The period between the final quarter of the nineteenth century and the onset of the economic depression in the 1930s was one of an enormous boom in the publication of journals and magazines in Europe, both academic and popular. The invention of inexpensive and fast techniques for reproducing photographs in the 1890s led to the emergence of a new genre: the illustrated weekly.
The Netherlands formed no exception to this general trend, as is attested to by the list of magazines received by the Nieuwsblad voor den Boekhandel and published between January 1921 and January 1934. The issue of 1922 consisted of fifty-five pages. The list for 1931 (commencing on April 1, 1931, and ending on June 30, 1932) counted ninety pages and was the most expansive. The final issue covering a period of two years – between May 1, 1932, and January 31, 1934 – showed a decrease in pages (eighty-six) and an increase in the list of publications no longer in press. A glance at the list of magazines available at the public reading room and library on the Keizersgracht in Amsterdam in 1924 sheds some light on the interests of the Dutch urban middle class. Aside from the various publications concerning trade and commerce, one notices an interest in the arts (Boek en Kunst, Beeldende Kunst), interior design (In en om de Woning), history (Onze Eeuw, Het Gemeenebest), education (Het Kind, Het Onderwijs, De Katholieke School), literature and drama, psychology, and women’s rights. The presence of the monthlies of the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Amsterdam Bureau of Statistics as well as those of the homeopathic, theosophical, animal protection, and vegetarian societies in the reading room implies that the readership was not limited to specialists or society members.
Finally, and not surprisingly in a pillarized society, the library subscribed not only to Catholic and Protestant publications but also to Jewish magazines, specifically Het Centraalblad voor Israëlieten in Nederland (1885–1940), Der Jude (1916–1928, subscription as of 1919), Mizrachie (1916–1940 and 1949–1951), De Joodse Wachter (1905 onwards), Het Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad (1865), and Het Weekblad voor Israelitische Huisgezinnen (1870–1940). De Vrijdagavond was not yet listed as the trial issue first appeared on January 11, 1924. The weekly appeared until 1932, when the worldwide financial crisis led to its demise.
Considering the plethora of Jewish monthlies and weeklies, one might rightfully ask why the two editors of the De Vrijdagavond – Rabbi Justus Tal (1888–1954) and lawyer and historian Mr. Izak Prins (1887–1968) – were so anxious to embark upon a new project. This question is especially relevant because a previous attempt in 1921 to start up a new weekly – De Joodsche Post – ended in a fiasco only one year later. I will allow the daring duo to speak for themselves, citing from their front page column in the trial issue of January 11, 1924, entitled,
“Wat wij willen: Ons Doel” (What We Desire: Our Goal):
“We want to provide the circle of Jewish readers with tastefully prepared “kosher” food for thought.
We do not want to provide the talk of the town or the latest news nor obviate party organs.
We want to provide Jewish reading matter in readily comprehensible form, both entertaining and substantial.
We do not wish to be political in any which way, filling the mind yet emptying the soul with meaningless politics, be they international, national, party, or local.
We want to treat all areas of Judaism – be they history, ethics, poetry, prose, academics, mundane, individual, or of the people – educating and edifying in order to propagate the good and serve the truth.
We do not want to be scholarly and complex, nor superficial and insignificant.
We want to serve historical-philosophical, traditional Judaism, disseminate knowledge about it, and pervade lives with it. We do not want to oust nor replace that which is already available.
We want to provide reading matter for Friday night – the night when Jewish families come together – material congenial to the Sabbath, providing something for everyone and much for many.”
The weekly’s emblem, designed for the purpose by Jozef Teixeira de Mattos, accords with and supplements the editors’ statement of purpose. The words De Vrijdagavond are surrounded on either side and illuminated by candelabra that, in the words of the editors, were “reminiscent of those of the Portuguese synagogue”. The candlesticks on the teba, located directly under the words De Vrijdagavond, “heighten the Sabbath atmosphere” and “enclose a mysteriously glowing Star of David”. Finally, the editors disclose their intended readership in advertisements appealing to intellectual [intellectuele, ontwikkelde], distinguished [voorname] and well-to-do [koopkrachtige] Jews.
