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Nothing Rotten

Arne Melchior is my kind of guy. For starters, he sees the world like I do, in terms of the weather. Denmark’s national character, he explained with gusto, has been shaped by meteorological conditions — neither too hot in summer, nor too cold in winter, the mild Danish climate has helped forge a culture distinguished mostly by its moderation. Extremists, both of the left and right, have never held much sway here, and Melchior clearly enjoyed describing how his countrymen laughed at the same Hitler speeches that so riled up the German masses.

Second, Melchior is still spry at 85. Within minutes of taking a seat in his living room, Melchior offered me a cigar, despite it being barely past 10 in the morning. And as the smoke filled the room, he launched into a spirited soliloquy about his homeland, leaping from the "golden balance" Danes have struck between socialism and capitalism, to the 1943 rescue of Denmark’s Jews, to a spirited defense of Danish tax rates — the highest in the world, he boasted, and he wouldn’t have it any other way. Melchior loves Denmark so much, he even wrote a book about its greatness. 

Melchior is today an elder statesmen of Denmark’s most prominent Jewish family. Both his father and brother served as chief rabbis, and his nephew Michael is a former Israeli government minister and current member of the Knesset. Arne himself was a minister in two Danish governments and served in parliament for more than a quarter-century. A seventh-generation Dane, Melchior told me, with evident pride, that his grandchildren are the ninth generation of observant Jewish Melchiors in Denmark. 

Impressive, but one wonders for how much longer. Even Melchior, with his irrepressible Danish boosterism, sees the writing on the wall. In 20-30 years, he predicts the community won’t be able to support two rabbis any longer, or a cantor, or a synagogue choir. He even worries about the fate of the Jewish school, which is more than 200 years old. 

When he told me that Denmark’s Jewish school had 85 percent of its tuition covered by the state, he launched seamlessly into a Talmudic sing-song defense of the practice. "If I had four children, if they would not have been in the Jewish school, they would have gone in a public school and the state should pay anyhow. Very fair — That is very typical Danish example."