For our first ever chevrutah session, we discussed the essay On (Not) Reading Anne Frank. It was a good place to start, especially since Het Joods Manifest (The Jewish Manifesto) is situated here in the Netherlands. It gave participants permission to discuss their own experiences encountering The Diary of Anne Frank, their own Jewish identity, and antisemitism
Yael van der Wouden’s essay is more about encountering antisemitism in the Netherlands than not reading Anne Frank. The writer was born in Israel and moved to the Netherlands as a child. Here she recounts her earliest memories of her new country:
My memories of the move are vague. I recall moments, such as waking up in an airport hotel the day after our arrival, taking my sister onto the balcony, looking out over miles of grassland, and watching rabbits jump between tall weeds. Or seeing a swastika spray-painted on an old barn along the highway. My grandfather had come to pick us up from the airport hotel, and on the car ride north I spotted the ugly thing. I panicked and insisted we pull over and call the police, and my mom — really, bless her heart — tried to calm me and explain that, no, no one was going to call the police.Yael van der Wouden On (Not) Reading Anne Frank (EN)
Together we read the essay and then divided into pairs to discuss. Our biggest takeaway? The rabbis were on to something with the chevrutha style of learning and the rich discussion that followed the reading was proof.
“If G’d has chosen us, he’s chosen us for disaster.”
The theme of trauma and concealment ran through our first session. Many participants felt a need to hide their identity to protect themselves from the wider community. This was often something they were advised to do by their parents. Some had their Jewish identity hidden from them until they were older, often discovering it by accident.
For many, public expression of being Jewish was uncomfortable and, at its worst, frightening. Still scarred from the aftermath of the Shoa, their parents and grandparents hadn’t felt comfortable being publicly Jewish and neither did they.
“Judaism is Hotel California. You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”
One of the participants summed up the Jewish experience using the most universal of all texts: Hotel California by The Eagles.
And while people all over the world listen to Hotel California, being Jewish is not as universal. In that sense, being Jewish is very much like trying to understand the meaning of the lyrics…
Each of our participants had a specific way of understanding themselves as Jewish. These understandings could be very different in character and expression for each person. What we all could agree on was the multiplicity of Jewish expression available to us.
Being and feeling Jewish is a process of becoming that manifests itself in very different ways. It is not easily described. It’s messy, complex, and category-defying.
Try This at Home
Unlike walking a tightrope over the Grand Canyon, you can discussing the essay at home with friends! We’ll even provide links in Dutch and in English, plus some handy questions to spark discussion.
Essay by Yael van der Wouden:
Het (niet) lezen van Anne Frank – De Gids (NL)
On (not) reading Anne Frank (EN)
Questions to Keep in Mind
- What does it mean to be reminded of your Jewishness? And how has this impacted you directly?
- Pause for a bit when you get to the line “What a single swastika can do.” “Wat een enkele swastika kan doen.” Take a breath. Discuss if that is something you and your partner are willing to do or need to do.
- Pause again when you arrive at the end of the section that begins with: “The second time someone said I looked like Anne Frank, nothing about it felt like a compliment.” “De tweede keer dat iemand zei dat ik op Anne Frank leek, leek het bij lange na niet op een compliment.” The section ends with “ It’s not like you can help being Jewish.” ‘Het is niet alsof je het kan helpen dat je Joods bent.’
- How does it feel to observe this/read this?
- What does it mean to be the only Jew in a group?
- Generally, what does it mean to be Jewish in the Netherlands?
- If you were not born in the Netherlands, has your identity changed? Has your experience of being Jewish changed?
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