In summary, one might say that the editors emphasize the traditional, avoid the political, and look to the bourgeoisie. In this sense, their purpose does not differ from other confessional or non-confessional magazines such as the Katholieke Illustratie, Wereldkroniek, or Eigen Haard, all of which had been founded quite a bit earlier than De Vrijdagavond. These magazines contained novellas, short stories, information about religious life, personalia, poetry, children’s sections, and games. Tal and Prins’s statement of purpose, containing nine alternating positively and negatively formulated points, is just short of forming the magazine’s Ten Commandments, makes use of the terms kosher and family, and is specifically designated for Friday evening. Moreover, both the Hebrew and secular date are located side by side at the top of each issue. Finally, wrapping the trial issue is a certificate of kashrut, as it were, formulated in bourgeois consumer terms: a so-called warranty for the subscriber [waarborg voor den abonné] comprising a list of prominent (future) contributors to De Vrijdagavond, including eleven rabbis. As if to reinforce the message, the first contribution following the editors’ statement of purpose is an article on prayer by Rabbi Isaac Maarsen of Amsterdam entitled “In Gebedsstemming” (In the mood for prayer).
The message, however, might be more complex than it seems at first, for the areas of Judaism which are to be heard from include history, ethics, poetry, prose, academics, and only lastly religious practice. Moreover, the juxtaposition of the terms historical-philosophical with traditional Judaism in the seventh point of the statement of purpose implies a not very subtle shift in the definition of traditional Judaism and may or may not be the equivalent of “the good” and “the truth” of the fifth point. The list of future contributors includes those of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic descent, male and female, who were successful in society at large, such as industrialists, politicians, writers, scholars, and even an actor. As for the rabbis, Rabbi Maarsen concludes his article “In Gebedsstemming” by describing the Adon Olam as a “confession of faith couched in Jewish philosophical terms”. A closer look at the regular and changing features of De Vrijdagavond will acquaint us better with this illustrated weekly, its authors, and its projected readership.
Constructing Dutch Jewish Bourgeois Identity
Nearly every issue of De Vrijdagavond opened with the Torah reading of the week [“De Inhoud van de sidro dezer week”] and closed, at least for the first two years, with the children’s section entitled “Wesjinnantom lewooneegoo”. That the reader was not assumed to be familiar with the torah portion of the week is proven by the fact that Rabbi Tal usually limited his column to the descriptive. After the publisher of De Vrijdagavond removed Tal and Prins as editors in 1925, and appointed J.S. da Silva Rosa (1886–1943) in their stead, a change occurred in the column. This darshan and librarian of Ets Haim, the library of the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam, compensated for the fact that at least a significant number of readers was not even acquainted with the Bible by offering a rehashed version in weekly installments. Additionally, in his presentation of the weekly readings he seized the opportunity to add edifying words for his public. Parashat Noah, for example, could remind parents that they needed to bring their children up properly in Jewish tradition. Failure to do so would lead to the predictable misconduct exemplified by Canaan. Da Silva Rosa’s warning comes as no surprise at a time when most Jewish children attended public schools and reluctantly added Hebrew school to their after-school activities, if at all. The rabbis too had lost their authority, at least according to the editor, whose comment on Tazria Metzora follows rabbinic tradition in attributing leprosy to gossip. Da Silva Rosa adds, however, that at present the priest, i.e. rabbi, doesn’t see most of the moral defects of his people because they don’t want him to see them. For if he were to see them, how could he refrain from speaking out? Yet the congregants interfere excessively with the rabbi’s shortcomings. Da Silva Rosa concludes on a moralizing note: the enemy of good is not evil, but good done for the sake of appearances only.
The first item included in the children’s section of the very first issue is equally telltale. It is the story of the “Bar-Mitswoh” boy, Bram, who doesn’t really know what he is celebrating. For days all Bram can think of are the presents he will receive, especially the new bicycle. On the Sunday following his Bar Mitzvah, Bram has a biking date with two non-Jewish friends. On their trip, a Jewish peddler passes by. “Vuile, ouwe, poolse jood” (dirty old Polish Jew), the two friends shout. Bram sees that the man’s face shows traces of pain, worry, and endless patience, and he in turn becomes sad. Later that day, when the Jewish schoolmaster explains what it means to be a Bar Mitzvah, Bram realizes why he was sad. Bar Mitzvah means fulfilling the mitzvoth, becoming aware of the fate of your people, and recognizing its misery and patience. Here, I surmise, all the characteristics of the Dutch Jewish bourgeoisie are depicted: the child who goes to public school, has non-Jewish friends, and celebrates his Bar Mitzvah in the synagogue because it is expected without knowing anything about Jewish tradition. After all, Bram only learns the significance of the ceremony the Sunday after his Bar Mitzvah. His return to Judaism is triggered by rishes – a minor anti-Semitic moment – that reunites him with his people in their history of suffering. Herewith a new rationale for staying in the fold has been called to life.
