jonas Tovi, one of the gabays, the usher/floor-managers who make every service work. He was friendly and welcoming, and turned out to be a general practitioner, an MD-PhD with a specialization in elderly diabetics.

I spoke to him about the cantor, and he said, “Yes, he really prays. We talk too much in the gabay section, and he told us, ‘You have to stop talking. I’m praying.’” Jonas asked me if I was a Kohen or a Levi, intending to call me to bless the Torah; I said, “I’m a Levi, but in a congregation this size I don’t think you should be giving me an aliyah.” “A shy American? Is this a new species?” “I’m not shy, but I understand synagogue politics.”

He laughed and nodded; later, I was led up by an earnest young man to open the ark, another honor. Jonas himself read the Torah, just as well in his way as the cantor sang, with precision and gentle feeling. I later found out that he had not been religious until a decade ago.

The aliyah I would have gotten was taken by a teenage girl with a proud, clear voice that made me happy. I heard that the congregation would soon have mixed seating everywhere and was considering hiring a woman rabbi. A woman around forty in our row went up, and her two little daughters were on tiptoe, their heads bobbing and necks stretching to see their mother carry the Torah in grand procession.

The congregation—at least the stalwarts—prayed all day, with an hour break from three to four. The rabbi, a tall, imposing man in his seventies in a tall white hat and robe, gave his third sermon in less than twenty-four hours. He was as stately as the sanctuary, and although I understood few of the words, there was no mistaking that he had his flock in the palm of his hand. He made them think, he made them laugh, and he seemed to make them value their lives a little more.

Jonas read the Torah again, and also the haftarah, the stunning tale of his namesake and the whale, perhaps the world’s greatest story of forgiveness. And then the closing service, with the ark constantly open and the congregation standing—fathers holding babies, elderly men and women who had lived through World War II, the new Israeli ambassador, who’d presented his documents to the King in a ceremony the day before—all in awe of a power, or at least a mystery, beyond themselves.

They beat at their breasts in unison and said they had trespassed, dealt treacherously, robbed, slandered, done violence, deceived, scoffed, blasphemed, oppressed, acted wickedly, committed abominations, that they had gone astray and led others astray. And their voices rose in a gentle wave of chanting, begging forgiveness.

Avinu Malkeinu, chatanu l’fanecha.

Vår fader, vår konung, vi hava syndat inför dig.

Our father, our king, we have sinned before you.

Avinu Malkeinu, chaneinu v’aneinu, ki ayn banu ma’asim. Our father, our king, be gracious and answer, although we are lacking in deeds . . .

As evening fell and the ark–and, Jews believe, the gates of heaven–closed, the small, distinguished, closely knit Jewish world of Sweden hoped and trusted in forgiveness, as they had done in that beautiful space for 128 Yom Kippurs. The shofar blast, an unexpectedly high note from a long, winding kudu horn, seemed to go on forever.

I had heard that the Rabbi, Morton Narrowe, was from Philadelphia, and when I went up to shake his hand, his friendliness swept over me. He had fasted 25 hours and given three energetic sermons, but both he and his wife—a sprightly, warm woman with a deeply intelligent face–insisted we come over for scrambled eggs and homemade challah. The four of us, Americans all, sat in their kitchen and ate and talked.

Judi Narrowe was not your mother’s rebbitzin. She turned out to be an anthropologist who taught at the university and did research in Ethiopia, but that was only one of many things we had in common—American politics, Swedish economics, cultural materialism, Torah, Ann’s research on bilingual children and her fight against sexual exploitation of children, all our children and their grandchildren, and what it was like to be Americans who had become Swedish during forty-three very blessed years, we covered it all.

Rabbi Narrowe came out of retirement after eleven years for this High Holiday cycle, because his congregation needed him. That he came back in strength is putting it mildly—strength, eloquence, and a tad of irreverence. He shares my odd view that Abraham, in his willingness to sacrifice Isaac, failed God’s test. He had spoken about it on Rosh Hashanah, quoting sources from Kierkegaard to Midrash. And he explained his Kol Nidre sermon, which had begun with the Chinese blessing, May you live all the days of your life. I knew he had been speaking about the life cycle, but I now understood that he had talked about how each phase of life must be lived on its own merits.

He and Judi had obviously followed this advice; she seemed to be his greatest fan and most reliable critic, never letting him lose his sense of humor, and he seemed like her greatest fan as well. They have given each other all that most of us wish for, and they have lived and are still living all the days of their lives. As Ann and I strolled back to our hotel through the pleasant Stockholm evening, I knew that I had just lived one of the best days of mine.

6 thoughts on “Yom Kippur in Stockholm

  1. Dear Fellow Lapsed,

    Thank you for this information. I added Paul Heller’s name and two links to his nice web site.

    It’s an interesting choice to have the Chanukiah displayed year-round on the bima. Most American synagogues display the 7-branched menorah because it’s the one displayed in the Holy Temple. But the variety of Jewish customs is always fascinating to me, and as far as I know, there is no issue of law here.

    Shana tova, Mel Konner

  2. WOW. I am so happy you had this most incredible experience.
    You DESERVED it.
    and I know you will always cherish it.

  3. Not since Benjamin of Tudela, has a Jewish traveler shared his discoveries as precisely and poignantly as you did in your travelogue of Yom Kippur in Stockholm! Among my own treasured memories are a few encounters with Jews from distant places with vastly different backgrounds but with whom I still shared that hard-to-describe bond of a common heritage.

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