Why would anyone in his right mind choose to go to Finland, of all places, in the dead of the winter? A normal person would want to escape the cold by flying south of the equator to South Africa or Australia to bask in the summer’s sun.
For me, it was the Northern Lights that did it.
The ad looked too good to be true: “Experience a once-in-a-lifetime winter adventure…. Cross the Arctic Circle, visit the famous Ice Hotel, explore the forest on dog sledges, experience the Northern Lights – and much more. And this was a kosher tour for Orthodox Jews!
From the time I was a boy of eight or nine, I have been enchanted by pictures of the mysterious greenish-yellowish glow that filled the skies far, far away, above the Arctic Circle. And now this ad depicted those heavenly colors filling the sky, over a canopy of pure white snow blanketing the tall pine trees and the open meadows.
I signed up.
First stop for the seven of us coming from Israel was Kiev. The group eventually totaled 38 people, as others joined us later from the U.S., Canada, England, and Holland. Next stop was Helsinki, the capital of Finland, where we would spend Shabbos.
Helsinki’s kehila was founded by Cantonists – Jews in the 19th century who were conscripted for a 25-year “stint” in the Czar’s army. Many of them were taken as young as 10 years of age. The goal was to pressure them to convert to Christianity, and for the most part they succeeded. Those who remained steadfast were almost totally ignorant of Judaism, as they were allowed no contact with Jewish communities while they were in the service. A contingent of Cantonists was stationed in Helsinki – Finland was part of Russia from 1809 to 1917 – and when their service ended, they requested permission to reside in Finland. And that’s how the Finnish Jewish community started. (At a wedding in Jerusalem, the day before I departed, someone told me that Rabbi Naftali Amsterdam, one of the disciples of Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, had been rav of the Helsinki kehila!)
Our group stayed at the Radisson Hotel, which was across the street from the Jewish community center. As in many European cities, all the Jewish institutions are wrapped up into one heavily guarded complex. Here was the synagogue, community meeting rooms, kosher kitchen and catering hall, and Jewish day school, all in one place.
The rabbi, Simon Livson, is a rarity. He is young, he is Finnish, and he is religious. A baal teshuva, he became religious while he was visiting Israel.
On Friday, erev Shabbos, we visited the port of Helsinki, where we saw a small memorial for Jews in Finland who were exterminated by the Germans – all eight of them. During the War, Finland, threatened with an invasion by Russia, invited the Germans to their soil to fight the Russians. When the Nazis demanded that Finland hand over her Jews, the Finnish government adamantly refused. They saw the Jews as patriotic citizens, who had served with honor in her armed services. This created an odd situation – Jews fighting along with the Nazis against a common enemy! There is a picture of Jewish soldiers praying outside a military tent next to a tent bearing the swastika! As the War progressed, the Finns kicked out the Germans. A number of Jews from other countries fled to Finland, but they were forced to leave. The eight remaining Jews were supposed to be protected by the police, but the chief of police, a Nazi sympathizer, handed them over to the Germans: hence the memorial.
The city is quite modern, whose architecture in the city’s Old Quarter conveys a sort of a mini-St. Petersburg (formerly known as Leningrad.), thanks to Russian influence. Helsinki has one of the world’s best dental schools. There were four dentists in our group; they took their own private tour of the place and came out very impressed. Another thing that struck me was that gambling is legal here, and slot machines were as ubiquitous as soda vending machines.
On Shabbos, we attended services in the beautiful but nearly empty shul. Our group more than doubled the number of the mispallelim that Shabbos! (There is no minyan during the week.) Sitting next to me was Roi– almost 15 years old – a very Ashkenazi-looking boy with such a Yiddishe punim. When a Sefardi-looking man sat down next to him, he told me that he was his father – an Israeli of Iranian descent! The father married a non-Jewish Finnish woman who never completed her conversion process. Their son decided to convert after he turned 13.
There were a few young ladies, in their teens or early twenties. From their looks, I guessed they were converts. The rest of the people were elderly Jews. I felt like I was in an old shul in Baltimore back in the ‘60s. How sad and ironic it is that a community founded by Jews who steadfastly retained their Jewish identity in the Czar’s army was now being decimated by assimilation and intermarriage!
We ate in the synagogue/community center dining hall. The kitchen is kosher all year round, as the synagogue is Orthodox, even if most of the congregants are not.
