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Looking for Mokum

Part 3 of 3: Visiting Amsterdam and learning to love the Jewish version of the Eurovision Song Contest

Rachel Shukert
December 16, 2010
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; postcard image: Dj Gojim-Bente Kahan)
(Photoillustration: Tablet Magazine; postcard image: Dj Gojim-Bente Kahan)

Rachel Shukert spent several semi-disastrous years living in Amsterdam after college. Recently she returned to her adopted city to explore its Jewish heritage—something she had actively avoided in her post-collegiate days. Read her first two installments here and here.

After two days of looking plaintively at pictures of dead people, I was ready for something a little more upbeat. At first glance, though, the International Jewish Music Festival might not have been the best choice. A weeklong program of workshops, social events, and competitions held every year in Amsterdam, it’s sort of like the Eurovision Song Contest, if the Eurovision Song Contest was held in the social hall of your parents’ synagogue. The audience, while enthusiastic, was relatively small, and its members fit almost entirely into that particularly Jewish bracket of old age best described as able-bodied enough to make his own plate at the buffet, but don’t you dare let him hold a chair leg for the bar mitzvah boy.

Still, a few intrepid souls, such as the man sitting next to me, a friendly guy in a tailored suit who introduced himself to me as Jap, were bringing down the median age considerably. Since he was under 70, I asked him if he was connected somehow to the festival or to the music business—the audience, it had been alleged, was swarming with talent scouts.

“No, no,” he said, looking surprised. “I just enjoy very much the klezmer music. I hear it once and I think, man, I really like that music. And you?” He nodded toward my notebook. “Why are you writing everything down?”

“Oh, I’m a journalist. I’m writing a piece.”

“I see.” He nodded knowingly. “For the New York Times.”

It was the first night of the semifinals. Twenty-four ensembles from around the world had entered the contest and then been cut to 12 semifinalists after performing a required number before a panel of critical judges, just like on American Idol. Tonight we would see the first six of these perform a set of three songs each. The remaining acts would perform the following night, and after a lengthy and somewhat incomprehensible judging process (in fairness, only incomprehensible to me; my grasp of the Dutch language has been described as “magical realist”), the highest-scoring six would be selected as finalists, with the winner receiving many valuable prizes, such as potential bookings, international attention, a case of wine, undying glory, and an alabaster trophy inlaid with diamonds. (I am not making up the part about the trophy. Honest to God.)

Jap was excited. I was—well, I gritted my teeth and tried not to think about the cantorial concert I attended in 1988, which imbued my 8-year-old self with a terrible understanding of what my elderly bubbe meant when she said she was “just too tired to live anymore.”

The first act was a Dutch klezmer band called Di Gojim, which if you’re familiar with the Nederlandse affinity for the soft “J,” means just what you think it means. They were six large, fair Dutchmen (the trumpet player, I was told, was actually a Swede, and the singer/clarinetist was a dead ringer for Jonathan Ames, who actually is Jewish but is fond of writing about how no one ever takes him for such) dressed in some variation on the hipster zoot suit. They were fun, they were funny, they were entertaining and certainly more than competent as they played ebulliently through their set, but for me, there was something missing. In my notebook, I scribbled: Is this how black people feel when they listen to the Rolling Stones?

“It is their soul,” Jap said, frowning. “They do not have the soul.”

Emphatically not of the goyische persuasion was Yonit Shaked Golan, of Israel, and her piano accompanist, Gabi Argov. Dressed in a floor-length green-lamé chiton, her curly black hair cascading to her waist, and her eyes made up with an inky Cleopatra swoop nearly an inch wide, she looked like an extra in a 1950s biblical epic. (Those who know me will understand this is meant as the highest compliment—the two things I love most in life are The Ten Commandments and a skillfully rendered early-’60s Streisand eye.) Yonit Galon explained in English—the natural lingua franca here, as most of the judges were American—that she would be singing “desert songs” and proceeded with a set of sinuous, distinctly overemotional Middle Eastern love ballads. I had been a fan even before she opened her mouth, and I found the music strange and haunting, like nothing I’d ever heard before.

