The members of Jewish Artists Collective Chicago write about our stories, struggles, experiences, and musings, and how they inspire us to create contemporary Jewish art.

A Norwegian Jew Walks Into a Blues Bar . . .

By Berit Engen

. . . namely the famous Kingston Mines on Halsted Street in Chicago. I wanted to listen to the remarkable and internationally acclaimed Joanna Connor, a Blues guitarist, singer, and songwriter. Sensitive to the venue’s high-volume sound, I looked for earplugs, and I headed for the t-shirt stand. I was waiting in line, and when it was my turn, the African-American man selling the music merch looked up and broke into a big smile. “You are so funny!” Curious, I turned around to see who in the line this funny person might be, but nobody was behind me. “What, me?” “Yes! You!” I didn’t remember ever meeting the guy, and I pointed to myself in confusion. “Yeah, Lady you! Last Saturday, or Shabbat, as you guys call it, I was at your synagogue in Oak Park for Joanna’s daughter’s bat mitzvah. You were up at the podium and delivered a speech about Yiddish curses and bellybuttons. Man, I could not stop laughing!”

This baffling encounter has become a cherished anecdote since it encompasses seemingly disconnected Norwegian and American bits of my life, as I will recount below. For a brief moment and in an unexpected setting, choices, some insignificant, others life-changing, I had made since childhood fit together like pieces in a completed jigsaw puzzle. More importantly, they were dependent on each other for my rather undramatic life story to be meaningful. Seemingly insignificant fragments are now pieces with a purpose.

The Blues bar episode is less of a coincidence than one might first assume: Blues musician Joanna Connor is also an Oak Park Temple congregant. True, I had been honored to give her daughter (and the bar-mitzvah boy) the traditional Sisterhood blessing. But, me funny? I was not that funny; Yiddishe curses are, and the Yiddish obsession with the bellybutton is. I had become intrigued by the witty wisdom and jocular sounds of these maledictions expressing wishful thinking so bizarre that most of them, when uttered, can only become unfulfilled prophecies. Here is an example. “He should have a hundred houses, in every house a hundred rooms, and in every room twenty beds, and a delirious fever should drive him from one bed to another. (“Hindert hayzer zol er hobn, in yeder hoyz a hindert tsimern, in yeder tsimer tsvonsik betn, un kadukhes zol im varfn fin eyn bet in der tsveyter.”)

 #30: “Onions should grow from your bellybutton!”



“Zol vaksn tsibbelis fun pipek!”

7 x 9 in / 2011 / linen yarn

(1/12 tapestries in the [sub]series “YIDDISHE OUTPOURINGS (I) – A Study in Browns and Blues”)

               I wanted to share this treasure of outpourings and the Yiddish belly button fixation with ‘the world.’ Thus, I had just started to transform the curses by weaving them into tapestries. With a microphone and audience, a live opportunity presented itself on that Shabbat service in April of 2011. I quoted a hilarious song from a popular LP album about the fictional character Moishe Pipik, or, as one may call him, Moses Bellybutton. (The bizarre choice of this most significant of personal names, Moses, and the insignificant surname, as well as the disputable idea that ‘pipik’ refers to the male organ, are explored in one of the many entertaining articles on Yiddish.)

The road to my passion for Yiddish, which could be classified as a German dialect, began in my home country of Norway when I was fourteen years old. The German language was a dreaded, three-year, obligatory subject in junior high and high school. Despite similarities with Norwegian regarding vocabulary, it has extraordinarily complex and difficult grammar. I was in the group of the one percent who loved it. Fortunately, I was able to practice and internalize the language a decade later when I lived in Greece for two and a half years, where I made many German friends. Thus Yiddish was accessible to me when (yet another decade later and after immigrating to the United States in 1985) I joined a Yiddish song group, the rather haimishe (homey, unpretentious) MameLoshn.

