2015 Date Europe Geography Interest Jewish Interest

Shabbat in Helsinki

Helsinki skyline

A couple of years ago I was travelling from Australia to London on a flight that routed via Helsinki. One of those way-out-there places that in my wildest dreams I never thought I’d visit. So I decided to break the journey and take a few days to explore the Finnish capital.

I landed in the very early hours of a Friday, and caught a cab from the airport into town. It was July and thus the middle of the northern summer. A time of the year in Helsinki when the sun drops below the horizon for only about two hours each night, and it never gets fully dark before the day starts again.

Meaning that when I got there it was as bright as if it was the middle of the afternoon. Only it wasn’t – it was 4.30am. The sky was a big blue canopy, dotted with a few lazy clouds. Driving into town was not by lamplight along dark roads, but rather in bright sunshine, where I got to see the city’s lovely parks and neat streets, and glimpse views across Helsinki’s harbor, the water glittering in the (pre-dawn) sunlight.

Even stranger, at this ungodly hour Helsinki was a city in full swing. Trams and buses were zipping down the street, while people were out in force, walking, jogging, running errands, and just generally going about their business. It was as if everyone had responded to the presence of light much as you and I would. That is, jumped out of bed and started their day. Only just at midnight. It was all so weird.

When I got to the hotel sunlight was streaming into the room and I couldn’t sleep, so almost immediately I set out into the day-night-day for a spot of sightseeing. A wonderful thing to do, Helsinki being built around a magnificent harbor, with countless bays and inlets and low green hills that afford marvelous views at every turn.

Downtown Helsinki did not disappoint either, a perfect match to the city’s beautiful natural setting. Glorious art Nouveau buildings line elegant cobbled streets, and wherever I went there seemed to be a park or green space, neatly manicured flower beds bursting with colorful blooms. Everything seemed ordered and tidy and hyper-clean. In one park a troupe of musicians was playing on a bandstand, so there the air was filled with music.

Cafés and restaurant had spilled out onto the sidewalks, and every table, chair, bench or patch of grass was occupied by happy people sunning themselves, eating, sipping coffees, talking, and laughing: simply enjoying being alive. Although perhaps not surprising for those who live half their lives in darkness. Like they say in the classics: “Make hay while the sun shines…”

I wandered around aimlessly and before I knew it eighteen hours had passed, it was midnight, and the sun was setting. I travel a lot, and I don’t really suffer much from jetlag, but this was bizarre and my personal body clock was evidently completely out of whack.

Anyway, when I finally returned to the hotel I discovered that it was on the same street as the only synagogue in Helsinki. A delightfully unexpected travel twist that caught me by surprise – I genuinely wasn’t expecting to find anything Jewish in a place more usually associated with Santa and his elves.

A quick check online and I learned that there had in fact been a small Jewish presence in Finland for more than 200 years, mainly descending from Russian Jews who had served as soldiers in the Tsar’s army and been posted there when it was a part of the broader Russian empire. Helsinki today has about 1000 Jewish residents and its synagogue was built more than 100 years ago.

I couldn’t pass up the opportunity, and so the following morning I presented myself in front of the Synagogue. I thought it might be a fun thing to join the Saturday prayer service.

Like at Synagogue’s all over the world, my first interaction was with a community security guard, who gave me the third degree – “why are you here?”; “do you know any Jewish prayers?”; “do you speak Hebrew?” and so on.  Only once he was satisfied with my Jewish credentials was I allowed to enter.

Helsinki shul

Inside I found myself in a large, airy prayer hall, framed by white columns that rise up to support a large domed roof, surrounded on three sides by tall glass windows and galleried balconies. Interior decoration was minimal, the walls mainly painted a clean white. Which served to draw all of my attention to the single splash of color in the whole place: a large decorative panel above the ark on the far wall, painted deep blue and highlighted with gold stars.

As Synagogues go this one was really lovely, and so, well, um…, so Nordic: clean, minimalist and functional in design, but at the same time so aesthetically pleasing as well. The word that kept popping into my head was “chic”, which I have to say is not normally the first word I think of when it comes to describing a synagogue.

I suppose visitors are not a common occurrence because I was quickly noticed. The Rabbi came over to say “hi”, asked me the usual questions as to how I came to be there, and within minutes had invited me to join him and his family for lunch.

Which explains how at noon on a random Saturday in July 2013, I found myself in a Helsinki suburb, at the home of Rabbi Benyamin Wolff, about to tuck into a feast of kosher delicacies for Shabbat (Sabbath) lunch. Also at the table were his wife, his kids (I think six!), and a bunch of other folks the Rabbi had picked up along the way: four Yeshiva (Jewish seminary) students from New York doing volunteer work in Finland; a man and his teenage daughter who were visiting from Switzerland; some local boys from the community, one of whom was about to head off to begin Rabbinic training in England; and a Canadian guy in his mid-20s who had been posted to Helsinki by his work.

We made the traditional blessings over the food and wine, and as always I marveled at how amazing the concept of Jewish connectivity can be. A room filled with a mish-mash of Jews from all over the world, and despite being in a complete stranger’s home in one of the most remote parts of the Jewish world, we all felt totally comfortable and knew exactly what to do.

We ate, we swapped stories, and we laughed and joked. After lunch, the Rabbi gave a davar Torah (mini sermon on an item of Jewish law), and then everyone joined in to play the obligatory game of “Jewish geography”. In the course of which I learned that Rabbi Wolff was originally from New York, and that one of his brother’s had been posted to Australia and was now rabbi at the synagogue I had attended in Sydney as a teenager, small world indeed.

