Confrontations at Chabad in Copenhagen
“Who are you?”
“Um, I’m Dani,” I mumble, “Dani Lefkowitz.”
“What is your purpose for coming here?”
“I am here for Shabbat.”
“And what is Shabbat?”
“Um, Shabbat is the Jewish day of rest. It’s observed once a week. I’m here to pray and my friends are inside. Can I please go in?”
“I have to ask you a few questions first,” he says sternly in an odd assemblage of Danish and English accents.
I look up at him. I have to strain my neck to look into his eyes. He is a good foot and a half taller than I, characteristic of most Danes, and he is dressed in a camouflage green and brown military uniform. I realize the seriousness of the situation. He is not a typical guard like the ones we see in the U.S. He is a soldier of the state, and I notice a rifle peeking out behind his back.
“Do you speak Hebrew?” he asks.
“Ken . . . Ketzat [yes… a little],” I answer, cautiously.
“Where did you learn?”
“In school. I went to a Jewish yeshiva.”
“And do you know what the parsha [torah portion] is this week.”
Shit, I think to myself. He got me. Is he not going to let me in because I don’t remember if this week is Bo or Vaera. Will he think I am not a real Jew now? How do I even venture to explain that while I am learned in Jewish practice, I don’t remember this week’s parsha.
“I don’t remember,” I whisper.
He stares at me quizzically. I feel my cheeks burning.
And then I hear a call from behind him. My friend comes out and says: “don’t worry, Officer, she’s with us.”
This was my first conversation with a Dane in Copenhagen. I had landed only hours before, and my head was numb with fatigue and jet lag. I hadn’t even showered yet. I had come to Copenhagen a day early as our program technically started on Saturday, and since I don’t travel on Shabbat. I had booked an Airbnb close to the local Chabad House and so, here I was on Friday night for Shabbat dinner – the only kosher food available in Copenhagen.
I did not expect any difficulty in entering the Chabad. I had been to Chabad Houses in other European countries and was always greeted warmly. And I certainly did not expect to be greeted by a soldier in Copenhagen of all places. Copenhagen is known as a friendly city, where not much happens. From what I had learned about Danish history, Denmark is known for its ethnic egalitarianism and support of its Jewish population. During World War II, the king of Denmark protected the Jewish citizens, threatening that if the Nazis forced Danish Jews to wear yellow stars, then the whole population of Copenhagen would follow suit. Denmark also heroically helped 7,220 of Denmark’s 7,800 Jews escape to Sweden on fishing boats to avoid being sent to concentration camps. All in all, not a single Danish Jew was exterminated during the Shoah. So why was there a soldier blocking my entrance to Chabad and interrogating me?
Once I passed through the security check, I was greeted by the rebbetzin [rabbi’s wife] and their daughter, Shayna. They embraced me warmly, wished me a Shabbat Shalom, and showed me the way to the two-story, subterranean synagogue, hidden beneath the rabbi’s residence. There was a smattering of men, just enough for a minyan.
As we peered through the veiled mechitzah [partition between the men’s and women’s sections], I asked the rebbetzin, “What was that all about? Is that type of security typical?” She nodded and smiled softly. “Yes,” she sighed. “We’ve had around-the-clock security for the past three years.”
Three years ago, a gunman killed a young Jewish man on security duty during a bat mitzvah celebration and wounded two police officers right outside of the city’s Great Synagogue. The Chabad house was also targeted and put on lockdown. The police were able to track down the suspect and killed him after he opened fire on them. Since then, the Queen has ordered round-the-clock security at all Jewish sites in Copenhagen. These security guards are members of the army, who are not Jewish. They are trained to ask several questions to newcomers in order to ascertain their Jewishness.
After learning the context of the soldier’s presence, I began to view him and this experience differently. I had new respect for his interrogation, even if it did remind me of security grilling on EL AL. I now understand that his stern manner is strictly professional and for my safety and that of the others inside. I began to view this encounter as emblematic of Copenhagen’s characteristic concern for each member of its populace. The Queen’s decision to respond so quickly by implementing security guards at all Jewish sites demonstrates the Danish value of national equality. Denmark is a secular social welfare state, and does not separate its citizens by religion, class, race, or socioeconomic status.
Nevertheless, the encounter with the guard continued to haunt me. Despite his intentions, the soldier made me feel self-conscious. He made me feel … not quite Jewish enough. I had come to Copenhagen a day early in order not to violate the Sabbath, and my first stop in the country was to Chabad so that I could celebrate Shabbat properly. And, yet, a Danish soldier, who wasn’t even Jewish, challenged the authenticity of my Jewish identity.
It wasn’t just his stern manner that intimidated me. It was the nature of his question – the implication that knowing the parsha of the week demonstrates a full-fledged Jewish education and is a marker of one’s Jewishness. It bothered me how simplistically he judged me and it demonstrated to me the way in which religious observance is perceived in many European countries.
Most Europeans I have encountered over my semester abroad seem to have a black-and-white understanding of Judaism. Perhaps this is because I am living in Copenhagen, a notoriously secular city. Either you are Jewish, and strictly observant of Jewish law, or you are culturally but not religiously Jewish. These Europeans, especially from countries without thriving Jewish communities, do not understand the various gradations of Jewish observance that are recognizable in the United States. In these communities you’re all in or you’re out. Am I in or out? This was the first time I had ever been forced to ponder this question.
It was upon my arrival in Copenhagen, a city known for its religious toleration, that I felt most like an outsider. But, it is also here where I feel most personally cemented in my identity. I know it every time I turn down the traif Smørrebrød at the Glass Market; I know it when I don’t travel with my class to mandatory Saturday class outings and go to great lengths to get home before Shabbat; and I know it when I have had to look up whether swordfish is kosher at a chic Norrebrø restaurant (FYI: it’s a machloket [rabbinic debate]). The fact is, that no matter where I am, I know who I am and proudly accept the sacrifices I have to make in order to maintain my identity.
And now when I come to Chabad House on Friday nights for dinner, Petr, my new friend, the security guard, nods at me, beckoning me in with a smile. “Shabbat Shalom, Dani!” he says. “God Aften, Petr,” I reply back in my limited Danish. He winks at me, while opening the door, and now says, “I hope you remember the parsha this time!”
//DANI LEFKOWITZ is a junior in Barnard College and is Deputy Literary & Arts Editor of The Current. She can be reached at email@example.com. Photo courtesy of the author.