Me in a Greek cafe with a village neighbor. A small-sized version of this photo with the caption “I do what other people dream of!” (not my words) was on the cover of Det Nye, a Norwegian weekly magazine for young women, around 1981. The big cover picture was of Farrah Fawcett – a little to my dismay since at the time I was a feminist and socialist with anti-American attitudes. (Photo: Brit Aasvang)

MameLoshn (mame loshn means ‘mother tongue’ and is the Yiddish term for the Yiddish language as opposed to loshn koydesh, meaning ‘holy tongue,’ the Yiddish term for Hebrew) was founded at Oak Park Temple. It attracted Yiddish-loving individuals, some even Yiddish-speaking immigrants, from the western suburbs of Chicago. They were fun and charming characters from tone-deaf to musically accomplished amateurs. The average age was about sixty. Some members were so secular that the Almighty could not be mentioned. Others with memories of the ‘old country’ were so anti-communist that any labor-related song was a reminder of Stalin. But they were all devoted to keeping a dying language alive. I found it admirable, especially considering that at the time, Yiddish song performances, unlike Klezmer music, were not exactly in high demand.

               When I was nine months pregnant and extremely nervous about giving birth, I wanted to learn the most beautiful lullaby I had ever heard, namely “Rozhinkes Mit Mandlen” (“Raisins with Almonds”). I had discovered it on a Pete Seeger record. I gathered the courage to show up for one of MameLoshn’s monthly practices. It was the happiest day of my whole pregnancy. To my delight, all the melodies were in minor keys – my favorite! That is similar to Scandinavian folk music, another tradition that I cherish. Furthermore, I had unknowingly stepped into the Jewish world of stubborn persistence. This suited my personality, as I have always been a little obsessed. When I was nine years old, I was reading biographies about Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Eisenhower, and Kennedy. I then wanted to learn the names of all the American presidents. I painstakingly turned the pages of a ten-volume-encyclopedia in search of them. I felt content to have met like-minded, persistent individuals. And, as a goy and newer member of Oak Park Temple looking to fit in, I felt proud to be welcomed so warmly into the – to me – exotic MameLoshn. 

“L’chayyim!” – MameLoshn (and guest musicians) at “The OY-VEY Cabaret and Gallery: From B’ris to Blues!" (Oak Park Temple, 2008. I am second from right.)

               So, even if I did not speak Yiddish, for the most part, I understood what I was singing – an important feature if one wants to sing with conviction and emotion. Still, I faced questions from a baffled and non-Yiddish-speaking temple community. Me not being Jewish, what about its non-German syntax? It is similar to Norwegian syntax. Or, the differences in sounds and spellings from German words? As a child, I was used to quickly converting strange-sounding utterances into my own Oslo dialect. Norway is the most dialect-rich country in Western Europe; about fifteen were spoken in our twenty-four-unit apartment building. But, the Hebrew words and phrases that are present in Yiddish? I was taking Hebrew classes. And, reading Yiddish in Hebrew characters? Not then, but eventually, yes. I translated Yiddish handwritten letters. One was too difficult – it turned out that the old writer was blind when she wrote it. How about the Slavic vocabulary present in Yiddish? I could not translate the words, but I could identify them as of neither Germanic nor Semitic origin. Last, but most important, the Jewish concepts expressed in Yiddish songs, many of which contribute to Yiddish being a Jewish language, not just another German dialect? Through synagogue studies and living with Jewish rituals, I was becoming familiar with the many serious, surprising, funny, and contradictory aspects of Judaism, some of which I depicted in four tapestries about uprooting and wandering.

7 x 6 in / 2009-2011 / linen yarn

(4/4 tapestries in the [sub]series “EXILE (II) – Dwelling and Wandering”)


Back to my life in Norway. In the nineteen-sixties, the national, political mood was – despite our liberal social democracy – conservative and conformist, with great respect for authorities. Norwegians generally supported Western economic imperialism, the CIA, and the Vietnam War. I was a studious but questioning eleven-year-old in elementary school where we had to study English, our first foreign language. Great timing, as English was becoming the lingua franca for an extraordinary phenomenon, the first international youth movement. Driven by anti-war protests and alternative lifestyle sentiments, political activism blossomed and demonstrators demanded solidarity with the oppressed. Engaged musicians and singer-songwriters in the English-speaking United States highlighted the political and social issues with passionate lyrics and melodies. Mrs. Birkeland, our homeroom teacher for seven years, was an outspoken communist, feminist, and social activist. She courageously changed our English curriculum, which was typically taught in a British accent and with a cultural focus on England. Instead, she educated us on powerful American protest songs from the Civil Rights movement. Inspired and with limited skills I wrote a letter in English to Martin Luther King Jr.