After a few hours I made to leave. “Nu, what’s the rush?” the Rabbi asked, and said I was welcome to stick around until Shabbat ended. The Jewish Sabbath commences at sundown on Friday night and ends at sundown on Saturday night. When at an observant Jew’s home for Shabbat it is not unusual to stay the duration. I didn’t want to appear rude, and agreed to stay.

So I sat down again, and the young American sitting next to me pointed out what I had just signed up for. “I assume you realize…” he said with a sly grin and a bit of a giggle, “….that Shabbat will only end at around midnight”.


Helsinki summer night

In what turned out to be my second davar Torah of the afternoon, I learned that when Judaic law was first codified, the rabbis did not really take into account the case of people meshuga (crazy) enough to live in those places where the sun never properly sets for months on end. Strictly speaking, in Helsinki in the summertime Shabbat should start sometime in May and end round about mid-August.

Jewish communities living in these extreme northern parts have thus had to adapt their customs to deal with this unexpected conundrum. The most common being that Shabbat is treated as starting when the sun dips below the horizon, even if just for an hour or two, and even if it never gets fully dark. And even if that only happens well after midnight. Shabbat then ends exactly 25 hours later. Like at 1am the following night.

I must have looked vaguely interested, because the young future Rabbi launched into an explanation as to how there are a whole bunch of different rules that apply to those “really far north places” where the sun never even goes below the horizon. But really my mind was focused on the realization that at four in the afternoon on a Helsinki summer Saturday, I was really just at the starting gate, with at least another eight hours of Shabbat to go.

And that is how I got to experience the longest Shabbat ever. Although I should say that the time went by quickly, and with nothing else to do – no phone, internet, TV or other distractions are allowed on Shabbat – I found myself relaxing into the sunny afternoon-evening-night. The Rabbi was a genuinely interesting and funny guy, there was another prayer service at some point, endless rounds of coffee and cake, and I even took a short nap. I wound up enjoying the experience far more than I ever thought I would.

Like they say in the Nordic-Jewish classics: “Don’t make hay while the sun shines….

So why am I writing about all this now, almost two years after the fact?

Well, over the past few weeks I have been thinking a lot about my brief encounter with the Jews of Helsinki, which whilst pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable was not especially noteworthy at the time. Kind of the same as my impression of the Nordic region in general – pleasant and thoroughly enjoyable but otherwise fairly bland. A group of quiet, progressive and egalitarian countries, peaceful and content, offering a tolerant environment and good life to all those who choose to live there. Apart from ski-jumping and handing out Nobel prizes, often-times the most exciting stuff that happens in them is daylight.

A slightly idealized impression of Scandinavia, yes, and one which has been seriously challenged of late.

I am referring of course to what happened in Copenhagen a few weeks ago. There, a gunman attacked a café where a free speech debate was being held, murdering a film-maker and injuring three others. The gunman then moved on to a synagogue with the intent of massacring a bunch of Jewish kids. He killed the community security guard – a fellow no different to the guy who asked me questions outside the Helsinki synagogue – before the police were able to stop him. The gunman was apparently “inspired” by events in Paris a few weeks earlier, where 12 folks were massacred in the office of a satirical newspaper, and the next day four Jews were murdered in a kosher supermarket.

Sadly, these were not isolated events. The recent killings in Paris and Copenhagen are, it seems, the tip of what is becoming a very large and scary iceberg of resurgent anti-Semitism floating its way across Europe. There has been a marked escalation in vandalism, harassment and violence targeting Jews. To the point that Jewish men in Helsinki – the same guys I enjoyed a leisurely summer Shabbat lunch with – have been advised not to wear kippot (skullcaps) in public, for fear of anti-Semitic attacks.

Yet if the recent events in Paris and Copenhagen show us anything, it is that these extremists don’t only have a problem with Israel and/or “The Jews”. They also clearly have a problem with the liberal media and the idea of free speech, not to mention with the Great Satan (aka the USA) and its allies, and with everyone else who is not the same as them.

Which, like it or not, means they have a problem with you.

So the next time your TV is filled with images of another act of Islamic terrorism somewhere in the world, think for a moment about Rabbi Wolff and all those people who were so lovely to me in Helsinki that day. These are real people, and good people, who are simply going about their daily lives. Apart from the manner in which they might choose to worship, they are no different to you and me, and they wish no harm on anyone, and do not wish to impose their ways on anyone.

And then think of those fundamentalists and extremists who would, if given the chance, butcher them without hesitation. For no reason other than they don’t share their beliefs or world view. Just like happened in Paris, and just like happened in Copenhagen. And just like is happening every day at the moment in places you never really think of, like in Nigeria, Syria and Sudan.

And then speak up. Don’t make an apologist excuse, and don’t shut your mouth out of fear that you will be seen as politically incorrect. Ask yourself: “which side am I on”? and speak up in support of your side – in support of the victims, and in support of those on the front-line, which is moving towards you much faster than you may like to believe.

Ultimately, you’ll just be speaking up in support of yourself.



More than ever, the famous words from a sermon delivered in 1946 by the German Pastor, Martin Niemöller, are worth remembering:

When they came for the communists,
I did not speak out;
As I was not a communist.

When they locked up the social democrats,
I did not speak out;
I was not a social democrat.

When they came for the trade unionists,
I did not speak out;
As I was not a trade unionist.

When they came for the Jews,
I did not speak out;
As I was not a Jew.

When they came for me,
there was no one left to speak out.

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