The Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam is located in the midst of the Jewish Cultural Quarter, near the Portuguese Synagogue. This is the historical Jewish quarter; I gather that most of Amsterdam’s Jews live in other parts of the city today.

Here's the wheelchair entrance. Yes, the woman on the scooter is me.
Here’s the wheelchair entrance. 

Getting there: The museum itself is in a complex of buildings at 1 Nieuwe Amstelstraat, and the closest tram stop is Waterlooplein. The entrance for visitors on wheels is a door to the right of the main entrance; ring the bell and a guide will come to assist you in navigating to the ticket counter. They were happy to let me take my scooter everywhere I wanted to go.

The museum seems like a huge disjointed puzzle, but there’s a reason for that. It is actually a complex of four historic synagogues, the New Synagogue (1752), the Great Synagogue (1671), the Obbene Shul (1685), and the Dritt Shul (1778). All four were Ashkenazi synagogues and they were active until the 1940’s, when the Nazis closed, looted, and gutted them. Today Amsterdam is still home to many Ashkenazi Jews, some of whom pray in new synagogues built since the war, and some of whom are completely secular.

The permanent exhibits are impressive: one can get a good feel for the history of the Jews of Amsterdam from them. I thought I understood how important these people were to American Jewish history but half way through the exhibits realized that there are connections I never imagined. (More about this in a future post!)

The museum’s planners took advantage of the layout of the Great Synagogue to assemble the best exhibit on Jewish religion I’ve seen anywhere. The bimah has been restored, so that visitors can stand on the bimah and see an open Torah scroll (under glass.) Exhibits around the periphery explain Jewish holidays, the Jewish life cycle, the calendar, and home observance. All is brought to life with various artifacts and objects, some on loan from families and some on loan from the Portuguese Synagogue.

There is also an impressive exhibit on the secular lives of Amsterdam’s Jews, from the first arrivals in the early 17th century until the present day. I got a sense of a vibrant community that was merely tolerated when it first arrived, but which would have had few choices without that tolerance. The city fathers of Amsterdam were adamant from day one that the Jews must take care of their own and contribute to the prosperity of the city. This stricture was tested when the Ashkenazim arrived later in the century, fresh from the pogroms of the Ukraine and nearly all penniless. With the help of their Sephardic cousins, they eventually did well and built the four synagogues which make up the museum today.

What I did not realize before I visited the museum was that not all Jews in Amsterdam were prosperous. Some were almost unimaginably wealthy, but others were desperately poor. I followed the exhibits with interest and am still very curious about the economic disparity and how it played out in their communal life. I look forward to learning more about this in future, even if I have to learn to read Dutch to do it.

It’s a great museum. One sad thing: we visited on two separate weekdays, and both times had the museum largely to ourselves. Tourists, even Jewish tourists, seem to visit the Anne Frank House and the Portuguese Synagogue and then feel that they have “done” Jewish Amsterdam. For me, this museum and the Holocaust memorial at the Hollandishe Shouwburg were the highlights of my visit. I look forward to writing about the H.S. in a future post.

I could write for a very long time and not tell you everything about the Jewish Historical Museum. I recommend the website very highly for a “virtual tour” of the facility.

Amsterdam for the Disabled Traveler

Our trip to the Netherlands coincided with my recovery from a very bad sciatica attack. I was still having trouble walking even a short distance when we got on the plane.

Fortunately I have become adept at traveling with my Travelscoot, so once I was out of the worst pain we quit talking about canceling. (Whew!) The flights were long and uncomfortable, but then, they are long and uncomfortable for everyone. I can use the Travelscoot in the airport and gate-check it, so the airports themselves were not bad at all.  Once we arrived in Amsterdam, I was curious to see how well I could actually get around the city on the ‘scoot.

I am not completely clear on the laws around access in the EU, but I had done enough homework online to be certain that our hotel was accessible and the museums I most wanted to visit were accessible. Beyond that, we were going to have to improvise. The first big test was the tram.

Boarding the Tram
Boarding the Tram

The Internet offered varied tales on the tram. One site said that it was wheelchair accessible but that scooters weren’t welcome. Another said that half of the trams were accessible, half not. On our first day, we went down the street to the Centraal Station to check out the situation at the big Metro stop. To my delight, there were uniformed information people available around the plaza and they were happy to answer our questions. “This is like a wheelchair, yes?” the fellow said to me, waggling his eyebrows. “Yes!” I said, and he said, “OK. You can use it. Just get on the end car with the conductor.” So we did.

That was our ticket to go all over the city. It was fun riding the tram; it is above ground, so we could see the sights and people-watch, too.

