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For French geneticist, Iceland offers unexpected Jewish journey

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Patrick Sulem poses in front of the Decode Genetics complex in Reykjavik, Iceland. (Alex Weisler)

Patrick Sulem’s hometown — sunny Montpellier in southern France — has four synagogues, but he’s convinced his Jewish life is richer in synagogue-less Reykjavik.

"When i was in France, I probably would have just done religion with my family, my tradition," said Sulem, a genetic researcher who has lived in Iceland with his wife and children for ten years. "Here it’s an experience — just the fact that you have Sephardim, Ashkenazim, Israelis."

I met Sulem at the offices of Decode Genetics, where he has worked for a decade. Sulem met his Icelandic wife, an elementary school teacher, when she studied abroad in France, and they now live in Reykjavik with their two daughters, ages 6 and 9.

Religion is not a major focus in their home, but Sulem, who is of Algerian and Syrian descent, said his daughters enjoy their Jewish heritage and find it "exotic."
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The family lights Chanukah candles and goes to Reykjavik-area celebrations when they are organized — and Sulem said his daughters love visiting his side of the family in southern France.

"What we’re telling our children is that they’re not half-French, half-Icelandic, half-Jewish, half-Protestant. They’re fully everything," he said. "People can have five jackets, so I think that they can have two religions."

Sulem has big dreams for the Jewish community in Iceland — better Holocaust education, a communal library, more frequent services, eventual state recognition — but for now, he’s just soaking up the fruits of an unconventional Jewish journey.

"[Iceland] was like coming to a new kind of celebration because I had never tasted any Ashkenazi delicacies for Chanukah, like latkes, etc.," he said. "I was really amazed by the multicultural options within a Jewish group. We were all here for the same thing but we had a very different way of celebrating."

Sulem is one of the emerging leaders of Iceland’s Jewish community. I’m looking forward to checking in on Reykjavik in a few years and seeing how far the community has progressed.

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