Iceland Jews Are Left Out in the Cold

Though it numbers under 100 members, Iceland does have a Jewish community, and even a Jewish first lady. Some of them, however, say they're afraid to identify themselves publicly as such.

Judy Maltz
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Judy Maltz

REYKJAVIK - Even in this tiniest of Jewish communities, the Jews can't seem to agree. And in this case, the issue happens to be quite fundamental: Do they really want to be recognized as Jews?

On the one hand, applying for official recognition as a religion would make the Jews of Iceland eligible for state funding that could finally allow them to have their own place to worship, not to mention a Torah scroll and kosher food on the holidays. On the other hand, as American-born Mike Levin, the minuscule community's unofficial spokesman, notes, it could also open a can of worms.

Gullfoss falls, a popular site in what is known as The Golden Circle
Sigal Har-Meshi and Glenn Barkan in Cafe Babalu
Guy Gutraiman and his daughter
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Gullfoss falls, a popular site in what is known as The Golden Circle
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Sigal Har-Meshi and Glenn Barkan in Cafe Babalu
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Guy Gutraiman and his daughter
Iceland's Jewish community

Photos by Judy Maltz and Amit Schejter

"First, we would need to get everyone to sign a document saying they're Jewish, and I'm not sure everybody here would be willing to do something like that," he says. "Then, you've got to decide who becomes the leader of the community, who becomes the treasurer, and who becomes the official representative next time there's a big crisis in the Middle East and the media want some questions answered."

Depending on how you define a Jew, by most accounts, there are no more than 50 to 100 of them in this island-nation. Even considering that Iceland's total population is barely 300,000, that's still a drop in the bucket. The overwhelming majority of Icelanders belong to the Church of Iceland, which is Lutheran, but in recent years, other religions, among them Islam and Buddhism, have earned official recognition, prompting the Jewish community to consider its options.

The question has gained particular relevancy in recent months, with Chabad setting its sights on this land of geysers and glaciers, volcanos and Vikings. This past spring, Rabbi Berel Pewzner, a Chabad emissary, made a trip to Reykjavik to organize a Passover seder. Not knowing where to begin looking for Jews, he put an ad in the local newspaper inviting any and all members of the faith to attend.

"It was the first kosher seder ever held in Iceland, and we had more than 50 people join us," Pewzner recounts. Encouraged by the response, he returned in September to organize services and meals for the High Holy Days. "We had our first minyan here since World War II, and for many of those who came, it was first time they ever heard a shofar."

Among the Jews of Iceland, you'll find Americans, Israelis and even a handful of Australians, Russians and South Americans. Most are here because they married Icelanders. For example, Mike Levin, who grew up in Chicago, met his Icelandic wife at music school in Vienna and has been living in Reykjavik, where he runs a catering business, since 1986. Ever since he moved here, Levin has taken it upon himself to organize get-togethers two or three times a year on the Jewish holidays. "I have two kids, and I wanted them to have some sort of Jewish experience," he explains.

In recent years, his partner in this effort has been Israeli Sigal Har-Meshi, who grew up in Ashkelon but has also been living in Iceland on and off since 1986. She first came for a job in the fishing industry, as many post-army Israelis did in those days, so that she could earn some money to travel the world. At the factory where she worked, both she and her sister met their future husbands. Although she is by no means observant, Har-Meshi says she welcomes Chabad's incursion into Iceland. "It would be a lot less work for Mike and me, if Chabad were here," says the mother of three, who works as a cook in a hotel.

'Jews don't celebrate Christmas?'

About 10 years ago, for the first time in its history, Iceland began to draw serious numbers of migrants, particularly from Eastern Europe and the Arab world. As Har-Meshi only half-jokingly remarks, the new arrivals from her part of the world have been quite a welcome sight, making her feel less of an outsider in her adopted homeland, even though support for the Palestinian cause - and by definition, hostility to Israel - is widespread here. "For me, just to see other people with brown eyes has been really nice."

Does she miss Israel? "I miss my mother," she responds, and after a long pause: "Of course I miss Israel. What do you think?"

Glenn Barkan, who hails from Long Island, owns Cafe Babalu, a trendy meeting spot for students and artists in downtown Reykjavik, where the most popular item on the menu is New York cheesecake - based on his grandmother's recipe. Barkan says he's never encountered outright anti-Semitism in the seven years he's lived in Iceland, though he has found most Icelanders to be quite ignorant about Judaism. "I get a lot of people who say to me, 'What, you mean the Jews don't celebrate Christmas?' 'What, you mean the Jews don't believe in Jesus?'"

Barkan moved to Iceland to join his Icelandic boyfriend, who was unable to obtain U.S. citizenship. The two held what was probably the first-ever same-sex marriage on the island, if not in the world, that incorporated Viking, Christian and Jewish elements. "We had a woman priest who recited the seven blessings in Hebrew under the chuppah and then a room full of 200 Icelanders shouting 'Mazal tov' and 'Lehayim.' It was quite the scene."

The Hanukkah menorah his mother recently sent him from home is displayed prominently on a shelf in the cafe amid an assortment of tchotchkes. With that holiday still approaching when he spoke with Haaretz, Barkan said he was planning to add potato latkes to his seasonal menu - though not exactly the type his mother used to make: "My mom would stick broccoli in her latkes to get me to eat vegetables. I'm certainly not gonna subject my customers to that."

