My Visit to Amsterdam

Having just learned that Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands has abdicated her throne to her son Willem-Alexander, my thoughts return to that special place where I spent a few days two weeks ago — Holland.

Where can you munch on a herring sandwich topped with chopped onions and pickles, then polish it off with a Corenwijn chaser, while watching seven million tulip bulbs laboriously pushing their way above ground to greet the springtime sun? Why, in Keukenhof Holland, of course. But where in Holland can you get a plate of gefilte fish garnished with chrane, other than in your bubbie’s kitchen?
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A Soul is Like a Play: New Jerusalem at the Lantern Theatre

  • All we get is the poetry of a Jewish fruit peddler and a heap of vanishing figs.  — Baruch Spinoza
  • You will be greater than all of us, but not as a Jew. — Rabbi Mortera

Reminiscent of intellectual dramas like Copenhagen, New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656 is an ambitious new drama by David Ives, known for his evenings of one act comedies called All in the Timing and Time Flies.  Playing through November 6th at the Lantern Theater Company, this heady play directed by Lantern’s Artistic Director Charles McMahon is based on true events in the life of the philosopher Baruch de Spinoza.  This recent off-Broadway hit challenges traditional political and religious thinking with passion and wit.  

The production’s action takes place in the Amsterdam synagogue where the 23 year old stands trial for his revolutionary thoughts about God, nature and human life.  Sam Henderson’s Spinoza, donning a black leather bomber jacket, (costumes beautifully designed by Maggie Baker with lighting by Shon Causer) is arrogant but humble, witty and rakish.   The favorite son of the rabbi’s heir apparent, (played by David Bardeen) Spinoza refuses to remain silent about his revolutionary thoughts, and is accused by political leader and Calvinist Abraham van Valkenburgh ( played by Seth Reichgott) of heresy.   The audience becomes part of this trial as we witness Spinoza refuse to silence his radical beliefs, denying the divine origin of the Torah which sits in the Ark of the Covenant, that provides the effective and sparsely designed backdrop for the action (designed by Nick Embree).

More after the jump.
Accused of atheism, Spinoza protests, “I know a few things about God no one else does.”    Accused of loving a Christian woman, Clara van den Eden (played beautifully by Mary Tuomanen) Spinoza insists she tell the truth when she is questioned, for her “essence will not allow her to lie.”  His petty and vengeful half-sister Rebekah de Spinoza, (played by Kittson O’Neill) who early in the play betrays her brother, marks one of the weaker plot points as later in the play she professes great loyalty.  Her kvetching (from the audience where she glares at her accused brother on trial to be excommunicated) while intended to provide some comic relief, strikes one of the few false notes of the evening.  

The most convincing and moving relationship we witness is that between the Head Rabbi of Amsterdam, Mortera, and Spinoza, whom he considers like a grandson.    While Spinoza is intoxicated “by God and mathematics”, the rabbi must think about the community of faithful Jews whose religious freedom is being threatened.   Will the Rabbi remain faithful to his most gifted student or will he turn his back on him for the sake of the Jewish community’s survival?  

Ives manages to write an engaging courtroom drama full of complex philosophical ideas from Descartes’ dualism to the Mishneh Torah.   If questions like: is there immortality, is there a God, what are the moral implications of a world without God, interest you — you will spend two riveting hours at the Lantern Theater Company.   Remember, when Albert Einstein was asked about his belief in God, he responded, “I believe in Spinoza’s God.”   To find out what he means by this go see New Jerusalem at the Lantern Theater Company.

On Saturday, October 22nd at 2 pm there will be a Panel Discussion on the Lantern Main Stage called Out of Order! Courtrooms as Theatre, Courtrooms in Theatre featuring Vince Regan, Assistant Chief District Attorney of Philadelphia, Philadelphia playwright Bruce Graham.  

New Jerusalem runs through November 6th.

  • Lantern Theater Company at St. Stephen’s Theater
  • 10th and Ludlow Streets, Philadelphia, PA 19107
  • Adults: $20 – $36, Students: $10 – $26, $10 student rush tickets available 10 minutes before curtain with valid ID; cash only. Special discounts are available for seniors and groups of 10 or more.
  • Phone: (215) 829-0395

An Odyssey From Amsterdam to Philadelphia

By Hannah Lee

As a companion program to the Rembrandt and the Faces of Jesus exhibit now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) hosted a lecture on the journey taken by Sephardic Jewry from the Old World to the new one.  William Pencak, Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, gave the standing-room-only audience (many at the NMAJH for the first time!) a historical tour that featured the role of the Dutch in Amsterdam and in Philadelphia.

More after the jump.

Painting of Mikveh Israel, 1775-1783, Synagogue of the American Revolution.

