I recently visited Amsterdam. There, in and amongst the usual tourist attractions, I got inspired by the city’s canals. And also a glasshouse. (See my previous post: A Weekend in Amsterdam, (Part I)).
That wasn’t, however, the whole story for me. I mean, how could a weekend in Amsterdam be complete without a few random Jewish encounters? Especially if those encounters involved traditional street food, an ancient excommunication order, marijuana storage boxes, and the coronation of a new Dutch king.
The Spanish inquisition and subsequent expulsion of Jews from that country in 1492 is a relatively well-known story. Less well-known is the similar fate that befell the Jews of neighbouring Portugal, five years later. Under pressure from Spain, Portugal’s king decreed that the Jews of his realm had to either convert to Christianity, or leave. Most left, but like in Spain some chose to stay put, publically having converted but continuing to practice Judaism, in secret.
About forty years later the Portuguese initiated an inquisition of their own. At around the same time a number of former Portuguese territories became part of the Dutch Empire. This coincidence of timing offered Portugal’s “secret Jews” an escape route from the inquisition. Many made their way to Amsterdam, where they were able to “come out” and once again living openly, as Jews.
Ashkenazi Jews began arriving in Amsterdam a century after that, in their case fleeing from a wave of brutal anti-Jewish riots across Eastern Europe. Eventually by the end of the 1700s Amsterdam’s Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazim outnumbered the original Portuguese-speaking Sephardic community.
For the next three-hundred years the Jewish community in Amsterdam prospered, growing to almost 100,000 people on the eve of World War II. This made the city one of Western Europe’s most important centres of Jewish life. Even today a local nickname for Amsterdam is “mokum”, derived from a Yiddish / Hebrew word meaning “town”, which is what the city’s Jewish inhabitants used to call it.
Then WWII began, Germany occupied the Netherlands, and by war’s end more than 80% of Dutch Jewry had been murdered by the Nazis. Like in so many other parts of Europe, a Jewish community with a rich centuries-old history was cruelly wiped-out, in the blink of an eye.
In July 1942 a woman named Edith Frank was ordered to report for deportation to a Nazi work camp. Edith was a German Jew who, in the 1930s, had fled Nazi Germany and moved to Amsterdam with her husband, Otto, and their two young daughters, Margot and Anne. Despite this, the war had now caught up with her and her family.
To avoid the deportation the family decided to go into hiding. They moved into a small annex of concealed rooms at the back of Otto’s office building by the Princengracht canal. There the family lived in secret for almost two years, later joined by five other people, as well. They were helped by a small group of non-Jews, who risked their lives on a daily basis to bring them food and supplies. All the while Anne, then aged 14, kept a detailed diary of her day-to-day life in this achterhuis (the “secret house”).
In 1944 their hiding spot was betrayed and the Frank family were sent to various Nazi concentration camps. Anne eventually wound up in the Bergen-Belsen camp, where she contracted typhus and died in March 1945, a month before that camp was liberated by Allied soldiers. My grandmother was amongst those liberated there, meaning she and Anne Frank were in Bergen-Belsen at the same time. I have often wondered if my grandmother had ever interacted with this young girl, whose writings went on to become one of the most well-known, defining memoirs of the Holocaust.
This was largely due to the persistence of her father, the only member of the family to survive the war. On returning to Amsterdam Otto found his daughter’s diary, and despite initial rejection, he kept at it, eventually securing its publication. “The Diary of a Young Girl” became widely read, was adapted into a Pulitzer winning stage-play, and then into several films. Otto’s former office-building was saved from demolition, and in 1960 the Anne Frank House museum opened, giving the public an opportunity to walk through the hiding rooms and see remnants from the Frank family’s time there. As museums go it is remarkably simple, but perhaps because of this simplicity conveys the horror of the Holocaust in a very personal, incredibly powerful way.
Over time it has become one of Amsterdam’s top sights, attracting more than one million visitors a year. What was once a nondescript office on the Princengracht is thus now the place most people associate with “Jewish Amsterdam”. A touch ironic, really, given that for centuries before WWII most of Amsterdam’s Jews had lived on the other side of the city, in a part of town that was known simply as the Joodenbuurt (the Jewish Quarter).
In my case I had visited Amsterdam twice before, and even though on both occasions I’d visited the Anne Frank House I had never been to the old Jewish Quarter. I decided to go there now, and to spend a day walking around, in pursuit of Amsterdam’s Jewish past.
Before WWII there were dozens of synagogues in the Joodenbuurt. Today only one active synagogue remains, the Portuguese Synagogue, or Esnoga. It faces onto Waterlooiplein, a wide public square which once was the epicentre of Amsterdam’s Jewish community. This therefore seemed like a decent enough spot to begin my explorations.
