Jewish Amsterdam, explored by Noa and Carolyn

My first trip to Amsterdam, fresh out of college was in 1982. I booked a place in the “Christian Youth Hostel”—it sounded safe but turned out to be in the middle of the Red Light District. I had grown up in a small town in Eastern Canada and had never seen anything like that before! But Amsterdam was the first city I had ever seen in Europe and so I fell in love with it. I visited of course the Anne Frank House never dreaming I would be in Amsterdam nearly three decades years later checking out the logistics for an upcoming group with Milk & Honey Tours.

Perhaps the best place to start exploring Jewish Amsterdam is the Jewish Historical Museum, or, as it sounds in Dutch: “Joods Historisch Museum.” I have been to a lot of Jewish museums all over Europe and this one topped them all. It is lively, entertaining, informative, colorful and diverse. The first room is the former Great Synagogue (Ashkenazi) and each part of the synagogue is now an integral part of the museum. In fact, our guide tells us, some guests are inspired to prayer because the original interior has been so carefully reconstructed. There are fantastically ornate Torah scroll mantels in a Sephardic style. Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal in 1492 onward found refuge in Amsterdam, a city which was very early in European history to grant Jews citizenship rights. One sits in the pews and looks at a video of an Amsterdam Jewish community member telling you about Rosh Hashanah. The Holocaust plays a role in this room only indirectly: you see the Bar Mitzvah certificate of Abraham Reens and wonder with what hopes and aspirations did he accept this certificate on Aug. 16th, 1940.

In the next room there is a film running called “Friday Night” showing the Amsterdam community in 1933. It is an amazing document, done to inform non-Jews about Jewish traditions and life and it still serves that purpose today along with being an important record of the intact, vibrant community. Films, artifacts, videos, paintings…as Noa and I moved from floor to floor and room to room, we marveled at the variety of interesting ways one could present material.


But the crowning achievement of the museum is the children’s section. In fact, to call it a museum almost seems like a misnomer because it felt more like a Jewish Community Centre! In the ‘museum’, children were making and baking miniature challah in a hands-on kitchen. In another room we saw children picking up a seder plate and placing the symbolic foodstuffs on it. There were musical instruments to try out and a dream tent-like space that kids so love for getting away from adults. One entire wall is covered with a poster reminiscent of the album cover of “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” filled with famous Jewish personalities: Einstein, Houdini, Marilyn Monroe! Every child could find someone familiar. Everywhere there were kids trying things out, rolling the challah dough, playing with “Max” the matzah doll, asking questions and having fun. A talking wall, literally, a brick wall with lips that moved and spoke also told of the hard reality of what happened to the Amsterdam Jewish community.

85% of Holland’s Jews were murdered in the Holocaust—one of the highest percentages after Poland. One guide told us that this fact is a big challenge for the Dutch because it is a country which understands itself as one of the most liberal in the world and yet why could the non-Jews not save more of their neighbors? It is a question that came up again and again in subtle ways. When we learnt that the Great Synagogue was built in 1671 it was, by law, not to look like a synagogue from the outside, I blurted out: “That’s so Dutch!” I guess I meant this odd feeling that one can be Jewish but one should just not really show it. Another guide spoke of the question of whether a man can safely wear a kippa or not—a question we hear often in Berlin.

When the Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal arrived in Amsterdam, Holland was at war with Spain so it was safer to say one had arrived from Portugal—hence the name of the nearby Portuguese Synagogue which is definitely a highlight of Jewish Europe. Built in 1672, its high wooden arched roof made me think of all the vanished wooden synagogues of Eastern Europe. This one is wooden because the wet lands of Holland would not support the weight of a stone roof. At the moment it is being renovated and the entire building was covered with a green tarp that allowed an unusual green light to penetrate the many high windows. The Aron ha-Kodesh is made of Brazilian jacaranda wood and the oldest Torah is from 1602. The synagogue is still in use though not in winter as it is not heated!