Rembrandt’s Jews in the Synagogue, The Jewish Museum

First, Professor Pencak wanted to rebute “The Jewish Rembrandt” exhibit held in Amsterdam a few years ago that attempted to deny a Jewish influence on Rembrandt’s works.  In Rembrandt’s “Jews in the Synagogue” of  1648, the people depicted in the painting are garbed in robes and hats as did the Ashkenazic Jewish refugees to Amsterdam, not like the cosmopolitan Sephardic Jews who sought to blend into upper class Dutch society, as in the “Portrait of Jan Six” of 1654.  In “Balthazar’s Feast” of 1635, there is Hebrew inscription on the upper right corner, but the words are written erroneously in a vertical instead of horizontal direction.  In “Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law” of 1659, the two tablets are depicted according to Jewish tradition, not the Christian imagery of the time.

Next, Professor Pencak gave a brief overview of the Jewish expulsion from their homes in Spain, Portugal, and England.  Of the Dutch nation of the Netherlands, then comprising of Holland and Belgium, Amsterdam in Holland became the center for Jewish life.  The Ashkenazic Jews started arriving about 30-40 years after the Sephardic Jews, and by the 1670’s  there were separate synagogues for Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry.  

The Jewish community was tight-knit, with the Sephardic synagogue documented exacting a tax of ½ of 1% of a family’s income.  Of some 3,000 Jews who lived in Amsterdam by the end of the 17th century, over half of them received relief from the community.  The Netherlands was not uniformly tolerant of Jews, with the rural states less so than the urban centers, including Antwerp in the Belgian half.

The Jews thrived in Amsterdam, with the first synagogue established in 1618.  The first Jewish play and the first book of poetry were written there.  The heretical philosopher Spinoza was excommunicated along with 766 other Jews in the 17th century for immoral behavior, which later included intermarriage with the Ashkenazic Jews.

The Dutch’s main economic interests were in the New World colonies of Brazil, Curaçao, and Surinam (formerly the Dutch Guyana) that focused on sugar plantations, which brought Jews into involvement with the African slave trade.  Enjoying equal rights, Jews comprised up to a third of the population in Brazil at the time.  In 1654, Jews were chased out of Brazil and many went back to Amsterdam, but one ship of 23 Jews got diverted and landed in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York).  

Director-General Pieter Stuyvesant was a Calvinist (Dutch Reform Protestant) and a former soldier who banded with the Dutch clergyman to protest the arrival of the Jews.  However, their appeal to the Dutch West Indies Company was denied and the Company insisted that the Jewish refugees stay, in part because they were Dutchmen and in part because Jewish investors had influence in the company, and the Company even offered to support the new arrivals if they proved unable to support themselves, according to Jewish communal values.  

New Amsterdam became the colony of the Duke of York (the brother of the British King Charles II) in 1664 and being a Catholic, he extended religious freedom to all, including the Jews.  When Asher Levy asked for burgher rights as a freeman, it was a right enjoyed by Jews in the Netherlands, and when freemen got the right to vote in 1664, so did the Jews.

In the 1730’s, the Jews started coming to Philadelphia, with the German Jews —  the Levys and the Franks — being prominent.  Nathan Levy built the first cemetery at Mikveh Israel on 8th and Spruce Streets, although they found that in colonial America, they had to build walls for their cemeteries in an attempt to preserve the headstones.  These German (Ashkenazic) Jews adopted Sephardic rites of worship.  When Mikveh Israel built its first synagogue (after the cemetery, because Nathan Levy’s young child had died) in 1782, its location was moved because of protest that its proposed site next to a church would offend the Dutch Reform Protestant congregants.  Prominent Philadelphians such as Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris contributed to its building fund.  

Whereas the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, experienced split loyalties during the American Revolution, there were no Jewish Loyalists (loyal to the British crown) in Philadelphia and Jews served prominently in financing and otherwise supporting the revolutionaries.  Haym Solomon was especially appreciated for his skill in converting foreign currencies into a form usable by the colonists, but he did not stand up in his synagogue on Yom Kippur to raise funds for the Revolution.  This myth was raised by an audience member and refuted by both the Professor and Rabbi Albert Gabbai, the current spiritual leader of Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in this nation.

An audience member asked about the role of the Mennonites, who are known to be a very tolerant group, but the Professor pointed out that the Mennonites were never in a position of political power.  Jews, in fact, were never in a position of political power, so they were so often slandered as scapegoats for the ills of society.

The President and CEO, Michael Rosenzweig, then invited the members of the audience to tour the new museum, which highlights the journey of Jews who’d fled from turmoil and travail in the Old World to earn stability and prominence in this New World of ours.

What Do You Know about Love?