The question of Jewish identity may be considered the unifying and perpetual theme of the weekly issues of De Vrijdagavond, which contained reviews of art and music, interviews with well-known personalities, selections from belles-lettres, book reviews, popular scholarship, and much more. The articles on Jewish artists never failed to include the question concerning the Jewish identity of the artist and the Jewish nature of his or her oeuvre. Even Rembrandt doesn’t escape the attribution of Jewishness. But if Jewishness could not be discovered in the choice of theme, then it must be located elsewhere, usually in the color and mood of the art work. Jews always retain something of the warmth and the mystery of the Orient, which always distinguishes them from the West, at least according to De Vrijdagavond.
The nineteenth-century trope of Orientalism recurs but rarely in De Vrijdagavond. Although Zionism, the Zionist organizations, and congresses are not taboo – contrary to the Nieuw Israelietisch Weekblad, whose editors-in-chief were fervent anti-Zionists in this period – they are dealt with in a specific context. Articles feature cultural, agricultural, and archaeological items. Only once, in a fascinating article by Miss Carolina Eitje, a history teacher, entitled “Oost en West” (East and West) is the question of Orientalism touched upon. The age-old strife between the Jews and their detractors, she writes, is not a question of Christians versus Jews or anti-Judaism. Rather, there is a permanent, insoluble divide between East and West that will always determine Jewish history. For Eitje there is only one solution: Zionism and the devotion of time, love, and money to its cause. Eitje’s appeal was never to be repeated because it presumably fell into the category of the political and was therefore undesirable. It is almost certain that the acceptance of Eitje’s article by Tal and Prins displeased the publisher of the magazine. One other prominent column was to disappear after the duo’s dismissal, offering corroborative evidence concerning just what was acceptable and what was not acceptable to De Vrijdagavond and its public.
In four articles, Frits van Raalte, editor-in-chief of the Algemeen Handelsblad, set out to analyze “the Jewish character” from a psychological viewpoint. The first of these, “Diamonds by the kilo”, explains that when a non-Jew buys a diamond, he buys a carat, but the Jew buys diamonds by the kilo. The reason is because Jews try too hard: they want to prove themselves, are social climbers, and very ambitious. Psychology has shown that all human beings share the same character traits, but that these differ in intensity per individual; the difference, however, is gradual and not essential. Jews, belonging as they do to the active-emotional group, are more ambitious than others in their attempts to compensate for their inferiority complex. Even Jewish boasting about the contribution of the Jews to society forms part of this inferiority complex. But this is not surprising in view of the Jewish ghetto experience, which has left its mark on the people, perhaps even on the newborn. Only by recognizing one’s emotions and sensibilities can one overcome them, van Raalte concludes. In his second article, “The Guests and the Innkeeper” [De Gasten en de Waard], van Raalte claims that some characteristics may be so pervasive that they seem to be inborn. Jews are often pioneers because of their need to overcompensate for their inferiority complex, something true of other minority groups who experience discrimination. Yet Jews are more notable because not only are they considered different simply because they are Jews, they are also perceived as strebers. Should Jews be treated in the same manner as non-Jews from birth, then little difference would remain. The Jew who has not made it, is distrustful. Not the innkeeper, the non-Jewish country, but the Jew himself is distrustful.
Considering Eitje’s and van Raalte’s articles jointly, both the nature and the nurture arguments respectively depict the Jews negatively. In a weekly that sets out to construct a positive Jewish identity for a bourgeois Jewish society, eager to be integrated into society at large, a claim of ineradicable difference can not be countenanced. It was highly unlikely that the bourgeoisie was willing to recognize itself in the description of the parvenu offered by van Raalte. Perhaps the implications of the title of his article alone, “De Gasten en de Waard”, would have sufficiently shaken their identity-in-the-making, so that further elaboration would be undesirable.
The discussion of identity was not only prominent in the articles about art and the artists; it is also evident in the reviews of plays and films about Jews. One hoped, for example, that the non-Jewish audience would not be granted the opportunity to see its anti-Semitic stereotypes confirmed. The actor should not, as one reviewer warned, use too thick a Jewish accent – mauscheln – or overemphasize Jewish facial features. The non-Jew, but also perhaps or especially the Jew, should be able to identify with the so-called ghetto Jew, whose portrayal would always resemble a balancing act. In this perspective, one need contemplate the abundant number of illustrations in De Vrijdagavond, specifically those reproducing artists’ work which accompanied the art reviews. Although most of the artists refused the label of Jewish artists, the reviewer/editor almost always selected for publication those paintings bearing Jewish themes, particularly of old or poor peddlers in the former Jewish neighborhood. The move from the Jewish quarter – mainly to adjacent neighborhoods – was then quite recent, but apparently far enough in the past for nostalgia to set in.
