Alkmaar, Deventer, Groningen, Amersfoort: these are not prominent destinations on the European traveler’s itinerary.
Yet these small Dutch cities are all repositories of Jewish heritage, from synagogues to literary monuments. They all boast antique medieval districts and sights that range from castles to canals.
And they are all part of this year’s Continent-wide annual celebration of Jewish heritage, the European Day of Jewish Culture 2014. Despite a harshening political and social climate toward Israel and Jews, on Sunday, Sept. 14 the doors of synagogues will fling open to the public in dozens of cities across 23 countries, from Spain to Slovenia. And the rich cultural legacy of local Jews will be explored through programs of lectures, literary readings, concerts, tours and food.
As usual, the most comprehensive programs will take place in the big cities — but the Day of Jewish Culture is always an opportunity to discover the Jewish roots in smaller, lesser-known towns.
The Netherlands is a perfect example, with an astonishing 11 municipalities participating in this year’s event. Perhaps “astonishing” is the wrong word: though diminutive in size, Holland is densely populated and has been heavily industrialized since Hanseatic times, with a Jewish presence that stretches well into the early Middle Ages.
Still, most people have never heard of the northern Dutch city of Deventer — home to a historic synagogue and the memory of one of Holland’s most prominent Jewish diarists. No, not Anne Frank: Etty Hillesum, a poet best known for her wartime letters and diaries, lived here until her deportation to Auschwitz and death at age 29. Today there is a jagged, poignant monument on the IJssel riverfront dedicated to her memory, a local school named after her, and a small Etty Hillesum museum on the site of a former synagogue and Jewish school. (A major scholarly center devoted to her life and work was inaugurated a few years back in Ghent.)
On Sept. 14, anyone can tour the synagogue and attend a lecture by the author of a new book on Dutch-Jewish women in resistance. The topic — and Hillesum’s legacy — fit neatly into this year’s theme for the Day of Jewish Culture, “Women in Judaism.” (I assume “Men in Judaism” would have required more than a day...but that’s another topic.)
Deventer is just winding down from hosting Europe’s largest book fair — a continuation of a literary legacy that dates to the city’s role as an early center for the printing press. Books, and book learning, flourished here while most of Europe was illiterate; Erasmus was a pupil here, and Etty Hillesum was just one of numerous Jewish scholars and writers who left ink stains here.
But there’s plenty more to see in Deventer — from 1,100-year-old walls to the pretty riverfront promenade, lined with centuries-old structures. Settled in the Bronze Age, Deventer boomed as a medieval port and was a member of the Hanseatic League before morphing into a center of iron production. Like so many Dutch towns, it still hums with urbane energy.
And then there’s Alkmaar, a mecca for lovers of Gouda and Edam. Perched on a northern peninsula, Alkmaar is devoted to the good life, home to both the Holland Cheese Museum and the National Beer Museum. By day, shoppers swarm the massive outdoor cheese market; by night, they pack into the bars and cafés that line picturesque canals in this medieval center, which becomes its own kind of beer museum after dark.
I learned that Alkmaar was the birthplace of Alfred Peet of Peet’s Coffee. Peet, who died a few years ago, was born into a family of coffee roasters and brought European-style techniques to California and the rest of America.
Peet wasn’t Jewish, of course. But plenty of his caffeine-swilling neighbors were, and on the 14th, there will be a tour of the synagogue, and concert of Jewish music and a lecture on Jewish women in Europe’s social-democratic movements.
Filmmaker Heddy Honigsmann is one of Holland’s most prominent Jewish figures; born in Lima to Polish parents, she has achieved acclaim sufficient to merit retrospectives at MoMA and the Centre Pompidou in Paris. Her work will be the topic of a program in Amersfoort, one of central Holland’s prettiest cities, where tours of the restored 1727 synagogue will take place every hour.
Even if it didn’t have such a cultured pedigree — it is also the birthplace of painter Piet Mondrian, whose family home is a museum — Amersfoort would delight visitors with a perfectly preserved medieval landscape of turrets, arched bridges and shimmering canals. Approximately half of its 700 Jews were deported to concentration camps during World War II, but those that survived revived the synagogue and maintain a Jewish community.
Jewish professors and students have long flocked to the university at Groningen, one of the largest cities in North Holland. Another Hanseatic city, dotted with ornate façades and Baroque steeples, Groningen has a vintage look — but the preponderance of students gives it a decidedly modern feel.
The Sept. 14 program reflects a city rich in both scholarship and music (Groningen has a conservatory that feeds a lively music scene). For the Day of Jewish Culture, the Yiladi Trio will sing Ladino, Sephardic and Yiddish songs, followed by a lecture on the contributions of Dutch-Jewish women; the synagogue and mikveh will also be open for tours.
All of these programs will become more detailed as the Day of Culture draws near. This year, more than ever, the hope is for Europeans to appreciate the breadth and complexity of a culture that is at the core of their collective history. And for Americans, it’s an opportunity to discover Jewish heritage in the unexpected corners of Old Europe.