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Swede Dreams

In Sweden for Rosh Hashanah, the author does PR for Yom Kippur

Etgar Keret
October 01, 2009
Children from the collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary Library; Ikea photo from the 2010 Ikea catalog
Children from the collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary Library; Ikea photo from the 2010 Ikea catalog
Children from the collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary Library; Ikea photo from the 2010 Ikea catalog
Children from the collection of the Jewish Theological Seminary Library; Ikea photo from the 2010 Ikea catalog

My visit last week to the Gothenburg Book Fair in Sweden got off to a stressful start. Several weeks before I arrived in that peaceful city, which boasts Northern Europe’s largest amusement park, a local tabloid published a story accusing Israel of stealing organs from Palestinians killed by the IDF. The story managed to make an impressive quantum leap in logic by linking an unproven accusation against the Israeli army for something it allegedly did in the early 1990s to a New Jersey rabbi accused of trafficking in human organs in 2009, as if the gap of more than a decade and thousands of miles was merely a trivial detail. The only thing missing in the article was a recipe for matzos made with the blood of Christian children.

The absurd report received a no less absurd response from the Israeli government, which demanded that the Swedish prime minister apologize for the story. The Swedes, of course, refused, claiming freedom of the press, even if in this specific case, the press was not of particularly high quality. And Israel responded immediately with the unconventional weapon it keeps hidden away for conflicts of just such magnitude: a consumer boycott of Ikea. In the midst of this hyperventilated political storm, yours truly found himself spending Rosh Hashanah with an audience of polite Swedish readers who thanked him generously for his stories and were even more grateful that he didn’t take advantage of the moment he autographed their books to snatch a kidney or two.

But my real Swedish drama began when I realized there was a danger that I might not get back to Israel before Yom Kippur. Over the past few years, I’ve spent quite a few holidays outside of Israel, and despite the self-pitying, whiny face I always present to the people around me, I have to admit that I’ve often felt somewhat relieved to spend an Independence Day without an aerial demonstration of Air Force planes flying right over my head, or a Shavuot eve minus aunts and uncles who are insulted because I’ve refused their invitations to a holiday dinner. But I always did everything I could to be in Israel on Yom Kippur. All these years, all my life.

The night after the problem of my flight back was solved—with the help of my host’s savvy travel agent—I invited everyone to celebrate our success at a local Swedish restaurant called, for some reason, Cracow, which is famous, of course, for its huge selection of Czech beers. “Now that it all worked out, maybe you can explain to us what the hell is so special about that holiday,” my young Swedish publisher asked. And so I found myself, with a stomach full of cold potato salad and Czech beer, trying to explain to a few half-drunk, literary Swedes what Yom Kippur is.

The Swedes listened and were fascinated. The thought of a day on which no motorized vehicles drive through the cities, people walk around without their wallets and all the stores are closed, a day on which there are no TV broadcasts or even updates on websites—all sounded to them like an innovative Naomi Klein concept and not like an ancient Jewish holiday. The fact that it was also a day on which you’re supposed to ask others for forgiveness and do moral stocktaking upgraded the anti-consumerist angle with a welcome touch of ’60s hippiedom. And the fasting bit sounded like an extreme version of the fashionable low-carb diet they’d talked to me about in such glowing terms just that morning. And so I began the evening trying to explain the ancient Hebrew ritual in my broken English, and found myself doing PR for the coolest, most sought after holiday in the universe, the iPhone of all festivals.

At that point, the amazed Swedes were consumed by envy of me for having been born into such a wonderful religion. Their eyes darted around the restaurant, looking at the patrons as if they were searching for a mohel who would cut them a deal to join up.

Twenty-six hours later, I was strolling with my wife down the center lane of one of Tel Aviv’s busiest thoroughfares, our little son riding his bike with the training wheels behind us. Above us, birds were chirping their morning birdsong. I’ve spent my whole life on that street, but I only get to hear the birds on Yom Kippur.

“Daddy,” my son asked as he pedaled and panted, “tomorrow’s Yom Kippur too, right?”

“No, son,” I said, “tomorrow’s a regular day.”

He burst into tears.

“Don’t cry, honey,” my wife tried to comfort him, “in less than a week it’ll be Sukkot.”

That didn’t help at all. The kid was right. There’s nothing like Yom Kippur. Everyone knows it. Even the Swedes.

Translated by Sondra Silverston.

Etgar Keret is a Tel Aviv-based filmmaker and fiction writer.