But walking to the synagogue I got distracted by a temporary market on the square, its stalls filled with the usual array of souvenirs, bric-a-brac and second-hand goods. I browsed for a while, and eventually came to a group of food vendors in the corner, offering up a culinary tour of the Dutch world. One thing led to another, and I found myself enjoying a second breakfast for the day – pancakes, assorted cheeses, tomato herring, strong Indonesian coffee, and African sweets.
One of the food stalls specialised in Surinamese cuisine, which I had never had before (the Dutch ruled this small South American country from 1667 to 1954, and a sizeable community now lives in the Netherlands). When it comes to food I am a total sucker for anything new, and this was no exception. So I sat at the small bench in front of the stall, chatted to the proprietor, and added some Surinamese chicken and flat bread to what had, by now, become a gluttonous breakfast-brunch extravaganza.
To finish the stall’s proprietor insisted I try the broodje pom, a hard bread roll (the brood) stuffed with a gloopy mix of chicken, vegetables and an indigenous Caribbean veggie called yautia (the pom) – slightly spicy, and somewhere between paste and stew on the texture scale. The proprietor told me this was a quintessential Surinamese dish, and now eaten pretty much everywhere in the Netherlands as a snack. To be honest though, I found it dry and bland, and as far as national foods go I was fairly underwhelmed.
Barely able to move after this unscheduled morning feast, I eventually waddled across the square to the Portuguese Synagogue.
This large and imposing building dates from the 17th century, at that time being a showcase for the wealth that Amsterdam’s Jewish traders had accumulated. It was both the largest synagogue of its time and one of the largest structures in Amsterdam.
Outside of the main synagogue there is a complex of smaller buildings, housing amongst other things the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) library, a gorgeous room of floor to ceiling bookshelves displaying a priceless collection of rare Jewish manuscripts. I love libraries, and I simply stood there, staring, for perhaps five full minutes.
Inside the synagogue itself, the interior is a stunning work of art in classic Sephardic style, boasting high ceilings, enormous brass chandeliers, solid stone columns, and an Ark made entirely of hand-carved wood. Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime-minister, summed it up rather well when he described it as: “one the most beautiful synagogues I have ever seen”.
Next I strolled along the waterfront by the Amstel canal. There I wandered past a polished granite slab, two metres high, erected in memory of the five hundred or so Jewish-Dutch resistance fighters who died between 1940 and 1945. The inscription is from the Prophet Jeremiah: “Were my eyes fountains of tears then would I weep day and night for the fallen fighters of my beloved people”.
And a little further along from that I came to a large cast-iron statue of Baruch Spinoza (later known as Benedict), one of Amsterdam’s favourite sons, and someone whose story has long fascinated me.
Spinoza was a 17th century Amsterdam Jew. He was a prodigy, philosopher and scientific rationalist, and is often credited with having established the intellectual framework for the Enlightenment. Spinoza’s central thesis was that God and Nature are the same “substance”. Flowing from this, Spinoza held that body and soul are both reflections of God, and there is no such thing as absolute good and evil. Spinoza characterised life’s journey as being to intellectually understand, and thus “own”, one’s actions. For Spinoza this self “activism”, as opposed to slavish adherence to religious doctrine, is the ultimate source of personal happiness and freedom, which in turn leads to true love of God.
Spinoza’s views did not go down especially well with the Jewish intelligentsia of the day, who regarded them as heretical. So much so that on 27 July 1656, a cherem (excommunication order) was issued against the then 23-year-old philosopher. It was especially virulent, and essentially made him a leper amongst his own people:
“… Having long known of the evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Espinoza … but having failed to make him mend his wicked ways … [the Jewish community elders] excommunicate, expel, curse and damn Baruch de Espinoza … The anger and wrath of the Lord will rage against this man, and bring upon him all the curses which are written in the book … We order that no one should communicate with him orally or in writing, or show him any favour, or stay with him under the same roof, or come within [four feet] of him, or read anything composed or written by him”.
Incredibly, given how “mainstream” Spinoza’s views have since become, this 400 year-old Jewish fatwa technically remains in place. Over the years there have been several unsuccessful attempts to get the excommunication lifted, like in 1956 when David Ben-Gurion (Israel’s first prime-minister) petitioned to overturn it. Amsterdam’s then Chief Rabbi, clearly not fazed by the identity of the petitioner, rejected the request out of hand, on the grounds that “no rabbinate has the right to review a decision of previous rabbinates, unless it is greater in number and wiser”.
I first learned about Spinoza, and his excommunication, in university philosophy class. I remember at the time being struck by two things in particular. First, how unbelievably rigid the orthodox Jewish leadership was in condemning Spinoza and his new ideas, notwithstanding supposedly being men of wisdom and learning. Second, how despite everything that happened Spinoza never turned his back on Judaism. He took on the name Benedict, and of necessity was eventually buried in a Christian graveyard, but he never considered himself to be anything other than a modern, secular Jew.