I had learned from European users on the Travelscoot forum on facebook that the Rijksmuseum did not allow motorized scooters or wheelchairs. Linda and I went to talk to them, just in case the policy had changed (they just finished a major remodel, so perhaps?) but no. And it was even worse than we feared. Their plan for me was that I should leave my scooter outside the museum and hop on a wheelchair that Linda could push all over the museum. Plus, there was nowhere secure to leave my scooter! No, thanks. Linda went to the Rijks by herself, and I went off on my own adventures.

The sites in the Jewish Cultural Quarter were mostly quite accessible: The Jewish Museum (more on that soon) and the Portuguese Synagogue (ditto) were mostly quite accessible. The Hollandsche Schouwburg, the National Holocaust Memorial, was completely accessible to me. I was impressed that all three were also well equipped for visual and auditory disabilities.

I enjoyed visiting a number of other places as well: the Van Gogh Museum, the Allard Pierson Archaeological Museum,  the Public Library, and others. The main difficulty for us was access to restaurants and shops. Part of the issue is that Amsterdam is below sea level, and many of the older buildings are therefore up a few steps from the street. It was important to phone ahead and ask about access. Google street view was also helpful. I understand that Blue Boat Company offers a wheelchair accessible canal cruise, but I didn’t take one.

The Doubletree Amsterdam Centraal, our hotel, was an absolute delight. The room was very comfortable, the staff were extremely helpful, and all areas of the hotel were available to me on the scooter. There was a time when the last thing I wanted to do on a trip was stay in an American chain hotel, but it made it easy for us to check out the disability options and the location was perfect, just a couple of blocks from Centraal Station.

If any readers find this blog by searching the Web and have additional questions, I hope you will ask via the Comments.

The Jews of Amsterdam

So, as you may have gathered from the First Ever Coffee Shop Rabbi Identification Contest, I just got home from Amsterdam. Linda and I promised each other 10 years ago that we’d return to the city “someday” and I am so glad that we did. The previous visit was rushed and we knew we’d missed a lot.

I have been about to burst with the new ideas and posts the trip inspired, because I’d promised (1) I would not sit at the computer on the trip and (2) I didn’t want social media to advertise that we were away from home. All the posts you’ve seen lately were prepared ahead of time and scheduled using the WordPress software, and I’d pre-scheduled my Twitter presence using Buffer.

So, the broad strokes: Amsterdam is a city that Linda and I had visited before and loved. Since that time I had learned a lot more about its Jewish history, and had that much more reason to love it, so I went armed with better information for a Jewish traveler. The only disappointment was that we were not able to attend services with the Liberal Jewish Congregation of Amsterdam. That was poor planning on my part: I misjudged my energy and ability (aka my Green Stamps) and had to spend most of Shabbat quietly resting. Still, there was lots to do and see.

First of all there is the city itself. Amsterdam is fairly young by European standards, founded in the 12th c. when someone had the bright idea of damming the Amstel River. Its Jewish history began at the end of the 15th c. with the arrival of the Jews fleeing oppression in Spain and Portugal. The Dutch were newly independent then and took a very dim view of anything Spanish or Catholic. If “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” then they were willing to see the exiled Jews of Spain as possible friends. The ruling House of Orange welcomed them cautiously and put the Jews under its protection. This was a profitable move, since these Jews were skilled in finance and trade and would play a significant role in the Dutch Golden Age of trade and commerce.

Ashkenazi Jews arrived in great numbers fleeing the pogroms of the Chmielnicki Uprising that began in 1648 in Ukraine. These Jews were distinct from the Sephardic population not only in ethnicity but also economically: they were nearly all quite poor upon arrival. By 1700 there were enough Jews in Amsterdam that there was a Jewish Quarter with an entire complex of synagogues appealing to various flavors of Jews. These communities flourished first as guests of the House of Orange and then later, with Emancipation, as citizens of the Netherlands.

At the time the Nazis invaded the Netherlands in 1940, there were 75,000 Jews in the city of Amsterdam. About 10,000 of those were Jews who followed the time-honored custom of seeking refuge in the city, including the German family of Anne Frank. Sadly, this was one time when the city offered no real protection to Jews. By the end of the war, 80% of the prewar Dutch Jewish population had been murdered.

Today Amsterdam is again home to vibrant communities of Jews, although they are much changed by the war and developments since. The Progressive Synagogue has 1700 Jewish households, the Portuguese Synagogue 270 families, and the Reconstructionist/Renewal synagogue (Beit HaChidush) 200 member families. Largest of all is the Ashkenazi Orthodox community, an aggregation of several Ashkenazi synagogues ranging from Modern Orthodox to Haredi under the name Nederlands-Israëlietische Hoofdsynagoge or NIHS, which boasts 1,700 affiliate households.

That’s an outline of the rich history of Jews in the city. Check back here over the next few weeks, when I’ll have more posts inspired by the Jews of Amsterdam.