I was interested in politics, and English became synonymous with a vocabulary describing socially unfair conditions like racism and poverty, political concepts like oppression and resistance, and lofty ideals like justice and peace. Always marching to my own drum, I decided at fourteen to march under banners in my first political protest. It took place on May 1, the International Worker’s Day. In all European as well as in many South and Central American countries, May 1st is a national holiday celebrated and observed with huge gatherings and demonstrations. Not so in the United States, even if this internationally important day originated in Chicago! It was not until I immigrated that I learned about the Haymarket Tragedy. On May 4, 1886, a violent confrontation between police and labor protesters took place near Haymarket Square. Several police officers and demonstrators were killed and many were injured. Eight labor leaders were tried and convicted of murder. Four of them were hanged, one committed suicide, and three were eventually pardoned.

Those were the days . . .

(Library of Congress)

              Studying English was initially fun and easy, but I realized that it was not my cup of tea. English grammar lacked consistent paradigms, and my grades were poor. However, it was a convenient language to know and super easy to get by with, even when not spoken correctly. When I was sixteen, I traveled on my first one-month European train trip. I met other travelers and excitedly introduced myself. “You speak English, you? I’m Norwegian and a pupil in a Reform Gymnasium” (meaning that I was a student in a state-run, innovative high school). By the way, I think that being friendly to strangers is a virtue, and American travelers were the friendliest of all. Their kind and open-minded behavior challenged my narrow and simplistic worldview in which individuals were thrown into politically antagonistic groups.

The first of two puzzle pieces regarding the Haymarket Tragedy: thanks to my Scandinavian

accent (which I don’t like but had decided to keep upon immigration, since everyone found it so very charming), I met Chicago Labor historian William J. Adelman. He was our neighbor across the alley in Oak Park, and he was excited to share his interest in the Norwegian and Swedish labor movements with me. Enthusiastically, I watched the PBS program on the US labor movement, which was broadcast every Labor Day. It helped me feel connected to my new country thanks to someone knowing something important about me that I rarely had an opportunity to share. That may not seem like a big deal. But being an immigrant includes, for many, the sense that one's vibrant core has shrunk to a small seed; that while storing within itself plenty of potential the seed does not know how to grow in its new environment. During our alley conversations, I was transported back to singing “Joe Hill” and other solidarity songs around the evening fire at socialist youth camps.

And twenty years later, the second piece: thanks to my Yiddish-infused and curiosity-sparking Sisterhood B’nei Mitzvah blessing, I met one of the guests, Larry Spivack, president of the Illinois Labor History Society. After the luncheon, he offered to drive over to the neighboring Forest Home Cemetery and give me a tour. My eyes popped when I saw the Haymarket Martyr’s Monument and the graves of several Chicago labor activists, among them Emma Goldman. A month later, on May 1, I attended the 125th-anniversary celebration of the Haymarket Tragedy, which he organized. The Norwegian State Television was there, at Haymarket Square, Chicago, to cover it! I thought of my grandfather who labored hard while building the railroad tracks in Southern Norway and of the popular song “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime.” I first heard it after I immigrated, and Yip Harburg’s lyrics and Jay Gorney’s melody made it one of my favorite songs to sing. I thought of the Hebrew Prophets and the beautiful quotations I had learned as slogans in the peace movement in Norway. It dawned on me that I never knew their origin. I felt that the dried-up seed in my heart started to sprout.

seed motif / 8 x 5 in / 2008, 2019 / linen yarn

(2/4 tapestries in the [sub]series “PaRDeS (I) – Of Light-Filled Fibers: P’shat, Remez, D’rash, and Sod”)


The Blues. I listened to it growing up, as did so many other Europeans exposed to and influenced by American culture. My mom had a Billie Holiday biography which I consumed at age eleven – confused and teary. It prepared me for the question my future saxophone-playing and boxing Jewish father-in-law asked me the first time we met: “Billie or Ella?” Listening to this American genre of music in Oslo, I was in awe of the vibrant, heartfelt, deep instruments and voices. But when I hear the blue notes played and sung here in the United States, I feel pride. Blues belongs to my new and chosen home country’s cultural heritage. Settling in Chicago with its rich Blues history when I immigrated in 1985, and then in Oak Park next door to the city, makes it even more an integral part of my life.