— by Goldie Milgram

The setting is Sheila Gogol’s Amsterdam salon, in preparation for Tu b’Av, the Jewish holiday of love.  I always feel so fortunate to teach here, knowing the loving curiosity and wisdom those present will contribute. We begin with  the Tikkunei Zohar approach – a soul needs two wings to fly. In Europe, one wing – yira, is readily accessible – respect for the awe/fearsome nature of the Godfield. To fly, in the balanced way to which Jewish tradition would have us aspire, we need the other wing – ahava, love.  

More after the jump.
     Sheila has convened many cultural creatives – artists, authors, poets, musicians, scholars, healers… Skillfully guiding us in sacred chant is one of the first women cantors of the Netherlands, now further ordained as Rabbi Nava Tehila. Our host has brought in a young filmmaker too, who recorded the salon for a possible bit of televised documentary. There is some chutzpah to having love as our topic, because it will likely first evoke for some the holes in love caused by the murder of over 100,000 Dutch Jews — their parents, siblings, partners, children and more — by the Nazis and some Dutch collaborators. Among those attending the salon, I knew to be those who, as toddlers, had seen their parents shot before their eyes, hidden Jews fostered as children among gentiles, and more. Present also are American, Canadian, South African and other ex-pats and some who are not Jewish and are drawn to the topic, and also those who sense they are born with Jewish souls because not enough Jewish women survived the war to bear all the returning souls, as well as loving partners

    In preparation for this session, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi, whom I serve on shlichut (as his personal emissary), pointed me to The Four Loves by C. S. Lewis, indeed a good conceptual trans civilizational grounding. Our salon begins with the direction that if the Jewish mission is to live mitzvah-centered, rather than self-centered lives, (kedoshim tihiyu), then the healthy evolution and alignment of self is essential for our entelechy of avodah, sacred service in life, to be realized.

    Next level – (the complexity of) love within families. On the road over the years to come, b”H, many of you will hear the example story I shared at this point, true and newly minted for telling. For me, it was rather what Sheila shared that blew the Ruach HaKodesh through the room. She described a never- opened box of family pictures, from before the Shoah, in the bottom of a closet, I believe it was near a four-year old granddaughter’s doll house. A box that no family member’s soul could bear opening. I, and others, nodded; we, too, have such boxes at home. One day she entered the room to discover her granddaughter had found the box, opened it and arrayed the pictures within her play. “Look at my family!” with such love she yet includes them, marveled her grandmother. Gasps of joy resounded to this incredible, holy sharing. This, I believe, is what Rabbis David Wolfe-Blank, z’l and Elliot Ginsberg (in his essay in the volume Seeking and Soaring) would view as the ultimate expression of the miracle of lifsoakh, leaping over- the Pesach consciousness that releases parts of us once enslaved.

    Europe is so different this visit. Jewish grandchildren are being born here; young marrieds and singles identify and meet; new minyanim, programs, and synagogues are here. Alive! hah!! We Jews are soooo alive. I just had to write that out loud.

    The next level is based on a quote I first saw in a teaching of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, z’l: “When love of each other is practiced by the Jewish people, the heart of the Shechinah is healthy.” Here my Hubbatzin Barry offered a true story of how he shifted a ChaBaD tefillin ambush from an I-It to an I-Thou encounter. With every variety of Jew in the room, the respect necessary for emerging into Tu b’Av the next day from these levels of love was present already and heightened in this study of his story. Barry’s story will appear in the next Reclaiming Judaism Press book: Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning (with 60 contributing authors and edited by yours truly and Ellen Frankel, with Peninnah Schram, Cherie Karo Schwartz, and Arthur Strimling). (Release date is Nov. 6, 2012).

    So from where is love derived? Ahavah and Yirah are, indeed, foundational mitzvot. Our dear friend, the profound healer, mashpi’ah, artist and author, Carola de Vries Robles now brought us to Rabbi Shefa’s Gold’s chant of the tefillin/ Jewish wedding verses from Hosea, the v’eirastich li. I loved her idea and so shifted to guide our study of how the seven core phrases of this prayer might be a pathway of love that leads us through relationship to “know God.”  

    Now we chanted Amar Rabbi Akiva which emphasizes the mitzvah of loving others… to “love one’s neighbor as one might best love oneself.” We were almost up to appreciations (among them a young man, Edgar, sketched our portraits brilliantly. I will forward his website when I can get into my Facebook page where he wrote to us). So we committed to walk the streets of Dutch life on Tu b’Av not as icy-hurting Jews, nor as dangerous fiery zealots, rather as “warm cubes, our souls flying with aware Yirah and radiant Ahavah – the kind that  within our body/mind/spirit such that Ahavah and Yirah meld beyond earthly struggles to where “Adonai echad u’shemo echad.”

Hopefully during our seven weeks here in Europe we will have time for more installments. Do write back if you wish, and feel free to forward this posting with proper attribution. With love and prayers for safety and healing in the wake of US storms, earthquakes and for all everywhere who face life’s many joys and challenges.