Helsinki, Stockholm, St. Petersburg — a Jewish peek

HELSINKI — "Oy," reads the sign on the bus heading into this European capital.

"Oy," read the letters painted on the storefront window.

"Oy," reads the billboard.

In no time at all I find that here "Oy" — in Finnish, not Yiddish — means "Ltd."; and it follows company names as surely as Yom Kippur follows Rosh Hashanah.

Ignoring the facts, I regard each "Oy" as a Jewish welcome and a signal that I'm on the right Nordic track.

With its steady supply of dour-faced L.A. surfer lookalikes, Finland might not be the most haimish place I've ever visited. But it still offers enough Jewish treasures to grab my attention.

Inside Helsinki's Jewish community center, for example, right above the ark in the sanctuary of the circa-1906 Great Synagogue, I'm shown a decorative crown from the original 1840 synagogue. Holy antique!

Other artifacts from the years when Finland squirmed under Russia's thumb abound at Helsinki University. To be shown the university's assortment of vintage Hebrew newspapers and comic strips, not to mention a panoply of other "art pieces of a Jewish nature," one need only ask, according to local Jewish art dealer David Hasan.

And in Turko, 100 miles east of Helsinki, an anonymous curator at the Ars Nova Museum shows me ultramodern works by a couple of Jewish painters, and boasts that those of two more Jews languish here as well, entombed in archival perma-dust.

In Finland — where the sun sometimes forgets to set on an entire population of men, women and children who all seem to use their cellular phones at once — I've come to enjoy non-ethnic attractions as well.

*Saunas come in a zillion configurations. To me, the fanciest of them look like highly evolved shvitz baths. To Finns, however, they are "part of the national psyche," says Canadian-bred sauna promoter Heather Ross-Sirola. "You can't understand Finland without understanding the sauna," Ross-Sirola says of her adopted country. "It comes close to a religious experience."

*At the casino in Helsinki's Presidentti Hotel, people gamble religiously. Card tables and slots pull $5 million in profits for charities each year, says hotel manager Deiv Salutskij, who happens to be Jewish and whose daughter is moving to Israel to sing in the Israel Defense Force's entertainment corps.

*At the Jean Sibelius Museum outside Turko, I smile at jetlagged visitors snoozing while a guide in his stocking feet leads a tour and speakers pipe in world-class symphonies of Finland's best-known composer.

*At Helsinki's Kvaerner Masa shipyards, icebreakers and warships and $300 million Carnaval cruise liners are built. Visiting tourists must wear green hardhats — "the yarmulkes of the '90s," jokes one of them.

After ferrying west to Sweden, I ruminate at a broken column in an old Jewish graveyard outside Stockholm. The column represents the destruction of the Second Temple.

Later, I hobble along cobblestones in the capital city's Old Town, where the first synagogue stood from 1787 to 1870 and where Jewish shops and Jewish people thrived 100 years ago. Stockholm native David Fischer points out that in those days most of Sweden's Jews were wealthy German emigres, as opposed to the Russian Jews who came later –"without," Fischer reflects, "anything but children."

Some tourists, meanwhile, book a visit to Royal Library, where 13th- and 14th-century Hebrew manuscripts are preserved; others attach monumental meaning to plaques lauding Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews during the Holocaust.

Forever seeking contrasts, I discover the tiny 8-year-old Jewish Museum — Scandinavia's only one — and the Great Synagogue (European Jews certainly covet that name), a cathedral copycat.

Non-Jewish highlights of Stockholm, a city stretched across 14 islands, include the 1912 Olympic stadium and the Vasa museum, which was built around a restored 17th-century warship that sank three hours after sailing because its cannons were too heavy.

Less weighty is the idea that by using Helsinki as a central departure point, I can readily go east to St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad, formerly Petrograd, formerly St. Petersburg.

There, a Saturday-morning visit to the Large Chorale Synagogue (which through pure neglect is not even nicknamed the Great Synagogue). Built in 1892, the shul is home to traditional services run by Rabbi Menachem Mendel Pevsner, assigned by the late Lubavitcher rebbe a bit more recently.

A short ride from the synagogue takes me to the Jewish Welfare Center, which is cosponsored by Israel's Joint Distribution Committee and Chabad. In this unpretentious, multipurpose building, social activities are organized, medical equipment dispensed and kosher meals supplied.

Since I also relish irony, I savor the Astoria Hotel, where Hitler planned to hold a leviathan party celebrating the fall of St. Petersburg (which didn't). Hitler actually printed invitations. For that matter, numerous statues gloat over the defeat of Napoleon. But no one's certain whether the Frenchman planned to have any state dinners here or had any expectations engraved.

To satisfy my musical palate, I attend a Symphony Hall concert with a 25-piece orchestra, 22-piece chorus and vocal quartet — led by a Jewish conductor who speaks Yiddish. A printed program, for the lucre-impaired, costs but 300 rubles — six cents.

Priceless, on the other hand, are two cherubic sculptures topping staircases at the entrance of Catherine's Palace, a 20-minute drive from the city. According to one probably apocryphal story, one of Hitler's point men dropped both cupids, having stolen more than he could carry. More tangible and poignant for me is a nearby monument erected just last year. It's dedicated "to all the Jewish people of Pushkin town who became victims of fascist genocide."

A more upbeat homage to the human life force is found at the Hermitage, with its million objets d'art that range from the trivial (a royal chariot restored by Detroit's Ford Motors Company) to the superb (an exhibit of long-lost Impressionist paintings by Renoir, Degas, Cezanne, Seurat, Van Gogh, Monet and on and on and on). I revel, too, in the fact that — casually mingled with unknowns in the multibuilding museum — are the likes of Michelangelo, da Vinci and Rembrandt. One of Rembrandt's works on display here is titled "Old Man in Red," and portrays a Jewish friend of the artist's. Another depicts the biblical Sacrifice of Abraham.

Tourists who eschew European creations in favor of American can dawdle by electric trolleys that, except for a little Cyrillic lettering on their sides, could be old-fashioned Muni vehicles stalling on San Francisco's Market Street.

For most visitors, though, St. Petersburg is forever an "ooh-ahh" place in which it's virtually impossible to walk two blocks without a man-made architectural wonder coming into view.

I find it, ultimately, a city of memorable contrasts — where enormous sums are spent to restore palaces but also where, according to former official state guide Elena Spiro, "if anything breaks, it generally stays broken."