Blues For the Hoarse Voices


detail / 1984 / 29 x 36 in / linen yarn, wool, silk 

My Jewish journey has several small non-Jewish starting points. For example, at fourteen, I made up my mind to leave the Norwegian State Church, which, like about ninety-six percent of Norwegians, I was born into. It was at the time politically conservative, and I did not approve of its Christian view of turning the other cheek. My socialist and atheist mom who, nevertheless, sang the Psalms and liked Jesus’ teachings, had taught me to do so. She would send me, five years old and by myself, four flights down and out to play in the sandbox with the other kids. When she saw how some of them bullied me, she taught me to hit back. In the face of injustice, imperialism, suppression of women, exploitation of indigenous people, and environmental pollution, I thought that one not only had the right but was morally obliged to fight. I wrote to the head bishop of Norway and asked his opinion. He wrote me a nice letter, saying he respected my decision, and that it was probably the best for both me and the church.

Marrying a Jew is part of my American story. It is unlikely that I would have ended up getting involved with a Jewish Norwegian man. In my youth, there were only two synagogues, both Orthodox, and the Jewish population counted only about fifteen hundred out of four million citizens. In comparison, Sweden, with only twice the population of Norway, had approximately twenty thousand Jews. But in Oslo, a childhood friend who had studied at the University of Chicago introduced me to his American, Jewish friend, Steve Gevinson, who was visiting for a couple of days. I was twenty-eight. Two years later, in 1985, I moved to the United States to marry him. After studies and reflections, and without any pressure from Steve’s family, I chose Judaism sixteen years into our marriage. 

We got married in Bond Chapel at the beautiful University of Chicago campus.

              And it was Reform Judaism and its unique American branch – with its vibrant, continuous quest for renewal and its history of commitment to social action and the Civil Rights movement – that welcomed me and made my choosing Judaism possible. In it, my Norwegian liberal background found more than a spiritual home. With my passionate interest in languages, I now obtained insight into several more (Hebrew, Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, and Judeo-Arabic). But one cannot just volunteer for good causes, laugh at Jewish jokes, chew bagels, and then convert. Conversion implies faith and a personal commitment to Judaism as a religion. I had decided not to join the Norwegian atheist community after quitting the church. I think that even in childhood, I felt religiously inclined. Judaism offered a stimulating environment for belief and questioning, intellectual pursuits and challenges, and religious rituals.


We create our lives as we live them: one day, one step, one dance, one song, one poem, one cleaning-up at a time. We make choices, and we fall into accidental circumstances. Now and then we hit a crossroad where we arbitrarily or intentionally turn right or left. We wisely embrace, and we make regretful mistakes. Puzzle-piece episodes, whether they resemble soft splashes or sharp shards, form our life mosaic. My arbitrary pieces felt bashert, meant-to-be, when I, a Norwegian who had become a Jew (in itself close to an oxymoron!) met the African-American stranger in the Blues bar on Halsted Street. The encounter would not have happened were it not for my Norwegian and European upbringing. And, it could only have happened here, in Chicagoland, USA.


a new mOrning in chicagO, and the prOphet was dancing


8.5 x 7 in / 2009 / linen yarn

(1/3 tapestries in the [sub]series “EXILE (VII) – Hope on a Larger Scale”)


The election of Obama seemed like a magical thread that was both warp and weft – as if a piece of Redemption had come. Especially Chicago, my city, was in awe.

© Berit Engen 2023

Full-size tapestry photos: Cindy Trim