A self-described '60s radical from New York, Hope Knutsson has probably been in Iceland longer than any other Jew today, and is fondly referred to by Barkan as "the matriarch of the Jewish community." Knutsson, who feels uncomfortable with this epithet ("I see myself as a Jew only by ethnicity" ) prefers the title of "keeper of the list" - that is, the list of the Jews.

"In 1969, I decided to take a trip to Europe, so I booked a flight on Icelandic Airways, which was the hippie airline in those days. I did a 24-hour stopover in Iceland and was blown away," she recalls. "It looked like another planet, I was almost expecting dinosaurs to appear. Beyond that, it was such a sane society. So I decided I had to move here."

But first she had to find herself a "Viking husband," as she puts it. "I started hanging out at the Icelandic Airways terminal at JFK Airport and told people what I was up to. One day someone comes up to me and says 'We found you your Viking.' He was an employee of the airline, and we got married a year later."

Knutsson, who has two grown children, has been living in Iceland since the early 1970s and today serves as president of the Icelandic Ethical Humanist Association, an organization that promotes civil confirmation ceremonies and separation of church and state.

Although she speaks with pride of her adopted homeland, she does not dismiss or make light of charges of anti-Semitism here. "It certainly exists. There is still lots of xenophobia here," she says.

In one incident several years ago, a camera crew that had filmed a boy undergoing preparations for his bar mitzvah had a swastika painted on its van the following day. More recently, the owner of a bike shop downtown had a sign posted outside his door that read: "No Jews Wanted." In recent years, Levin says, any time he is asked to attend an event as a representative of the Jewish community, he insists on having a bodyguard accompany him.

Ignorance may be partly to blame for these incidents, according to Knutsson. Several years ago, the Icelandic national theater company was staging a revival of "Fiddler on the Roof" and, as she recalls, "they asked if they could come to our seder to see what real Jews look like."

South of the circle

The number of Icelandic Jews living outside Reykjavik can barely be counted on one hand. Guy Gutraiman, born and raised in Nes Ziona, near Tel Aviv, is one of them. Together with his Icelandic wife and baby daughter, he lives in the tiny fishing village of Olafsvik on the tip of the western peninsula, about a three-hour drive from Reykjavik via mainly gravel roads. Through his website,, he books tours to Iceland for Hebrew speakers.

"I get lots of Israelis who've seen a lot of the world and are looking for something different," he says. "Especially since the volcano erupted here in 2010, there's been lots of interest." Still, he says, it's a lonely life for an Israeli. "I really have no friends here, so I try my best to take a trip back home at least twice a year."

Jacob and Andrea Kasper, one of the only fully Jewish couples in Iceland, live in an even more remote corner of the island, around 30 miles south of the Arctic Circle. They moved to Iceland in 2008, when Jacob enrolled in a graduate program in coastal marine management in the Western Fjords, and a year ago, relocated to the tiny fishing village of Skagastrond, where Jacob is employed at the Marine Research Institute as an expert on lumpfish. Their two toddlers both speak three languages: English, Icelandic and Hebrew.

Andrea, who was born in Israel and spent many years in the United States, Japan and Panama, recently returned from a trip to the Jewish Futures Conference in Denver, where she received an award for a Jewish vocational high school project she conceived - quite a distinction for a representative of a community that has no formal Jewish educational programs to speak of. She is now busy working on her doctorate in Jewish education , conducting most of her research from her little house here at the end of the road where on very cold nights, there are spectacular views of the northern lights - and on Friday evenings, traditional Shabbat dinners are served with her home-baked challah.

Ever since she moved to Iceland, Andrea has tried to take an active role in the Jewish community, urging its members to come out of their hideouts. Her calls, however, have fallen largely on deaf ears: "Just because there's a lot of support for the Palestinian cause out here, I don't see that as a reason to maintain low visibility. If anything, the Jews should be speaking up and explaining the issues."

Recently, she tried to gather data on the Jews of Iceland for a survey she was conducting . "Nobody wanted to participate. 'What do you need this information for?' they'd ask," she says. "They were all afraid."

The fear may not be totally ungrounded. After all, Iceland doesn't have a particularly good history with the Jews. In the 1930s, when Jews were trying to flee Germany, Iceland not only refused to open its doors, but most of the Jews who had already moved to its shores were deported. The trauma of those years is not easily erased, even today when Iceland is the only country in the world outside of Israel to have a Jewish first lady - and an Israeli at that.

Jerusalem-born Dorrit Moussaieff married President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson in 2003, after the death of his first wife. Known to be an outgoing, even flamboyant, woman, Moussaieff, daughter of the prominent London jeweler and antiquities collector Shlomo Moussiaeff, is quite a hit among most Icelanders, but for whatever reason, has chosen to keep her distance from the Jews. "She never once reached out to us," says Levin.

Har-Meshi adds that neither has she responded to numerous invitations to participate in Jewish celebrations.

So is Chabad the answer? Pewzner says he will soon be back and the ultimate plan is to establish a formal Jewish community in Reykjavik with a center for meetings and prayers, kosher food and a Sunday school.

Having been raised as a Reform Jew, Mike Levin is not completely comfortable with the recent overtures from Chabad, but as he puts it, "We take what we can get here."

Gullfoss falls, a popular attraction.Credit: Judy Maltz and Amit Schejter



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