Beneath Baruch Spinoza’s smiling bust on his tombstone on the grounds of the Nieuwe Kerk in the Hague is an inscription of his famous motto, “caute” (written cavte on the stone, see image one), or “cautiously” in Latin. Between that admonition and the dates of his life – 1632 to 1677, cut short by an illness whose identity is hotly debated – is the Hebrew word “amcha” or “amach”, Hebrew for “your people” or “your nation.”
The word, which appears on a stone which was provided by David Ben Gurion, a groupie, is ambiguous, to say the least. Is the word’s subject God – meaning, “[Spinoza is one of] Your nation” – in which case the word evokes the declaration of 1 Chronicles 17: 21, “And who is like Your nation (k’amcha) Israel, a single nation in the land?”
All photos courtesy of the author
Or is Spinoza the subject? Perhaps the church and its community were the true people of the philosopher excommunicated by the rabbis for heresy. If that were the intention, it would be doubly tragic, as Spinoza’s bones were discarded in the church’s yard after his friends and family stopped paying rent for his tomb. The inscription “amcha” defiantly and ironically marks the tomb commemorating a man who had no people and who, even in death, could not seem to rest in peace.
My first of several walks through the downtown area of The Hague occurred somewhat in a jet-lagged daze. Still, that alone does not explain the many Jewish monuments and buildings I walked right past without appreciating their significance. Even after he had shown me hidden Stars of David, former synagogues and a matzoh factory, it caught me completely off guard when Jewish tour guide Remco Dorr led me to Spinoza’s grave on the grounds of the church right across the street from my hotel.
Whether he was discussing the temporary posts and chains rabbis set up beside canal drawbridges to allow residents to carry outside the ritual boundary (t’chum) on the Sabbath or the cultural and economic gulfs between Sephardic (Portuguese) and Ashkenazi Jews in the 17th century, one cannot say too much about Dorr’s breadth of knowledge except that it was rivaled only by his enthusiasm for his city’s history.
From its start, Dorr’s two-hour tour reflected the Jewish crisis in the city which is the seat of the Dutch government. Before World War II, 17,000 Jews lived in The Hague. The Jewish population of The Hague today is about 2,000. The former shtetl is now Chinatown, and walking along Wagenstraat, strung with hanging red lanterns, one reaches a mini supermarket called U-Shop with a fa?ade of two ram’s heads and two lambs still intact, betraying the storefront’s prior identity as a Jewish butcher’s shop (image two).
The next stop on Wagenstraat was a 19th century synagogue and mikveh (used from 1844 to 1974), now a mosque (since 1979). According to Dorr, the only aspect of the synagogue (image three) that remains is balcony that was the women’s section. An inscription on a cornerstone close to the ground, far beneath the minarets, still attests (in Hebrew and Dutch) to the building’s origins: “The first stone of the construction of the sanctuary of God, this Ashkenazi congregation Yeshurun , the holy congregation of The Hague, may God defend it, which was placed on Tuesday, the 25th of Nissan, 5603 .”
Walking from the synagogue-turned-mosque to Spinoza’s former attic apartment (17th century rent, 50 guilders per year), Dorr explained that Jewish scavenger hunting in The Hague is different from say Germany.
Whereas stone doorframes in Germany still divulge the locations of mezuzahs past, Dutch frames were made of wood, which has long been replaced. There are some inscriptions – Dorr noted one, “H. G. Klausmeyer, 1922″ in particular – that remain, but many landmarks, like the Jewish orphanage on the Paviljoensgracht, which was a holding place for Jews before they were deported during the Second World War, were destroyed and rebuilt.
A monument on the Rabbijn Maarsenplein square (named for the former chief rabbi of The Hague, Isaac Maarsen, and just steps from Spinoza’s grave at the first Protestant church in The Hague) is particularly poignant.
The square is the grounds of an old playground at a Jewish school where 1,700 children were rounded up before being deported to concentration camps. The sculpture, created by Sara Benhamou and Eric de Vries, consists of six empty chairs (inscribed with the names and ages of martyred children) arranged in a manner that conveys ladders leading upward toward the heavens. The chairs are surrounded by Hebrew and Dutch texts identifying the subject of the memorial. According to Dorr, there used to be seven chairs (an understandable number for a Jewish memorial), but one was stolen.
Storefront, previously Jewish butcher
The remainder of our tour addressed laws preventing Jews from being buried in the city limits, a former Jewish department store De Bijenkorf (which Dorr’s mother remembers being barred from as a Jew during World War II) and a former synagogue turned into a department store, which still has its foundation stone intact, and where rabbis insisted that no bathroom be placed on the site of the former ark. It also included a Holocaust memorial (image four), which bears the biblical quotation, “Remember what Amalek did to you Don’t forget,” and which Dorr said he was displeased to see so haphazardly placed so close to a restaurant.
In some senses, one would have hoped that there would be more spotlights and attention showered on the Jewish memorials and former synagogues in The Hague. Perhaps if they were more conspicuous, I wouldn’t have walked right past them the first and second and third times. But somewhere along the way, dazzled by Dorr’s engrossing woven narratives, it struck me that the hunt for The Jewish Hague required no reconfiguring or modification.
The Stars of David and former synagogues need not hit every pedestrian over the head. It is enough that they can be teased out and revived in the hands of someone like Dorr (though one fears he is irreplaceable and hard to imitate). Maybe there is no better metaphor for the Jewish life that was and is (albeit downsized significantly) in The Hague than a series of inscriptions and works of art hidden in plain sight.
“We have no idea where he is,” Dorr said solemnly, looking at Spinoza’s tomb stone in that church backyard. “He’s scattered around the church somewhere.” Can one imagine much more pitiful than that?
Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article is the second in a series on Jewish Amsterdam and The Hague, which is based on a trip sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.