The Dutch a la carte Jews

The question is which a la carte Jewish menu items will get passed on to the children.

Dr. Manfred Gerstenfeld ,

Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld
Manfred Gerstenfeld

Every week the Dutch Jewish weekly, NIW, publishes a short interview with a little-known Dutch Jew. The paper’s editor, Esther Voet, carries out the interviews asking five questions: the interviewees’ youth, their beliefs, their attitude toward Israel, the interviewees’ worries as well as their dreams.

This project was started by the journalist, Ronit Palache. In her time the interviews did not follow a recurrent scheme. One hundred and twenty five of her interviews are published in a book whose Dutch title translates as: Moving nonsense, Jewish identity in the contemporary Netherlands. The internationally known sociologist, Abraham de Swaan, wrote the book’s Foreword.

Jewish identity in the Netherlands varies greatly. A 2009 demographic study on Dutch Jews started from a database of close to 53 000 Jews in the Netherlands. 4% of these did not consider themselves as Jews while 32% saw themselves “not so much as Jews but as somebody of Jewish origin.” Another 7% said: “I see myself sometimes as a Jew depending on the situation.” The remainder, approximately 57% or 30 000 people, self-defined as Jews.

Dutch Jewish organizations altogether have about 10 000 members at most. The largest Jewish organization remains the nominally Orthodox Ashkenazi community (NIK). Its membership has declined to about 5,000. Those who keep both a kosher household and the Shabbat laws are in the minority.  

Palache writes about her book: “The external world sees Jews as a uniform group. I want to show the non-Jewish world that there are so many ways of living one’s Jewishness. In addition, I hope that the Jewish community uses this book to look more critically at itself.”

The interviews can be read as individual illustrations of the data found by the demographers. One of the few somewhat known interviewees is Hadassa Hirschfeld, a former Deputy Director of the CIDI Israel Information Center. She defines her Jewish identity as "Judaism a la carte.”  

In view of the small number of Jews keeping the main Jewish ritual laws, almost the entire Dutch Jewish community can be defined as a collection of “a la carte Jews.” Many adhere to different elements of the “Jewish menu. Hirschfeld reveals that she was once ultra-orthodox. Now she remarks: “I have a liberal heart in an Orthodox soul."  

Palache has said elsewhere that a prominent non-Jewish journalist told her that he expected a number of collective themes to emerge throughout the book, Among these were: “To be religious or not, the war, anti-Semitism, Israel, people with a Jewish father [but not a Jewish mother], ambivalence, sticking together, quarrelling and so on.” All these motifs and several others indeed appear in the interviews.

As with various other interviewees, the Holocaust appears in Hirschfeld’s interview in a major way. She says: "I divide the world into people where I could go into hiding and those where this would not be possible." Another interviewee, says: "My mother never spoke about religion or traditions, only about the War."

Anti-Semitism in the Netherlands, like elsewhere in Europe has greatly increased in the current century. Before it was not properly monitored. Several interviewees however mention incidents from their youth. One says that in addition to other anti-Semitic experiences a teacher told her that Hitler should have killed all the Jews. Another says; “I knew that I was Jewish when I was scolded by young boys from the neighborhood.” Yet another says: “They said at the school and in the army: ‘hi, lousy Jew.’”

In 2014 there was a huge outburst of anti-Semitism in Western Europe after the “Gaza war.” The ‘where can I hide issue’ became more exposed when David Serphos, the former director of the NIHS Ashkenazi community in Amsterdam, wrote, “I don’t dare to trust the authorities after the mayor of the Hague, and now even of Amsterdam do not interfere when Jews and Judaism are threatened. Often I spoke jocularly with friends about reliable addresses to go into hiding [like in the Second World War] if it would ever be necessary. In recent times I look far more seriously to that very short list.” He left out a further relevant observation: Which people would betray him when they knew where he was hiding?

Relations of Jews and non-Jews manifest themselves in various ways. One interviewee says that she frequently suffered from the jealousy of non-Jews: "They were always jealous about what we had even though this wasn't excessive because I do not come from a wealthy family. With the emphasis on ‘you’ they said: ‘You go on holidays, you have a car.’” She added: ‘"Also my then friend participated in this. It meant the end of our relationship.”

Another important issue is what a la carte Jewish menu items will get passed on to the children. The Friday night meal is a recurrent theme. It often includes chicken and chicken soup. Yet will the interviewees’ children marry Jewish? Quite a few of them do not consider this important “as long as they are happy.” If they do not marry Jewish, their Judaism will in most cases be even more diluted.

This book shows that one can define Judaism as a tree with many branches. All interviewees are connected to some of its branches. However, what binds these people together is far less clear. Some claim that humor plays a role, others consider that one talks differently among Jews than with non-Jews. They speak about “feelings’ These they cannot definme.

Palache has indeed provided raw material for Jewish community leaders to reflect on how they can strengthen the Judaism of this heterogeneous and to some extent confused collection of Jews. It is also a treasure trove for sociologists and psychologists. In the meantime, the NIW continuous to publish additional interviews with a la carte Jews. At the end of December 2017, an interviewee who married out says that when she and her husband became serious in their relationship she questioned him: “’Are you sure?  Our children will be Jewish and anti-Semitism thus will also affect your children.’ I wanted him to realize this.”

It would be interesting if similar interviews with local Jews were also published in other European countries. It would provide better understanding of their Jewish communities. It would also allow a comparison between Jewish communities in different countries. Palache has shown how to do this. Others might use her experience.






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