This assumption is corroborated by several short stories portraying family situations at the beginning of the twentieth century. In the “Memoirs of a Former Seminary Student”, the author describes his dependence on others to earn a livelihood during his student days at the rabbinical seminary. He is hired by a woman to write and direct a Purim play for her husband, whose birthday falls on Purim. After several unsuccessful attempts at pleasing his client, followed by much disappointment and frustration, the whole event is cancelled. This is because the woman suddenly realizes that her husband’s birthday is not on Purim but on Pesach. The message is clear: indifference, a quality particularly characteristic of the middle-class Jew(ess), makes the one holiday seem like the next so that they are easily interchangeable. Another story called “An Amsterdam Purim Celebration Fifty Years Ago” describes the Purim activities of the Salomons family who live on the Oude Schans in Amsterdam. The atmosphere in their home is warm and in some ways quite old-fashioned. The copious and obsessive description of food as well as the elaborate costumes indicate that this is a newly middle-class Jewish family. The older generation mixes Yiddish in its Dutch while the younger generation understands but can’t speak the old language. When the ordered vet bolen fail to be delivered by the bakery, the younger generation is sent out to investigate the cause of the mishap. The delicacy has accidentally been delivered to another, much less affluent Salomons family, who also happen to live on the Oude Schans. The latter give back the food begrudgingly; even worse, they had received it without really asking from whom it was sent. The youngest son, having retrieved the sjlach mones, asks his mother at the conclusion of the story whether it would be alright to send the poorer family a portion of the bolen; they had been so visibly disappointed. The lesson is that although one may be successful, those who are less fortunate live only right around the corner. One should not forget one’s past and thus be charitable. The edifying story, situated fifty years earlier, looks back nostalgically at both the less fortunate and the first generation of middle class, not yet fully integrated Jews.
Historian Arnold Eisen has coined the term “mitzvah of nostalgia” for the replacement of traditional Jewish communal and religious life and values by nostalgia. He identifies five forms of nostalgia in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, four of which are relevant here. These may be summarized briefly as the “remembrance of grandparents as exemplars of an unattainable piety”; “the veneration of rabbis of old as ‘the real thing’”; seeking continuity through the celebration of especially those holidays which “conjure up and re-defeat ancestral enemies”; and “the allure of ritual objects, museums, memoirs and historical studies (which) has only grown with generational distance from the past thereby ‘remembered’”. While ancestors and rabbis may be revered, the modern generations do not intend to imitate their behavior or heed their words. Holidays such as Purim and Passover, which celebrate the Jews’ victory over their enemies, serve as uniting factors by indicating the common foe, both of the past and the present. Finally, Jewish religious forms have become works of art to be put on display and admired. The majority of commandments are no longer observed and those which are, are attributed with disproportionate value. New Jewish cultural and ethnic forms come in their stead, including an emphasis on cuisine but also more sophisticated expressions such as the founding of museums. The past which is being recalled in all these forms of nostalgia is ambivalent, for “there is a mix of love and violence, pride and ridicule, meaning and boredom, piety and arrogance, pleasant curiosity and unwelcome restraint … The ambivalence – true to life, as well as to dreams and nightmares – is often enough not recognized by the memoirists themselves”, Eisen writes. “Without Jewish nightmares there could be no Jewish nostalgia … modern Jews were simultaneously fleeing” from that which they were “taking such good care to remember”.
The short stories discussed above and the paintings of Jozef Israels, for example, illustrate this ambivalence. So too the historical contributions to De
Vrijdagavond, which all seem to point to the Jews’ glorious past and their contribution to Dutch society. Special attention was paid to the history of the Spanish-Portuguese Jews, with whom both Ashkenazim and Sephardim now identified. It was no coincidence that the magazine’s emblem depicted part of the interior of the snoge and was designed by a Portuguese Jew. There were also many articles devoted to the Emancipation period and the eagerness of Jewish society as a whole to receive citizenship. For the Jews at the beginning of the twentieth century, the Golden Age and the Emancipation period had become the key to their understanding of themselves as modern Jewish Dutchmen. As only a small elite had welcomed emancipation at the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth centuries, this was a wholly new evaluation and nothing short of a rewritten history.
