Moving to Amsterdam Made Me Feel More Connected to Judaism

Lacking a visible Jewish community, I started wondering about the city's untold stories and vanished families.

I’m a Jewish comedian in Amsterdam. I mention the Jewish part because it has surprisingly painted my time in Holland with an unexpected hue. Back home in Toronto, I was one of many female Jewish comedians, but here, I’m special. Not only am I a native English-speaking comic (in a small comedy scene that’s already a unique selling point), but a Jew! A real life Jew!

While that never really set me apart before, now, here in Europe I feel… special.

What was once a vibrantly Jewish city this time last century is now a virtual graveyard of relics, gold plaques in the ground, and a couple of museums and synagogues behind high-gated walls with security so tight I practically have to cite my Torah portion to get in. There’s no visible Jewish community here. Coming from Toronto I was used to occasionally seeing Hasidic families or at least having a local bagel shop. I know that’s not normal everywhere, but I thought, well Amsterdam, there used to be plenty of Jews here! Surely the culture’s made a comeback?

Yes, there are Jews here, and I’ve met some of them, both expats and Dutchies, but the interesting difference to me is that the local Jews, while proud, are still somewhat in the closet.

As a comic it’s rare that you get handed something so beautifully uncomfortable on such a large scale. I’ve been on a mission to at the very least ask the question: Where are all the Jews? I mean, of course I know where they are — dead or displaced by the Holocaust — but what about the other Jews? The ones still in hiding even today?

Even when most would agree Islamophobia outstrips antisemitism by a mile in Holland, there is still an underlying fear here, a hesitancy. It has felt profoundly haunting to live in a place where history walks around with you, follows you on your bicycle over bridges, alongside canals. Where being Jewish isn’t normal, it’s special. I’m not so sure I like being special in this way —like a thing on display at a natural history museum, a creature that’s gone extinct.

I moved to the Netherlands to be with my boyfriend, a grand gesture of romance that, like a spectacular firework display, ended quickly in darkness. After an incredibly dramatic break-up (think Streisand in “The Way We Were” sans baby but with more crying), I found myself in Amsterdam plotting ways to win him back. Before I could formulate a plan (false pregnancy? Skywriting? Nothing was off the table) the pandemic hit and I was suddenly faced with a decision: stay and plot or go home and apocalypse with my family. The decision was easy; after all, I was born in the time of Claire Danes and “The O.C.” Drama is my challah and butter.

But the bleeding heart thing is not what kept me here in the end. In fact, it was a growing curiosity, a need to figure out this whole Jewish thing. There were two parallel thoughts running around in my brain: the void of Jewish culture here, and my sudden fascination with it.

Like the funny and talented Sarah Silverman, I am a God-less Jew. While I participate in (some selective) Jewish traditions and call myself a Jew (often and with vigor), never in my life have I prayed and really believed that someone was listening. But now here, in this place, wondering about the untold stories, the vanished families, I was feeling all sorts of curiosities, longings for a more spiritual existence. It’s not lost on me that this was during a global pandemic when I’m sure lots of folks were looking for God. But it has to be said that wandering through an empty former Jewish ghetto has a certain ominous verve to it. It has made me feel proud to be Jewish in a way I’ve never felt before, as if to quietly, humbly say, “You didn’t win, I’m here.”

Spoiler alert: I haven’t found God, and I’ll be honest, I sort of put the search on hold. I’m also about to be deported — apparently stand-up comedy isn’t “artistic” enough for an artist’s visa to stay. But I’m also not totally convinced it’s God I’ve been looking for.

Since leaving Toronto, my friends and family, there has been a disconnect, to say the least. Being Jewish has always meant being connected, and moving here, I didn’t initially feel that. In coming here to Amsterdam, despite the heartbreak, the global pandemic and the precarious visa situation, what’s surprised me the most is that I feel more connected to a deeper history, a more global unification of Judaism, than I ever have before.

Do I recommend going through an international move, break-up and deportation to achieve that connection? Absolutely not. But I do recommend we all find that moment in our lives to dig a little deeper into who we are, and what makes us special. Maybe try braiding your own challah or hosting a seder to get the ball rolling.

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