Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Amsterdam: Jewish Historical Museum

Before I knew Amsterdam's most famous Jew, Anne Frank, I had studied about it's second most famous Jew, Baruch Spinoza in Will Durant's "The story of philosophy". Spinoza ranks alongside Immanuel Kant as possibly the greatest modern philosopher. In two pages, that only Will Durant can write, Durant traces the arc of Jewish diaspora from its expulsion by the Romans unto the day Jews settled in Amsterdam and the birth of Spinoza. Spinoza was excommunicated by the Jewish community for his philosophy fearing that it angered their Christian hosts in the city.

Failing to find a home or museum of Spinoza I visited the "Jewish Historical Museum". Durant writes that Jews persecuted in Spain by Ferdinand , during Spanish Inquisition, fled in search of safety. "A large number of them embarked in the frail vessels of that day and sailed up the Atlantic, between hostile England and hostile France, to find at last some measure of welcome in little big souled Holland. Among these was a family of Portuguese Jews named Espinoza. Thereafter Spain decayed, and Holland prospered. The Jews built their first synagogue in 1598; and when, seventy five years later, they built another, the most magnificent in Europe, their Christian neighbors helped them to finance the enterprise. The Jews were happy now, if we may judge from the stout content of the merchants and rabbis whom Rembrandt had given immortality". Only Will Durant could write a passage that compresses so many meanings within a few lines. I had missed seeing Rembrandt's home in Amsterdam due to lack of time.

The Jewish museum had a permanent exhibition detailing the history of the first synagogue, Jewish rituals, artifacts that gave a vivid picture of one of the world's most ancient culture. One plaque mentioned the loyalty of Jews in Amsterdam to the Dutch royalty for the relative peace with which Jews could live in Holland unlike the rest of Europe. When Spinoza, like Uriel a Costa before him, had expounded beliefs that angered their Christian hosts the Jewish community excommunicated him as a price for their peaceful existence.

In what could happen only in Western museums typical of Western attitudes the Jewish museum had an exhibition titled "My name is Cohen". Cohen is the priestly name referring to Aaron, brother of Moses, who is considered the first priest for Israel. The exhibition is about people whose last name is 'cohen' ( and what it means for them to have the most famous Jewish surname. One Cohen, not a resident of Israel, said that he bears a burden that people who come to know his surname ask him about each and everything Israel did. A Jew, anywhere in the world, is considered a representative of Israel and has to bear the brunt of that association said he. Another Cohen bristled that just because he is a Jew he does not have to support all that Israel does (sadly no Palestinian would say that of Al-Fatah or Hamas, at least not publicly). One Cohen recounted sadly how a customer ate at his restaurant and left saying "I will not pay a Jew". To one Cohen it is a badge of pride, to another it is a "losing brand value", another is sheepish about her Jewish identity.

The exhibition brings to the fore that this race has suffered uniquely amongst all races in history. Centuries of persecution, in every single corner of the world, reaching its climax, if one call it so, in the Holocaust has left its imprint on every member young and old. Durant waxes eloquent in his introduction to Spinoza, "what drama could rival the grandeur of these sufferings, the variety of of these scenes, and the glory and the justice of this fulfillment?" (the fulfillment Durant refers is the creation of Israel)

As I exited the museum, as always, I browsed the gift shop. I was very surprised to see books by Spinoza. The community that excommunicated him in different situation 400 years ago has now embraced its greatest genius amongst the so many geniuses produced by that race.

All was not well for Jews of Amsterdam. That no host country is ever safe for Jews was illustrated in Holland. Nazi Germany invaded Holland in 1940. The Dutch initially protested deportation of Jews by organizing a strike. Virtually unheard of in any other state under Nazi occupation but it later morphed into tragic and cruel co-operation. Between 1940-1944 in just 4 years nearly 75% of Holland's Jews were exterminated with the active co-operation of many Dutch citizens. The Holocaust's most famous victim Anne Frank is a searing tragedy for another day. 

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