In many ways Spinoza thus became an early role model for me. Here I saw a Jew who could eschew orthodoxy and embrace rational secularism, but at the same time remain Jewish in outlook and identity. And, standing in front of his statue in Amsterdam that day, I couldn’t help wondering who had displayed the more Jewish “character” at the time: the closed-minded community elders who summarily excommunicated someone they didn’t agree with. Or young Baruch Spinoza, who questioned the world he lived in, held true to his personal beliefs, and yet remained accepting of the views of others, even those who cast him out.
I continued on my walk, and made my way to the Amsterdam Jewish Historical Museum, housed nearby in four converted synagogue buildings. The museum holds a lovely collection of Jewish art and ceremonial objects, arranged into two permanent exhibits in the former prayer halls. One explores major aspects of Jewish religion and culture, another, the history of the Jews of the Netherlands. There was also a really cool annex designed especially for children, packed with interactive exhibits and fun things to do, and which I confess to having enjoyed perhaps a little bit too much….
For me though, the undisputed high point of my visit there was a temporary exhibition showcasing the world of Jewish cooking, called Lekker Joods (“Jewish Yum”). There were dozens of cookbooks on display – some new, some very old. There were excellent mixed-media exhibits celebrating so much of the food I grew up eating. Things like cholent (a Sabbath stew), hamin (the Moroccan version of cholent), bagels (God bless New York), chicken soup (aka. Jewish penicillin – apparently even the great Rabbi Maimonides wrote of its healing powers), kugel (a baked pudding heart-attack, made of starch and fat), couscous, schmaltz (a spread made of congealed chicken fat) and gefilte fish (minced fish balls preserved in coagulated jelly).
It was funny to watch the reaction of visitors to this exhibition. Anyone Jewish was practically drooling at the images of all this fatty, salty and carbohydrate-laden food. And anyone non-Jewish was, by contrast, looking utterly perplexed at how anyone could actually eat this shit, much less get excited by it.
I watched a video in which a man approached random people in the streets of Amsterdam, and asked them: “what is the most Jewish of foods?” Answers included Jewish staples like chicken soup, chopped liver and matzos, and more modern favourites like falafel, shawarma and pickles. But there were also some downright weird responses – horse-meat, pears, pom, and according to a guy in a police uniform: “without a doubt, raw beef sausage”.
Hang on a second. Did someone say pom? Isn’t that the quintessentially Surinamese dish I had eaten at the market earlier that morning? Yes it was, and as a later exhibit explained, it turns out that pom, Suriname’s national food and a ubiquitous snack in modern-day Holland, is actually of Jewish origin.
Apparently Dutch Jewish merchants made their way to Suriname hundreds of years ago, and took with them their favourite dishes, including kugel. Out in the colonies, however, they were unable to find the necessary ingredients, and so substituted chicken and the locally available tayer vegetable. Over time this evolved into pom, took hold beyond the Jewish community, and became a staple of Surinamese cuisine. Then in the 1970s, many Surinamese migrated to the Netherlands, taking their beloved pom with them. The kugel had come home, so to speak.
I left the museum, and immediately headed back to the Surinamese food stall at the market. I suddenly felt like eating another broodje pom. Now that I knew it was a bona-fide first-cousin of what I used to eat in my grandma’s kitchen, I was convinced it would taste that much better.
The market was winding down. I walked along, browsing the stalls as they closed, and munching on my second pom sandwich of the day. At one stall that I hadn’t seen earlier I noticed it was selling two fairly specific items, and only those: menorahs (candelabras used for various religious Jewish purposes), and wooden boxes decorated with marijuana leaves, used for storing one’s private stash of pot.
Before I could even ask the stall owner what on earth had prompted this utterly bizarre merchandise selection, a trio of buskers sitting on a nearby bench – an accordionist and two horn players – started up. They were playing klezmer, the traditional music of the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe, which forms the backdrop to every Jewish celebration.
So there I was, on a warm and sunny afternoon in beautiful Amsterdam. I was wandering through a market, eating a Surinamese-Dutch-Jewish sandwich, inspecting menorahs and marijuana boxes, with a band played klezmer tunes in the background.
As random Jewish moments go, it doesn’t get any more surreal than that.
But Amsterdam still had one more unexpected turn in store for me.
The weekend I was there fell just before Koninginnedag (Queen’s Day), an annual public holiday that celebrates the Dutch monarch’s birthday. The preceding night, imaginatively known as Queen’s Night, is an excuse for a gigantic street party across the whole city.
This year’s was set to be an especially big party, as it would be the last Queen’s Night for quite some time. The following day Queen Beatrix was going to step down from the throne, and her son Willem-Alexander would be crowned King (so future Queen’s Days will now be King’s Days). Willem would reign along with Maxima, his hyper-popular and super-pretty Argentinean wife (she is so popular in Holland that a special law was passed to allow her to be called Queen, and not merely Princess).
