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Looking for Mokum

Part 1 of 3: Returning to Amsterdam, scene of my post-college-crisis memoir, Everything Is Going To Be Great, to explore its Jewish history

Rachel Shukert
December 14, 2010
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; postcard image: Postcard Farm)
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; postcard image: Postcard Farm)

When the Netherlands Board of Tourism wrote to tell me that they loved my book, Everything Is Going To Be Great, a chronicle of my mostly disastrous years living in Amsterdam after college, and offered to arrange a gratis trip back to my beloved adopted city and a tour of its Jewish sights, nobody was more surprised than I was.

I had written about the Netherlands’ incomprehensible internal logic and vaguely racist holidays in a manner acid enough for possible offense. (I kid because I love.) During my roughly two-year stint as an official Amsterdammer, I had been nightmarishly behaved (the polite term, I believe, is “high-spirited”) and a semi-illegal alien. I had not exactly been an exemplary expat.

But Amsterdam and I have both cleaned up our act since those heady days in the first term of the second Bush Administration, and the idea of returning as a kind of visiting dignitary was irresistible. But I was also eager to experience Amsterdam’s Jewish heritage. In my younger days this was something I had actively avoided, due to the still-fresh trauma of my early religious education and my lingering displeasure toward my parents for subjecting me to it. (These forming over time an infinite loop of anger, like the ancient symbol of a dragon eating its own tail.) I’ve grown up since then. The years have mellowed the burning resentment of my youth into a kind of fatalistic pride about my Jewish identity, and I finally felt ready to delve into that of the city that locals still call by its nickname, the Yiddish word for “place.”

This time, I was looking for Mokum.

The first Jews in Amsterdam began to trickle in from Portugal at the dawning of the 17th century, lured by the city’s rich mercantile culture, burgeoning financial markets, and the prospect of living openly as Jews under the religiously tolerant Protestantism of the House of Orange. Amsterdam’s cosmopolitanism and relative meritocracy was a welcome change from Lisbon, with its ever-present threat of the Inquisition, and the small Jewish community of traders and merchants flourished. Word spread, and a couple of decades later Ashkenazi Jews, known (somewhat derogatorily) to the Portuguese as Tedescos, had begun to arrive, fleeing poverty and oppression in Germany and terrifying pogroms such as the Chmielnicki massacre in Ukraine. Mostly uneducated and uniformly impoverished, the Ashkenazi Jews were viewed with suspicion by the well-heeled Portuguese Jews, who nonetheless saw it as their responsibility to feed and clothe their unfortunate co-religionists until they got on their feet (although they might not have wanted them to marry their daughters). On their feet they got, and by the end of the 17th century, Amsterdam was known throughout Europe as a “Jew’s Paradise.”

So, I was off to spend three glorious days touring Jewish Amsterdam as a guest of the tourist bureau, all because I’d written a book (gently) mocking their country.


Day 1

After an overnight flight, I checked in at my hotel, and then stopped at MacBike to pick up my rental bike, a ubiquitous fire-engine-red number with the round metal badge over the handlebars that immediately marks one as a tourist and serves as a handy target for pebbles and/or expectorate.

My first stop was the Joods Historisch Museum (or the Jewish History Museum, for those of you who don’t speak Dutch). The Joods Historisch Museum (known hereafter as the JHM) lies in the heart of the old Jewish quarter on the eastern side of the city center, just steps from the studio where Rembrandt worked and immortalized many of its former inhabitants and their “biblical” faces in paint. Many portraits with those same faces are on display here: wealthy Portuguese merchants with their scales, black-haired beauties surrounded by exotic pets. The museum itself, having undergone a recent and ambitious renovation, is housed inside a complex of four former Ashkenazi synagogues. The permanent exhibition begins in what was the sanctuary of the oldest and largest of these, the Grote Synagogue (or Great Synagogue—isn’t my Dutch a marvel?), the first synagogue of the Ashkenazi community, consecrated in 1671.

Objects are the focus here, treated with a typically Dutch reverence for the tangible. Display cases arranged like circular pews around a central bimah contain a treasure trove of ritual items: a shelf of blindingly decorated Kiddush cups; an intricately engraved ketubah celebrating the marriage in Amsterdam of Jozef Pereboom and Vrouwtje Sacksioni (the date of their deaths listed as an ominously mutual 1943); a beautifully embroidered cushion that I decided would look perfect in my living room until I realized it was used to cushion a baby during circumcision. Each object is displayed with a Gentile-friendly explanation of its usage and a video in which a Jewish Amsterdammer (usually elderly) relays a story having to do with the holiday or rite of passage with which they are associated. I was particularly charmed by the footage of the shofar blower (shofarist?) of the current Ashkenazi synagogue. Dressed in a rust-colored jacket and a yellow tie, he explained how every year he would practice a full month before Rosh Hashanah in order to achieve the purest sound, and then demonstrated his technique with a shy pride that I found extremely touching.

Still, I didn’t need to come to Amsterdam to learn about spiceboxes or mohels, despite the thoughtful beauty of the displays. I wound my way through a series of historical artifacts—pieces of jewelry, an oil portrait of the great Baruch Spinoza himself (my notes sadly make no mention of his great Rationalist philosophy, without which modern Judaic thought, to say nothing of modern philosophy, would not exist, but read instead: “Mmmm. Spinoza was kind of hot—even with the Lucy van Pelt hairdo”), and rare documents pertaining to the Jewish community or the workings of the Ma’amad, the notoriously stringent Sephardic religious authority best known for excommunicating Spinoza. (The Ma’amad’s excommunication was serious: It meant that for the duration of one’s sentence—Spinoza was sentenced for life due to his “heresy” of believing in an abstract God synonymous with nature, but lesser infractions could result in a cherem of a few days—no other member of the Jewish community could work with you, speak to you, or so much as make eye contact with you lest they risk expulsion themselves.)

It wasn’t until I reached the exhibits of the Dritt Synagogue (literally the “Third Synagogue”) that the particular brilliance of the museum’s approach dawned on me. I have always loved flea markets for the stories you can piece together out of detritus, the piecing together of things left behind. I had reached the 20th century now, and the objects on display had grown quotidian: a cigarette boxes, a child’s lotto game, a collection of perfumes.

Then, presented with chilling slowness, artifacts of a more sinister nature. A typewritten register of Jewish names. A Reich-issued passport. A bolt of lurid yellow fabric printed with hundred of Stars of David bearing the word “Jood” ringed with dotted outlines, suitable for cutting. A flickering film image of a happy bride, carefully cradling her bouquet against her breast so it nearly, but not quite, obscures the one such yellow star that she has had to sew to the front of her wedding gown.

Through these things, these objects, I saw exactly how it happened. Because while there were yellow stars and registration lists, there were also theater programs and Coca-Cola ads. You might suddenly have a “J” stamped on your identity card, but you still had your perfume collection and your record player and your black sequined cocktail dress, which made you feel like you were still you, just like unpacking your things in an unfamiliar hotel room made you feel at home. That is, until the new things displaced the old ones and you didn’t have anything anymore. And some stranger in the future is weeping into her press packet over your old wedding film.

TOMORROW: The Portuguese synagogue and Shukert’s continuing misadventures in the Anne Frank house.

Rachel Shukert, a Tablet Magazine columnist on pop culture, is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great. Starstruck, the first in a series of three novels, is new from Random House. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.

Rachel Shukert is the author of the memoirs Have You No Shame? and Everything Is Going To Be Great,and the novel Starstruck. She is the creator of the Netflix show The Baby-Sitters Club, and a writer on such series as GLOW and Supergirl. Her Twitter feed is @rachelshukert.