Hello Semites and anti-Semites! (Is that like matter and antimatter? Kind of, except instead of totally and mutually annihilating each other they seem to have maintained an antagonistic, yet symbiotic relationship for centuries, deathless and regenerating, occupying the others mind and heart, like Harry Potter and Lord Voldemort. I talk about Harry Potter a lot, don’t I? I think it’s because it makes me sound younger.) Sorry! Wandered off there for a second. You see, I’m in Amsterdam. Yes, that Amsterdam, where last weekend I had the singular experience of watching You Don’t Mess With the Zohan in a theater full of Dutch people—Dutch, except for the dozen or so Germans parked behind us, loudly expressing their befuddlement at every cry of “Disco Disco,” and at Lainie Kazan, naked and resplendent, throwing her arms around Adam Sandler and cooing, “Oh honey! You are good at everything that you do,” before she dunks her hunk of pound cake in his coffee and shoves it in her mouth. Were they really allowed to laugh at this? The New Jew Revolution–this reflexive self-mockery, the transformation of our own stereotypes and internalized self-loathing into something like pride–hasn’t quite gotten here yet. This can make for some intriguing exchanges. When one Dutch woman, somewhat haughtily, asked me why I hadn’t changed my last name upon marriage to Mr. Abramowitz, “subsuming my identity like most American women,” I replied: “Well, I guess I could feed you a bunch of lines about having already established my professional identity and not wanting to go through all the paperwork, but honestly? I just wasn’t prepared for my name to sound that Jewish.”
She looked at me with undisguised shock. I know it’s difficult to detect irony when you’re not speaking in your first language, and standing just blocks away from the train station that processed the transports to Westerbork, I really should have known better. But before I could tell her I was kidding, she jumped in. “But your last name is Shukert. That is a already a Jewish name.” “Kind of,” I said. “In America it’s sort of neutral. In Nebraska, where I grew up, it’s just kind of German.” “Well,” she said. “In Holland, it’s very, very Jewish.” Ah! The ghosts of the past!
In regards to Jewish identity, Amsterdam is special. It has a special name, Mokum, bestowed upon it years ago by its Jewish inhabitants, and has many Jewish leaders, including the popular current mayor, Job Cohen. The old Jewish Quarter boasts kosher restaurants and a pristine Jewish Museum. There are several synagogues and Jewish cemeteries still in use, and the Anne Frank House, with an appropriately solemn façade of glass and steel, attracts thousands of visitors each year. And then there are the Amsterdam Joden. The Amsterdam football (or soccer, for those of you hopelessly unversed in the ways of the Continent) team, Ajax, is one of the three main Dutch football clubs, and like many such teams, inspires almost cult-like devotion in it’s supporters who call themselves… wait for it… the Jews. At games, they drape themselves in makeshift, sometimes homemade, Star of David flags and wear hats and jerseys with Hebrew writing. Some die-hard fans (most of whom, like the players, are not Jewish) set “Hava Nagilah” as their ringtones, or even go the extra mile and have the word Jood (if you went on a field trip with your Hebrew school class to that traveling Anne Frank exhibit in the late 1980’s, your remember as the Dutch word for Jew), often accompanied by a Star of David, tattooed on their bodies. When the team makes a successful play deserving of praise, or a serious bungle requiring encouragement (or reproach) their supported shout "Joden! Joden!" (Jews! Jews!) down at the field. I thought it might be funny to take up a similar chant whenever Adam Sandler or Robert Smigel appeared on the screen, but managed, thankfully to restrain myself. In the years since World War II, we’ve gone from martyrs to mascots.
But it doesn’t just stop there! American sports fans may argue over the Yankees vs. Red Sox with conviction and fervor, but rarely does it come to bloodshed. Nor have we perfected the kind of taunting verbal warfare, forged in the crucible of centuries of painful and violent history, that European teams unleash on each other. When some teams play Rotterdam, they sing a song referencing the brutal bombing campaign inflicted on the city by the Germans in 1940: “When the spring comes, we will bomb Rotterdam.” Dutch fans scream at German teams: “Give us back our bikes!” (Interestingly, I don’t believe there are many cases of Israeli fans screaming at the same teams: “Give me back my grandmother!”) When The Hague plays Ajax, they often shout “Hamas! Hamas!” while they goosestep in place and salute straight-armed at the opposing stands. And most famously, and creatively, when the Ajax Joden take the field, you can hear a loud hissing sound come from the Rotterdam stands. This is not a hiss of derision. It is meant to sound like the hiss of the gas. Jews to the gas. I know. I’d be offended if I didn’t sort of think it was a little bit hilarious. That’s Holland for you. Jews making Jewish jokes (for example, moi) are goggled at and strangely reprimanded. Non-Jews, however, use the Holocaust as a football chant, and it’s basically fine. (I say basically, because now and then a politician or civic leader plays lip service to how terrible it all is, but it doesn’t make much difference.)
More interesting to me is the evolution. Jews have gone from a being a despised minority to being sainted martyrs, and finally, mascots. I think of a story my mother told me, when we toured the old Jewish quarter of Prague, and came upon a group of elderly women selling little figurines of Orthodox Jews outside the ancient and abandoned synagogue. As one of the women tried to press a ceramic Chasid into her hand, my mother asked her if she was Jewish. “Oh no!” said the woman. “What happened to all the Jews then?” my mother asked. “Oh!” The woman fluttered her hand in the air breezily. “They all moved away.” A vanished people from a long-past time, whose once reviled customs (and existence) seem quaint and picturesque, now that they’re all gone. How strange to be part of a group filed away into irrelevance by the prevailing culture, the rough, unpleasant edges sanded and swept away by the passing of time. It put me in mind of another group of people similarly removed from lands that they had lived on for millennia, that we in America currently use as mascots and souvenirs. The Native Americans. Is there really so much difference between the “Tomahawk Chop” and the hissing of the gas? Do these cultural appropriations only sting when they appropriate our culture? The only answer, I think, is to just take them back. In the words of Amitai Sandy, the Israeli graphic artist and comic book publisher, in response to the anti-Semitic cartoon contest sponsored by an Iranian newspaper: “We’ll show the world we can do the best, sharpest, most offensive Jew-hating cartoons ever published! No Iranian is going to beat us on our home turf!” Personally, I’d love to see a version of how the Dancing Mascot of the Amsterdam Joden might look. My guess is that it wouldn’t be like Zohan.