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A Return to Amsterdam: Jewish Tour and A Golden Age Uncovered 🌷🇳🇱
I last visited Amsterdam at the tender age of 17, so you can assume it was more than a few years ago.
After an 8-day trek across Morocco, I flew direct from Casablanca to Amsterdam to see Frank Cortez, my Spanish ex-boyfriend, who had since left Barcelona for greener haunts and tulip-punctuated waterways.
Seeing him at the airport after a 5-year split was lovely, and he’s been the most consistent of my exes in checking in. Just a lovely man, and time had been kind to him (he doesn’t age, but we both matured). He’s also Jewish, 50% at least, he says; one of my 3 Jewish exes from before I found out I was Jewish and converted.
I rested a lot, was greeted by Lennon—Frank’s goofy Portuguese Water Dog who yipped in recognition upon greeting me at the airport, but then seemed disinterested in playing—then we set out to the Red Light and China Town for dinner.
Revisiting somewhere from when you were younger, even by a few years, is always a strange experience. Little things changed, and sometimes big ones—and your memory is never quite right. And in the case of Amsterdam, more years have passed since my visit than had passed for me before it, and nothing looking familiar or quite how I’d recalled.
In that 1997 visit, a day trip from Cologne, my high school friend and I saw the main square, the Red Light, and visited the Anne Frank House. I had no interest in seeing it again except from the outside; once is plenty, and plenty depressing, and anyway the lines were ridiculous had we wanted to anyway.
What I did want to see was Jewish Amsterdam, past and present, so that’s what we did!
Amsterdam is a quirky, tiny, sinking hamlet, and Europe like the rest of the world had just re-opened to tourists en masse. And they came. The Red Light felt like Vegas, and I hated its frattyness. I love what it represents, but there’s nothing you can do there you can’t do most anywhere else, it’s just famed. (Weed is legal is so many places now, for example).
But it was amazing and scintillating to be back in Europe after a 4-year absence. For comparison, I visited Europe three times in one year in 2017-2018, the longest stay being 3 months. And the continent always feels like home.
Here’s what I learned during my quick stay in Holland (er, The Netherlands! We don’t call it Holland no more):
- Amsterdam was once the biggest Jewish community in the world. Jews flocked to The Netherlands—then the newly created, independent Dutch provinces—after the expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal.
- While you won’t find a mainstream source (Wikipedia, or here, JGuide) be quite as effusive about this supposed Golden Age as the Jewish Museum of Amsterdam is, the numbers that we do have speak for themselves.
- Per the Joods museum, by the early 18th century, Amsterdam had the biggest Jewish population in the world
- We don’t know precisely what the counts were in the 18th and 19th centuries, but by 1941, 10% of Amsterdam was Jewish. That’s astounding.
- Sephardic Jews, not Ashkenazi, shaped the city. Hailing largely from Portugal, the Sephardic Jewish immigrants—a term meaning those from Iberia—were largely Portuguese, and after 100+ years of being in hiding as Jews, many weren’t practicing when they immigrated. Some prominent agnostic thinkers of the time included Baruch Spinoza, a noted philosopher, whose statue stands not far from the Jewish quarter. And the Portuguese Synagogue (1675) that stands is gorgeous; sadly, my only day in town that wasn’t shabbat was also a holiday, Shavuot, and it was closed.
- The Joods Museum is housed in a collection of 4 former Ashkenazi synagogues, combined, restored, and modernized. Walking into the main hall, you soon realize you’re in a different, sacred space. How cool!
- The feeling here is different in Germany, despite the proximity and the huge loss. Jewish life in Germany is palpably different for many, and that radiates outward from Berlin through much of the rest of the country.
- The Dutch, though, resisted and are naturally, a different people. The community rebounds and focuses on the future, something notable when walking through the halls of the Joods Museum; the final room, which I dreaded entering after seeing so many beautiful artifacts of the prewar history, actually spends little time on the Holocaust; it’s not a Holocaust museum. It’s about Jewish life and what that looked like before, what it looks like now, and what it can look like going forward. The collection in no way minimizes the Holocaust, it just doesn’t dwell on it.
Below, a full look at the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam; swipe / click to browse.
Next Up: Jewish Paris, and a look back at some Jewish culture in Miami. Stay safe these holidays.