As early as the year 1000, non-Christians were forbidden from living in Norway, and it was only in the late 16th century that official documents reference the presence of Jews in Norway at all. Cited therein as "Portuguese Jews," the term referred to Sephardim from Spain as well as from Portugal who had been expelled from their home countries in 1492 and 1497, respectively.
In the early 1600s, under the rule of King Christian IV, Jews were granted freedom of religion plus permission to settle in certain areas of the then-joint state of Denmark-Norway. Soon after, they were allowed to travel and to conduct trade. Jews were hardly integrated within society during this time, but they were not forced to live in Jewish-only areas or to wear any physical markers that would announce their faith. The situation for Jews became precarious during the reign of King Fredrik III, however. Any Jew not in possession of a visa was forbidden from residing in Denmark-Norway, and in 1687, Jews were officially prohibited from entering the country.
When Norway acquired its first constitution in 1814, the document listed Lutheran Protestantism as the official religion. Poet Henrik Wergeland led the charge to change this, and in 1851, 164 years after the ban against Jews was instated, the Norwegian parliament finally granted religious rights to Jews.
The first Jewish community in Norway was established in present-day Oslo, then known as Christiania, in 1892. 136 of the country's 214 Jewish residents lived here. Though most community members were not particularly observant of Halachic laws, they agreed to keep to the Orthox tradition. The Norwegian-Jewish population continued to grow, bolstered by the influx of Eastern European refugees during WWI. Jewish life blossomed in Oslo in particular; numerous theatre groups, choirs, cultural organizations, and academic organizations were founded, some of which conducted in proceedings in Yiddish.
All of this came to a halt in 1940 when the German occupation of Norway began. In the next few years, nearly all Jews were either deported to death camps or fled to Sweden. By war's end, the total Norwegian-Jewish population had shrunk from 2,173 to 559. The Jewish community of Oslo did, however, manage to re-establish itself: they found their synagogue – which had been put to use as a storage facility for Nazi literature and confiscated Jewish belongings – miraculously unharmed.
Over the last few decades, a religious revival of sorts has taken place in the capital. Many institutions and programs have been established: a kindergarten, religious education classes for school children, a home for the elderly, a supply of imported Kosher food products, study circles, and more. With 950 members, Oslo is home to both the oldest and the largest Jewish community in Norway today. Explore it all with your Milk & Honey Tours guide!