A Tale Of Two Amsterdams


The same spirit that made Amsterdam a center of Jewish life centuries ago makes it a delightful destination today.

There is one connection between the Netherlands’ “coffee shops,” where cannabis is sold legally, and the remarkable Jewish community that used to exist in Amsterdam — the relaxed attitude of openness that dominates this beautiful city.

The historian Simon Schama portrays Amsterdam, where Jews first settled in the 16th century, as an exceptional case of tolerance in an otherwise-hostile Christian Europe. “There was no Amsterdam Ghetto, no yellow badge, horned-hat or lock-up curfew behind gates,” he wrote.

It is an easy story to explore as a tourist, because some of the buildings and monuments narrate it for you so clearly. The size and design of the Portuguese Synagogue, or Esnoga as it was known in Ladino, scream confidence and wealth and capture the feel of Amsterdam Jewry during the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century.

Walls can talk, and at this 1675 synagogue, the walls — with their height, their tall windows shining light onto the wooden bima and benches, and evening illumination by beautiful chandeliers — tell a story of exiles who excelled. They arrived from Spain and Portugal, where the Inquisition made it impossible to live openly as Jews.

Dutch Jews had often fled Spain or Portugal, or in the case of Spaniards who tried to resettle in Portugal until things turned sour there, both. Yet they found acceptance and built communities and businesses in Amsterdam. The quote from Psalms chosen for the doorway was an obvious one for people forced to wander, who found a stable pot in a turbulent continent. “Because of Your great mercy, I come to Your house,” it says.

Amsterdam is a tourist-friendly destination, perfect for the traveler who wants to zip between sites that tell a Jewish story and the more general tourist trail. See it like locals and hire a bike. Or walk along the iconic canals and take advantage of the smooth public transport system.

The city works even for a stopover visit. If you need to change planes on your way elsewhere in Europe, or en route to Israel, try to integrate a few hours in Amsterdam. My last visit was shorter than others — a day-long stop during a journey from America to Israel — when a UK-based friend came to join me.

Even with limited time the city was a delight: we met at the airport, took a train downtown, ate a hearty lunch at the Hacarmel Kosher Restaurant, explored, and then returned to the airport for our evening flights.

We all know the story of Anne Frank, both the tragedy and the story of how righteous non-Jews tried to keep her safely hidden. If you have not been to the Anne Frank House, where she hid in the secret annex behind the hinged bookcase, you should definitely pay a visit, however long or short your time in Amsterdam.

You will see the setting where she wrote her diary, and various other exhibits that help you to put her legacy in context. One of them is a film featuring 22 writers, actors, visitors, and people who knew Anne. They discuss what she has meant to them.

Again and again as you explore Amsterdam’s Jewish story, you will find yourself feeling the mixed legacy of the place — tolerance, acceptance, flourishing communities; and also the hatred and the Holocaust that the Nazis brought. Nazis murdered more than 100,000 Jews, over 70 percent of the community. “This city is really a chance to grapple with the creativity and the tragedy of Jewish life,” said Mike Hollander, a Jewish educator who leads trips for Da’at Educational Expeditions.

In addition to visiting the Anne Frank House, he recommends heading to a monument that tells the moving story of World War II-era solidarity. Late on Feb. 22, 1941, police began a large-scale arrest of Jewish men, rounding them up in a square and sending some to camps. The underground communist party responded by organizing a strike, which was an unprecedented act of resistance.

Go to see the Dock Worker Monument, showing a dock worker who became a symbol of the indignation and resistance of Dutch people towards the Nazis.

The 1952 statue depicts a simple dock worker as a symbol of the Dutch population in the face of the persecution of Jews. On Feb. 25, people will gather there for the annual ceremony to remember the defiant strikers.

The Jewish Historical Museum does a good job of exploring the different eras and the different emotions of the Dutch and worldwide Jewish story, and of ensuring that visitors leave with a sense of contemporary Jewish life as well as the past.

Even if you are travelling without kids, go to the JHM Children’s Museum, meet the adorable animated guide (and rapper) Max de Matze (Max the Matzah) and see Jewish texts come to life with a large book, from which rabbis and other scholars leap out to debate with each other and teach visitors. It is a fitting way to end a visit to Amsterdam — a place designed to give non-Jewish youngsters a glimpse in to Jewish life and build tolerance, in line with the old Dutch tradition.