For our very first chevruta session, we discussed Yael van der Wouden’s essay On (Not) Reading Anne Frank. It was a good place to start, especially since The Jewish Manifesto is located here in the Netherlands. It gave participants space to discuss their own experiences with The Diaries of Anne Frank, their Jewish identity, and the anti-Semitism they may have faced.
Yael van der Wouden’s essay is more about her experiences encountering anti-Semitism in the Netherlands than about not reading Anne Frank. The writer was born in Israel and moved to the Netherlands as a child. Here she writes of 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 About (not) reading Anne Frank (NL)
Together we read the essay and then broke up into pairs to discuss it. Our biggest conclusion? The rabbis were on to something with chevruta-style learning. The rich discussion that followed the reading was proof of that.
“If G’d chose us, he chose us for disaster.”
The theme of trauma and concealment ran like a thread through our first session. Many participants felt the need to hide their identity to protect themselves from the wider community. This was often something their parents had advised them to do. Some had their Jewish identity hidden from themselves until they were older, often discovering it by accident.
Many were uncomfortable and, at worst, frightened to express their Jewishness in public. Still scarred by the aftermath of the Shoah, their parents and grandparents did not feel at ease being Jewish in public and neither did the participants.
“My mother taught me things like: You don’t tell people that you are Jewish, you don’t talk about it unless you are sure the other person is Jewish.”
“Judaism is Hotel California. You can check out whenever you want, but you can never leave.”
One participant summed up the Jewish experience using the most universal of all the lyrics: Hotel California by The Eagles.
And while people all over the world listen to Hotel California, being Jewish is not so universal. In that sense, being Jewish is like trying to understand the meaning of the lyrics….
“Relax,” said the night man
“We are programmed to receive
You can check-out any time you like
But you can never leave!”
Each of our participants had a specific way of understanding themselves as Jews. These understandings could be very different in character and expression for each person. What we all agreed on was that there is a multitude of Jewish expression available to us.
Being Jewish and feeling Jewish is a process of becoming that manifests itself in very different ways. It is not easy to describe. It is messy, complex, and category-denying.
Try this at home
Unlike tightrope walking over the Grand Canyon, you can discuss the essay at home with friends! We even provide links in English and Dutch, plus a few helpful questions to get the discussion started.
Essay by Yael van der Wouden:
Het (niet) lezen van Anne Frank – De Gids (NL)
On (not) reading Anne Frank – The Sun (EN)
Questions to keep in mind
- What does it mean to be reminded of your Jewishness? And how has that directly affected you?
- Pause for a moment when you come to the sentence “What a single swastika can do.” Take a breath. Discuss whether you and your partner are willing to discuss this further or not.
- Pause again when you reach 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.” The section ends with “It’s not like you can help being Jewish.”
- How does it feel to see/read this?
- What does it mean to be the only Jewish person in a group?
- In general, 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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