After Shabbos, we took a flight north to Rovaniemi, population 61,568, the capital of Finnish Lapland and only five kilometers south of the Arctic Circle. It is also the “home of Santa Claus,” so of course we stayed at the Santa Claus Hotel. We had two rooms in the hotel’s convention center. One served as the “synagogue,” the other as the dining room. Kosher food was flown in from London and, aside from the sandwiches, was pretty tasty.
The city and its surroundings were covered with snow – up to 60 centimeters (two feet) in some places. It was an amazing to see this wonderland of snow and to and the experience the beauty of walking in the snow-covered pine forest (although it is much cheaper to go to Switzerland in the winter, which also has a number of kosher hotels).
The temperature hovered between -7 to -11 degrees Celsius (19.4 to 12.2 degrees Fahrenheit). That was warmer than what was going on in New York City that week. The week before we arrived, the temperature had plunged to -18 degrees Celsius (four below zero, Fahrenheit.) I wore layers of clothing, which were adequate except when the wind was blowing. The next morning we went to an outfitters store, where we slipped into “thermal suits,” and we wore them every day until the end of the trip!
Sunrise (netz hachamah) ranged from 9:15 to 9:30 a.m.! That meant that we couldn’t daven too early even if we wanted to! What a great place for a yeshiva, I thought. A young man learning at the Arctic Circle could tell the shadchan that he regularly davens at netz, and he would be telling the truth!
That day we went sledding on motorized sleds. The wind chill felt so cold that we needed to don helmets with visors to protect our faces. Finland is covered with forests. When you see areas with no trees, you know that there is a lake there. I learned that Finland has over 100,000 lakes! You can’t see them, because everything is frozen over and then covered with snow.
One if the highlights of the trip was dog sledding. Each sled was manned by two people. One sat on the sled, while the other stood behind him guiding the sled by its handles, and putting his foot on a bar to stop or slow down the sled. Each sled was pulled by four dogs, who seemed to thoroughly enjoy the job!
The snow-covered pine trees were breathtaking. We followed one another single file through the paths that wound through the forests. Deviating even a little from the path meant getting stuck in the snow or – more likely – falling off the sled. In front of us was a British couple, senior citizens, if you will. At one point, the sled got stuck. The husband fell off, and then the dogs took off with his wife sitting in the sled while her husband was just lying in the snow! I couldn’t help from bursting out in laughter – I thought it was the funniest thing! When I saw his wife later that day at supper, I asked her if she had any idea what was going on while the dogs were whisking her away. She told me (with a smile) that she got this strange feeling that her husband was not with her after she called out to him four times and he didn’t answer!
Yours truly fell off at least three times, until my exasperated partner, in his thick Brooklyn accent, unceremoniously ordered me to switch positions with him.
We took a long bus trip, going south, to the town of Kemi, where we saw a hotel made of ice. Everything – the dining room tables, the chairs, the beds were made of ice. The artful carvings on the walls, including “draped windows,” were masterful. We didn’t stay there but some people do. I guess they don’t mind the chilly reception!
The mighty icebreaker, the Sampo, operates out of Kemi on the northern Gulf of Bothnia, which is the northernmost arm of the Baltic Sea. It is situated between Finland‘s west coast and Sweden‘s east coast. At this time of the year, waters are covered with sea ice. We traveled by boat on a “sea lane,” a path sliced out of the ice by the icebreaker earlier in the day. After an hour, the ship came to a stop, and we disembarked. We were surrounded by a sea of white ice as far as the eye could see – all the way to the farthest reaches of the horizon. Yes, we were walking on the Baltic Sea! I felt as if I was experiencing eternity, one of G-d’s wonders of Creation. We were at the end of the world, with the North Pole just yonder.
Unfortunately, for me, that was the highlight of the trip. I say unfortunately because there were no Northern Lights to be seen on any evening the week we were in the north. Cloudy skies were the culprit. But even if the skies are clear, other conditions are necessary – like intense solar activity emanating from the surface of the sun.
The next time I checked the ad, they had changed it from “Experience the Northern Lights” to “Search for the Northern Lights.”
Oh well, don’t say that I didn’t warn you.
Sam Finkel, originally from Baltimore, lives in Yerushalayim. He is the author of Rebels in the Holyland: Mazkeret Batya, an Early Battleground for the Soul of Israel (Feldheim).