The interest in history and material culture was not limited to De Vrijdagavond. In 1916, an exhibition entitled Het Verdwijnend Amsterdamse Getto in Beeld had been organized in the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. The initiator of the show was none other than our dynamic Prins. At this time Prins and Seeligmann were considering founding an academic society for the study of Judaism and had even discussed the possibility of setting up a Jewish museum. In 1919, the Genootschap voor de Joodsche Wetenschap came into being, with Seeligmann as its first chair and Prins as its secretary. A column on current Dutch Jewish events in De Vrijdagavond indicates that lectures held for both the Genootschap voor de Joodsche Wetenschap and the Genootschap van Zionistische Academici tot bestudering der Joodsche Wetenschap were published in the weekly. The museum’s exhibits were covered by the magazine’s correspondents. These, like many of the articles in De Vrijdagavond, fulfilled a double function. They were to convince the outside world that the Jews were worthy citizens, and they bolstered the egos and strengthened Jewish identity in a time when traditional values were losing significance.
The very selective nature of this history writing is also attested to by the absence of any mention of socialism or the workers’ party. The occasional book review hazarding upon the subject always safely dealt with situations outside of the Netherlands. An interview with Henri Polak, renowned labor leader, carefully avoided ideological issues. It stressed instead the elements in Polak’s youth and upbringing which contributed to his successful career as a member of the Amsterdam city council (1902–1906) and of the senate (1913–1937) on behalf of the SDAP (the Social-Democratic Labor Party). Nor did Polak, who contributed sporadically to De
Vrijdagavond, ever write about poverty and socialism amongst Amsterdam Jewry. His contributions described the old Jewish “ghetto” – mainly geographically – , Amsterdam Yiddish, and the role of the Portuguese in the diamond industry.
It was safer to describe the situation of Jews elsewhere. That De Vrijdagavond had its own correspondent – Joop Stoppelman – in England was a novelty and offers proof of growing interest in Jewry round the world. He covered not only the arts but also wrote about Jewish old-age homes, missionary societies, and liberal Judaism. The latter, by the way, also belonged to the list of political topics not to be discussed in our weekly. If poverty and discrimination were to be discussed – then only in regard to Russian Jewry and Eastern Europe. If one felt nostalgic, longed for something from the distant past – one should read the works of Yiddish and Hebrew authors translated for De Vrijdagavond by its general secretary M. Gaarkeuken under the pseudonym Michel Danvers. The penurious and proletarian past and present of Dutch and especially Amsterdam Jewry could be safely looked at in paintings and exhibits. The written word somehow came too close for comfort. It was only years later, after the war, when this aspect of Jewish life had almost disappeared completely, that the nostalgic works of Meyer Sluyser and Siegfried van Praag became best sellers. The attitude of Dutch Jewish bourgeoisie – or at least of the journalists of De Vrijdagavond – to its past was at best ambivalent.
In conclusion, the project which De Vrijdagavond embarked on was far greater than entertaining the middle-class Jewish population by introducing them to culture in the broader sense. A synthesis was sought between culture and tradition, in a fashion similar not only to the German neo-Orthodox rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, but also to the Catholic Witte Raaf and Elseviers illustrated monthly. Culture and history were identified with traditional Judaism, thereby enlarging the category of tradition with the tacit approval of the rabbis. The latter might not have approved of the editorial selections, but on the whole they seem to have felt that this was the best compromise for their middle class members and themselves, certainly when other options included liberal Judaism, socialism, indifference, or perhaps even mixed marriage. De Vrijdagavond, a middle-brow magazine, not only asked questions about the nature of Jewish identity. It sought to provide an identity to those middle-class, middle-brow Jews who had recently moved out of the Jewish quarter, could not read Hebrew, and attended synagogue sporadically. It provided them with a past to be proud of, a past which attested to their acceptance of and their acceptability to Dutch society.
Dit artikel verscheen eerder in:
J. Frishman, “De Vrijdagavond (1923-1931) as a mirror of Dutch Jewry in the Interbellum”, in: J. Frishman and H. Berg (eds.), Dutch Jewry in a Cultural Maelstrom, 1880-1940 (Amsterdam 2007) 85-96.
cover: de kop van de historische De Vrijdagavond. In het artikel fragmenten van deze kop