Jap didn’t care for it. “I don’t care for this,” he said.

We both perked up for Yoni Eilat, a smooth young Israeli who sang original and classic Yiddish songs and who would have been perfectly at home on the stage of Joe’s Pub, and the KlezmaFour, a young klezmer band from Poland that radiated a joy and sincerity in reclaiming such a vital part of their country’s vanished cultural heritage. Jap was incandescent with happiness, and I was delighted to realize that I was actually having a pretty good time.

Then came the next act, and my body seized with dread.

“They’re Americans,” I said to Jap, before they opened their mouths, before I even looked at the program. I could tell at once from the earnest expressions, the determinedly pronounced Hebrew, the folky guitars, and the fucking mandolin, and therefore, it’s probably better if I recuse myself from speaking any further about the Robyn Helzner Trio. They seemed like nice people and talented musicians. It is not their fault that I suffer from crippling post-traumatic syndrome brought on from years of excruciating forced song sessions after grim summer camp lunches of kosher lunchmeat and bug juice, coupled with my father’s unhealthy love of his festive Debbie Friedman records, any more than it’s the fault of a hapless wife that she was attacked by her shell-shocked veteran husband after she slammed the door a little too loud. For the record, Jap thought they were wonderful.

The final act, The Heart & the Wellspring, from Israel, was both the strangest and the most traditional. A self-described Kabbalist klezmer ensemble devoted to playing Hasidic nigunnim (melodies), each of its five members is from a different Hasidic sect. Their inspiration comes from Viennese waltzes, Gypsy violins, Polish marches, and the Middle East—influences from nearly every place Hasidim have lived. Bathed in an unearthly red light and seeming to exist on a different astrophysical plain, they were by far the favorite of the night (and the eventual winners of the alabaster trophy and the eternity of everlasting glory). Jap and I were on our feet with the rest as all the bands took a bow, and we walked out to the parking lot together.

“Shall we go and have a drink?” Jap asked.

I declined as politely as I could. My days of accepting offers from strange men in Amsterdam are long behind me, and I had a synagogue to visit early in the morning.


The next day was my last in Amsterdam, I rode my stupid red rental bike to the southern suburbs, where most of the city’s current Jewish population resides, to visit the newly constructed Liberal Synagogue, known formally as the Liberaal Joodse Gemeente Amsterdam. A miracle of green modern architecture and functional Dutch design, the building was consecrated in August 2010, and the congregation it houses seemed to me to be the perfect synthesis between Jewish Amsterdam’s past and its recovering-but-hopeful present. Liberal Judaism, which was first introduced to Holland by refugees from Germany in the ’30s, falls somewhere in between what Americans think of as Conservative and Reform traditions. “Otto Frank was a member of our congregation,” Madelon, the synagogue director, said proudly, “as is Job Cohen,” the former mayor of Amsterdam. Today the synagogue boasts a membership of 900 families, the highest since before the war. “Some are Americans and other expatriates,” said Madelon, “but most are Dutch. Finally, after all this time, people are starting to want to be a part of a Jewish community again.”

She showed me around the building. “It’s already too small,” she said, with a rueful smile. “We are planning an expansion already.” Everything, from the Hebrew school classrooms to the day-care room to the social hall, seemed utterly familiar to me. In a comforting way, not a PTSD, song-session way. I half-expected to see my grandparents’ names on a fundraising plaque.

“It’s just like America,” I blurted out, before I could stop myself.

Thankfully, Madelon seemed to take this as a compliment. “This is what we hope.” She smiled. “Maybe, if you move someday back to Amsterdam, this is the synagogue you will join.”

“Absolutely,” I said. I was feeling homesick for Amsterdam already.

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.