For French geneticist, Iceland offers unexpected Jewish journey


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."
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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