I had decided to stay an extra day in Amsterdam, to experience something of the coronation and its associated festivities. At the last minute Daniel, a friend from Australia who some years ago married a Dutch woman and now lives in Amsterdam, was kind enough to invite me to tag along with them for the Queen’s Night street party, allowing me to experience it like a local.
I was not disappointed. The whole of Amsterdam went completely mad. Streets in and out of the city centre were blocked off, and the entire place became an impromptu pedestrian mall. People poured into the streets by their hundreds of thousands – young and old, couples, groups of friends, families. Restaurants put out sidewalk tables and chairs, which were instantly packed. Pavement bars dispensed rivers of beer, and on most street corners a stage appeared, seemingly from nowhere, on which free concerts of all sorts began.
Every building, public space and statue was festooned in bright orange – balloons and ribbons and bunting and, in the case of the city hall on Dam Square, topped with two large orange crowns. It seems that when the Dutch celebrate, orange is the preferred colour. Very often this includes the people themselves, who turn out wearing orange clothes, sporting orange face paint, and oftentimes also dyeing their hair orange as well. There is even a special word for this in Dutch – oranjegekte, or orange madness.
So we walked the orange city streets along with everyone else, from one area to the next, all the while enjoying the heaving crowds, the festive atmosphere and the music. One square had turned into an outdoor rave; on the next corner an orange-suited Harry Connick Jnr. lookalike was crooning; on the next there was a grunge rock singer; and fifty metres further along a five-piece band was playing Dutch standards, while a crowd of several thousand sang along raucously.
At the Neuwmarkt square we saw a large crowd gathered in front of a stage. A band was playing, and the audience was especially animated. Some people were dancing on the fringes of the crowd, but all the action was at the centre, where what looked like a mosh-pit had formed, and where younger members of the audience were throwing themselves around violently. It was pure mayhem, and from a distance you would have thought you were at a hard-core punk-rock concert.
As we approached the stage, however, and to my complete surprise, it became apparent the band was actually an eight-piece klezmer troupe – my second encounter in one day with this form of traditional Eastern European Jewish music. At first I thought that maybe I was mistaken, but then the lead singer kicked off in Yiddish, dropping references to gefilte fish and Yiddishe Mamas into the lyrics, so there was no doubt. I looked at my friend Daniel (who is also Jewish) and almost simultaneously we both shouted at each other over the crashing noise: “no way!”
In this context, the frenzied activity at the centre of the crowd was instantly transformed. It was no longer a mosh-pit, and instead was now just the same mad frenzy found on the dance floor at every Jewish wedding and bar-mitzvah, where people throw themselves around in manic, wild abandon.
Only that those in the eye of this particular klezmer hurricane were groups of drunken Dutch teenagers and boisterous young adults. They were simply enjoying the music and the merriment of Queen’s Night, entirely oblivious to the fact that they were dancing to traditional Jewish music. In the heart of a city that was once so Jewish it was sometimes referred to as “the Jerusalem of the North”.
Watching all this, I thought back over my day. I had visited a beautiful old synagogue in what was once Amsterdam’s vibrant Jewish Quarter. Later I had reacquainted myself with arguably the most important Dutch Jew in history, the ex-communicated Baruch Spinoza. I had visited the Jewish Museum, where I had dived into an ocean of Jewish cuisine. Here I learned that the national dish of Suriname, of all places, was Jewish. A dish that, coincidentally, I had eaten for the first time that morning, for breakfast.
Then in the markets I had found menorahs alongside marijuana boxes. And now I was witnessing a scene not dissimilar to an orthodox Jewish wedding, only in a public square in downtown Amsterdam, thousands of Dutch people dancing frenetically to Jewish klezmer music, as they celebrated the coronation of their new King.
In other European places where once thriving Jewish communities now no longer exist it can often feel like the Jewish soul of the city has been erased, replaced by cold statues and commemorative plaques. But in Amsterdam it felt the opposite – like the city’s Jewish soul was still very much alive, still coursing through the lifeblood of the place and its people. Even if no-one really knew it.
This thought made me insanely happy for some reason, and I dwelled on it for some time. But then my friend Daniel grabbed me, and dragged me into the middle of the dancing madness. Pretty soon I was swept up in the mayhem and chaos, I forgot about everything else, and I became just another smiling face in the crowd.
POST SCRIPT: After writing this blog, I received an email from a friend who probably knows more about Spinoza than anybody I know. He said that Spinoza “was probably cast out not for his views on God and nature, or even his idea that Revelation was unnecessary to humanity’s understanding of the universe but because he questioned that the Torah (and in particular the Talmud) was the result of divine communication, denied the eternity of the soul and probably smoked on Shabbat“.