27 November 2008

Iceland: Jewish history

A new blog - Bear Stone Cottage, offers the history of the Jews in Iceland.

According to this posting, Jews were called Gydingar - a diminutive of Gud (God). The 13th-century Gydinga Saga - the Saga of the Jews, is a translation of Maccabees I with bits of Flavius Josephus. Another word for Jew was formerly neutral and now considered negative: Judi/Judar.

Looking for your lost branch? They may be among the few frozen chosen of Iceland.

- A Polish Jewish convert to Christianity, Daniel Salomon, arrived in 1625.
- Dutch Portuguese Jacob Franco of Copenhagen was put in charge of all tobacco sold in Iceland and the Faroe Isles in 1704.
- A few years later - 1710 - Abraham Levin and Abraham Cantor were given similar responsibilities. Cantor’s son Isak took over in 1731.
- A Jewish trade ship - the Ulricha - was rented by Ruben Moses Henriques of Copenhagen, arriving in Iceland in 1815.

Iceland's parliament, in 1853, rejected the Danish king's request to allow foreign Jews to reside in Iceland, but two years later said that both Danish and foreign Jews were welcome. No Jews are recorded as accepting this offer.

Most trade was owned by Icelanders, but in the late 19th-century, some trading agents represented Danish Jewish companies.

In 1874, Hungarian Jewish journalist Max Nordau was mentioned. Fritz Hemann Nathan arrived from Denmark in 1906 and became a prosperous merchant, founding Nathan & Olsen in Reykjavik. In 1916, he built the tallest building - five stories - in the city, and the first to have electrical lighting. However, after he married in 1917, he found it was impossible to live a Jewish life and moved to Copenhagen.

In the 1930s and the Depression, non-Jewish immigrants received work and residence permits easier than Jewish immigrants, and in May 1938, when Denmark closed its gates to Austrian Jews, Iceland did the same in a few weeks.

In the late 1930s, some Jews were expelled from Iceland. A Leipzig Jewish refugee - Otto Weg - stayed during the war. He wanted to become a full Icelander, converted and changed his name to Ottó Arnaldur Magnússon. Although he had a doctorate in geology and mathematics, he never received an academic post and worked in construction.

When British forces arrived in Iceland in May 1940, some Jewish servicement were among them. Although there was no synagogue, they found some Jews who had arrived earlier.

On Yom Kippur 1940, some 25 Jewish soldiers from England, Scotland and Canada, eight Jewish refugees and Hendrik Ottósson gathered together. Ottósson's wife was Jewish and he served as their leader. Officials offered a chapel for the service in the old cemetery, but Ottosson felt insulted and rented a hall of the Good Templars’ Lodge, and borrowed the only Torah scroll in town for the very first non-Christian service in 940 years.

That day marked the official founding of the first Iceland synagogue. Vienna native Arnold Zeisel was the first head of the community, and the group met regularly.

The Icelandic bar mitzvah took place on the Shabbat of Passover 1941 even though British forces did not send a rabbi.

When US forces arrived in 1941-42, community life was more active with an American rabbi landing in 1941. It had grown large enough that a building had to be found, and an Orthodox congregation also met.

The American rabbis in war-time Iceland maintained contacts with the German-speaking Jews , who preferred the liberal Reform approach of the American rabbis. At Rosh Hashana 1944, 500 Jews attended services. Until the mid-1950s, there were two congregations. Jewish servicement accounted for 2,000 of the 70,000 forces stationed.

In 1955, when Alfred Joachim Fischer visited and wrote about the community, he said that almost all the refugee Jews had been naturalized and changed their names, according to law, to Icelandic names.

Today, the very liberal community is very small and there have been only four bar and bat mitzvahs.

The blog post indicated that there are reports of Jews buried in the old Reykjavík cemetery and of headstones bearing the Star of David.

1 comment:

  1. Vilhjálmur Örn Vilhjálmsson, Denmark3:38 PM

    Dear Shelley,
    the source of these information is my article: