In search of Yiddishkeit in Norway, on a press trip this spring, I instead came across trolls. They weren’t the cute little button-nosed dolls we have in the United States; they were really ugly, with hair sticking out of their pants or skirts — better suited to guarding bridges than charming visitors. Maybe when you have a population so uniformly good-looking, you need tourist kitsch that lowers the bar, so not-so-tall, not-so-blond visitors still feel welcome.
There were other aspects I found baffling — like the absence of historic malice, even when they were discussing their past. For long stretches, Norwegians were ruled by Sweden or Denmark. They didn’t get back their independence until 1905, and even then chose a Dane, Prince Carl, to be their king. Given how we Jews dwell on old enemies, it came as a relief when they let slip some sarcasm about their Scandinavian cousins.
Maybe their niceness is a cover. That’s the explanation Israeli Ambassador Naim Araidi offered when discussing Norwegians’ aversion to showy materialism. They used to be one of the poorest nations in Europe, and their culture prized modest practicality. Now, because of North Sea oil, they are one of the wealthiest. People come seeking work, not only from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, but even from Sweden.
Prices are very high — I saw McDonald’s burgers priced about $3 higher than in the United States — but you don’t see flashy cars, or even that many high-end boutiques. A huge percentage of the population has holiday homes, and where those used to be basic cabins, now most have all the mod-cons.
Our Norwegian escort though he complained that people have become more acquisitive insisted that their low-key style is genuine. Araidi, a literature professor and media observer accustomed to analyzing Israeli society, however, wouldn’t buy that notion.
Everywhere we went we saw children on school outings. They struck me as remarkably blithe and well-behaved. An article I’d read asserted that the country has a remarkably high level of mental health among the young. The authors gave two reasons. The first is a very nurturing, low-pressure approach to parenting. Chabad Rabbi Shaul Wilhelm, whom we met in Oslo, agreed. He said, “My wife and I have been trying to understand how they do things here and it just amazes us. They never shout at their children.”
The second factor, according to the researchers, and emerging from the first, is an autonomy that has the kids out hiking and exploring from a young age, sharing their parents’ passion for the outdoors and building a strong sense of self-reliance.
Norwegians — natives and immigrants — are vocally and visibly in love with their landscape, the same way Israelis are with Israel’s. However, unlike the Israelis, who are anything but sun-deprived, locals crave sunlight. Whenever the clouds cleared, everywhere we went — in Oslo and Bergen and Trondheim — we saw people, stripped down to basics, basking in the warmth, recharging their batteries.
Where Americans set clocks forward to get in extra work, Norwegians stop work earlier in summer — around 3:30 — to hike and sail and ride, till all hours. In Trondheim, which is about halfway up to the country’s northern border, we saw people out well after midnight, playing in the endless twilight. When we asked parents how they get their children to bed at a reasonable hour, we were told, “With very heavy curtains.”
You see that odd twilight captured in the landscape paintings of the Norwegian painters. It’s in some versions of Edvard Munch’s The Scream — though other artists give it a more mellow feel.
It seemed, from our very condensed course in Norwegian culture, that they celebrate just one giant in each field — understandable, perhaps, in a nation with only five million people. In music, it’s Edvard Grieg; in playwriting, Henrik Ibsen; of course, Munch in painting; and in sculpture, Gustav Vigeland. The latter two were rivals, and Munch — according to a Norwegian friend — bitterly resented the fact that Oslo gave Vigeland a whole park for the permanent display of his work. But it also means that few of Vigeland’s massive figures ever left the country and thus he remained a strictly local hero. You have to go there to see them.
In poetry, Henrik Wergeland stands out — most significantly to Jewish Norwegians. It was his tireless campaigning that helped convince the parliament to lift the ban on Jewish immigration in 1851, six years after his death at 37. His poetry is somewhat purple for the modern mind, but read his poem about the Jewish peddler who freezes to death on Christmas Eve trying in vain to save a child lost in the snow, and you can see how he won over Norwegian hearts and minds.
The country does have a growing reputation for some very modern culture. In the college city of Trondheim, it was particularly in evidence. One in six residents are students and the atmosphere is youthfully exuberant, so it’s apt that Rockheim, the nation’s museum dedicated to pop and rock music, is situated there. I thought it sounded like a contradiction in terms, commemorating something so new, but it turned out to be fabulous — a total fantasy factory for anyone who’s ever played air guitar. Electronic wizardry allows you to enter each decade from the ’50s to the 2000s just by waving your arms or tapping panels — or, in the first room, you can simply get into a gorgeous red convertible.
And even at Rockheim we Jews found reason to kvell: Among those honored is a music producer who was one of the museum’s founders, and, of course, there were those paragons of pop, the Jewish members of Kiss — guys weird enough to make even trolls look like menschen.