The “Joods Museum” is certainly doing a lot for visibility and education. We had a very tasty lunch. In fact, if you ever want to be cured of just about anything, try the ginger pastry there as it was so sweet and so gingery and so delicious, I was ready for many more hours of touring after eating it. We then went out into the streets to the former Jewish quarter where, on Rembrandt’s house, the date is 5648! We saw a memorial to the workers’ uprising against the Nazis. Brutally suppressed, it was nonetheless an unprecedented show of solidarity by non-Jewish workers for their mates at the docks. Here and there where people had been deported to Westerbork transit camp en route to Auschwitz, we saw innovative memorials. One showed the outline of a house for Jewish orphans. Another simply stated “Never Again Auschwitz” and was made of broken glass so that the sky above would never again appear whole. The main memorial is the Schouwburg. When the Nazis were looking for a pre-deportation prison they of course considered using the largest synagogue but it was too hard to blacken the windows against the bombings so they chose instead the Schowburg or theater. Today it still looks like a beautiful 19th century theatre from the outside but go inside and it becomes a powerful place of remembrance. The theater is gone and instead there are benches and emptiness representing the 104,000 Dutch Jews murdered. There is a glowing wall of remembrance with the names, some 6700 family names, of those who perished. Our guide told us that Dutch children often find their own last names on the wall. What does that mean? they ask—does it mean they are maybe…Jewish? Guests are encouraged to write a thought and place it on a wall with wooden tulips. We see poppies left by Canadian visitors, stones with drawings or messages. It is a place where one does not think of the dead passively but for a moment, you communicate with them by thought and feeling.

I wanted to ‘see’ Spinoza when I went to Amsterdam. My brother is a philosopher and so the name meant something to me. I had googled Spinoza before going on the trip and learned that he was a great rationalist of the 17th century and in his most famous piece called Ethics, he set the ground work for the Enlightenment. A great mystery surrounds his official expulsion from the Jewish community and each guide had a different detail and a different angle on this historical scandal. Spinoza is one of the rare characters who seems to be claimed by both Jewish and Christian communities and there is a plethora of Spinoza memorials without anyone really understanding his complex work. So we made a pilgrimage to the over-life-size Spinoza statue which oddly enough was placed next to a large black marble stele remembering the Jewish citizens killed between 1940 and 1945. Perhaps the proximity was a comment on the multiculturalism and tolerance promoted by Spinoza versus the abysmal opposite practiced by the Germans.


We asked…where is today’s community? and found out that although the 15,000 strong community lives all over the city, there is indeed a modern neighborhood where many of the kosher services are provided: bakeries, butcher, supermarkets, restaurants, and the Jewish home for the elderly is found there too. So off we went to Amstelveen, way down to the southern tip of Amsterdam. It is certainly not an architecturally interesting part of the city with its post-war row apartment blocks but there was clear evidence of Jewish life today in the city. We grabbed a kosher lunch and watched the young Jewish teens chatting on their cell-phones in this neighborhood where the men walk openly with their kippas. We saw the baker who will make the kosher lunch packages for our upcoming group and enjoyed our anchovy and egg pizza. (I wanted anchovies, Noa wanted egg!)


In the end we did not make it to the Anne Frank house. It was booked out solid for the days we were there. We learned however that we should make a booking immediately if our group was to make a visit in October, so we did. I had just re-read the diary recently and I felt Anne Frank’s presence all over Amsterdam as the house is listed on every tour be it by foot, bike or boat. I did have my photo taken however on a canal bridge in the exact pose from 1982. Oh yes, and I skirted the Red Light District—for business purposes–I had to check out how close it was to the hotel we booked for our group. As Noa and I took a velo-taxi back to our hotel my main feeling was: yes, I like Amsterdam as much as ever and Jewish Amsterdam has a lot to offer, historically and today. Still, there was that feeling of invisibility…


Jewish Amsterdam, explored by Noa and Carolyn


Blog entry by Carolyn Gammon, Aug. 2010