Shabbat in Amsterdam
My alarm blared obnoxiously at 8 AM--a wakeup call to rub the sleep from my eyes and prepare for another day of my winter break travels in Amsterdam. Nervously tiptoeing around my sleeping friend and travel partner, I could hardly contain my excitement as I hurriedly showered and applied my makeup with the utmost precision. While I normally prefer jeans on a cold, rainy day, today was a special occasion, so I pulled on a casual dress and slipped out the door towards the train station.
The day was Shabbat, a day I do not normally choose to attend shul, yet, being in Amsterdam and curious to experience services unlike those that I had grown up with, to spend my morning sleeping would have been a waste. As the train whizzed by, looming buildings masked by the gray fog and my stop approached, I felt butterflies in my stomach reacting to the uncertainty at the community I was soon to encounter. No judgement was yet to be passed; I had the ability to present myself in any manner I chose, be that as the polite, withdrawn American girl or the stranger who befriended the locals and attempted to create relationships with foreigners.
Following the map on my phone, I could have easily missed the camouflage locked gate, barred shut to prevent intruders, had it not been for the young man guarding watch nearby. Noticing my confused expression or, perhaps suspicious of why I was lurking around, he hastily placed his coffee down to assist me.
“Where are you from and why are you at this synagogue?” he inquired.
Attempting to appear casual and unsuspicious, I smiled and explained that I was on winter break from Yeshiva University, and, since it was Shabbat, I felt it was the ideal time to truly experience a European Jewish community. Satisfied with my apparent innocence, the guard unlocked the gate and pointed me towards the shul.
Walking through the courtyard, I came across an open door and proceeded to take my first steps inside what I expected to be a magnificent, breathtaking, ancient synagogue. Instead, I was faced with whitewashed walls and a narrow, stuffy staircase that led up to the women’s section, a balcony that with barely enough space to clutch my siddur while awkwardly squeezing past the row of regulars, a sweet group of varied age women. In their kindness, each member offered to help find my spot in the siddur, unbeknownst that I came from a well educated Jewish background.
The dress was unnecessary, as it turned out. Many women were wearing jeans or regular pants, a refreshing stance on dress which seemed to matter less than the importance of ensuring that there was weekly participation by the members.
Services went by smoothly, and I was pleasantly surprised at how similar the performances of a European Orthodox minyan, such as the Chazzan’s repetition and Torah reading, were compared to the classic Ashkenazi minyan I was familiar with back home. How refreshing it was, how reassuring of Judaism’s tradition, that across the world, Jews live so differently yet pray so similarly.
Following Mussaf, the congregation gathered in a side room to recite kiddush and socialize with other members. My first observation was how men and women sat side by side, mechitzah gone, leaving only friendliness and affability in its place. Not all male members were wearing kippot, and I wondered if that was a sign of non- Orthodoxy or merely just personal tradition.
I was clearly not a local, carrying my backpack and hesitantly standing around, so it was quite relieving when a member motioned me over to shake my hand and welcome me to the synagogue. First addressing me in Hebrew, he appeared amused at how uncomfortable I looked and invited me on a tour of the authentic Portuguese Synagogue-- to my utmost relief, as it would have been a shame to spend Shabbat abroad and not see a piece of Jewish history. Apparently, there were many more foreigners visiting than I thought, all eager to take in as much culture and life as possible, and we all gathered around the courtyard to begin the tour with our Amsterdamian guide.
Unlocking the massive door that led into the ancient building, I was in awe of the overpowering ceiling and simplistic yet embellished architecture. The guide explained that, wanting to preserve the authenticity of the shul, no heating or electricity had been installed throughout the years. During the winter, the temperature in the shul became unbearable, and eventually the congregation decided to lead services within the house next door. In addition to the lack of heating, instead of lights, the shul was lit with thousands of candles, an expensive necessity, but one that seemed to create an intense, more intimate environment.
Admiring the beautiful decor, I imagined davening in a place rich with history and feeling, such as the shul I was standing in. While there were no plush seating covers or comfortable armrests, while the floor was dusty and the interior anything but modern, there was a certain beauty that the environment radiated, one that was surely contributed to by the brutal past. The synagogue had a raw and rough history, once a beautiful community center, overridden by enemies in World War II to be used as a meeting place by the Nazis. Eventually returned to its rightful owners, the synagogue holds services to the Jews to this day, a symbol of preservation of the continuous Jewish life within Amsterdam.
I contemplated the community I was visiting. On a Shabbat morning, there were Jews in black hats and Jews checking their phones, all in one room standing side by side, coexisting in such a natural way, it was almost inbred within their attitudes towards each other. Perhaps, what I gained that day was more than just the feeling of Shabbat, but a feeling of acceptance. Nuances and personal observances aside, the congregation created a feeling of togetherness and inclusivity in such an apparent way that no Jew felt the need to hide their struggles or beliefs. Beyond the feeling of comfort I felt, an inner peace was born within a constant conflict to balance observance of laws with reputation within the Jewish community. Struggling to not stand out within an Orthodox community is challenging and often exhausting, but perhaps, instead of focusing on differences, the emphasis should be on standing together.