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Religion in Sweden
Jewish convert fears Sweden Democrat surge
"People haven't understood that religion is important, everyone's too busy buying new apartments."

Jewish convert fears Sweden Democrat surge

Published: 25 Apr 2014 07:26 GMT+02:00
Updated: 25 Apr 2014 11:26 GMT+02:00

Eva and her husband once welcomed a house guest who asked if was alright to store some pork in their fridge. Used to people in Sweden not taking Jewish dietary guidelines seriously, Eva simply said:

"Would you feel comfortable if I put a dead rat in your fridge?"

She says that religious restrictions are often questioned in Sweden, whereas no one would question if a person simply said they didn't like, for example, Serrano ham - which Eva used to enjoy before she converted to Judaism. Eva got the best tip on how to deal with such attitudes from a Muslim friend. 

"To explain the concept of impure, imagine if you drop your toothbrush in the toilet," Eva says. "It doesn't matter if you wash it, boil it in hot water, dunk it in alcoholic disinfectant, you still won't use it." 

She tries to eat kosher food - "trying to keep a vegetarian diet" - and manages to remain a bit more observant than her husband.

"I don't ask what he eats for lunch," says Eva, who has chosen a vegetarian restaurant for the interview. 

The couple had known each other since their early teens. It wasn't until Eva, an accountant, had spent her twenties, thirties, and a chunk of her forties working herself nearly to death that they meet again. 

She had been forced to take sick leave after a two-month stint during which she worked 173 hours overtime, on top of her political engagements for the Moderate Party. Burned out, she retreated to the countryside to lick her wounds. 

"When you're alone in a cabin in the woods you're very exposed to, let's call them forces.... there's a blizzard, the fox eats the hens, the moon shines so brightly you can do things at night," she explains. 

Life in town had been quiet different.

"In my quietest moment, I had my musings about God, but I didn't have that many quiet moments," she says. "I just worked and worked and worked and because I was single there were no brakes." 

While her husband has Jewish parents, who had suffered the Holocaust but been spared the concentration camps, he was not particularly observant. But the culture and the Jewish people mattered to him. After he and Eva got together, she started studying Judaism. She'd never been quite at ease with the Christian teachings of her childhood.

"I never bought the Trinity," says Eva. "First you learn there is one God, then all of a sudden there are three parts. And nobody could explain the Holy Spirit to me in a way that I found satisfying."

She says that the priest in charge of her studies ahead of confirmation thought she was a bit of a handful. 

"I think he thought I was a bit annoying, but I think he did his best."

Eva was one of few students who'd ask difficult questions. She never got her head around the holy spirit. As she started studying Judaism three decades later, monotheism was a definite draw.

And she does feel that her Christian confirmation gave her good basic knowledge, which became useful in her recent studies. She feels at best pity, at worst irritation, at many Swedes' ill-defined agnosticism.

"How many Swedes say they believe in 'something' but aren't sure what that 'something' is?" she queries. "There are package solutions, you can shop around, you don't have to figure it out yourself." 

"People haven't understood that religion is important, everyone's too busy buying new apartments," she adds.

"Everyone is so busy, then something awful happens, and people go light a candle in the street, and you wonder, where is the Swedish Church? There are rituals for this but people are forced to make them up for themselves."

Six months after she began her studies, she told her husband she had decided to convert.

"I have never seen someone so happy," she says. 

The draw for her was the Jewish focus on the here and now, rather than a promised heaven or paradise. And she liked the direct communication with God. 

"If I break one of the rules, then it's my problem, it really doesn't concern anyone else. I can't go to someone else and say "Oy oy oy, forgive me'," Eva says. "I'm the one who has to talk to God."

As Eva went through the year-long studies, her parents were a bit concerned.

"My mum asked why I'd join a community that is so persecuted," says Eva,

She was much more upset than her husband was at the latest incidents of swastika graffiti  - scrawled on, among other places, the doors of Stockholm's Central Mosque and the Vasa Real school in Stockholm, which has classes specifically for Jewish pupils. 

"I'm so new, I feel naked, but my husband shrugs it off," says Eva, who wears a chunky Star of David around her neck, only half visible behind the lapels of her functional and chic grey suit jacket.

When she was active in politics she heard her share of nasty comments.

"In the 1970s, we had a few very extreme individuals who'd come to Moderate Party meetings and spout off behind closed doors," she recalls. "It offered them a kind of pressure valve, to blow off steam, but you'd never send them out on the campaign."

"Those people have now gone over to the Sweden Democrats."

A few years ago, Eva read the Sweden Democrats' party programme and balked at the demand that all religious congregations should build houses of worship that looked like traditional Swedish churches. That point has now been excluded.

Eva has hopes for a multicultural Sweden. She credits Muslims in Sweden for reawakening the debate about religion. And she hopes that one day they will be considered as much a part of Swedish history as the Swedish Jewish community, which traces its roots back to the late 18th century.

But she is worried that the Sweden Democrats may gain ground in the next elections.

"They mix myth, number crunching and rhetoric in a very troubling way."

Ann Törnkvist (ann.tornkvist@thelocal.com)

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