Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Quick Trip to The Hague and Amsterdam

I'm just back from a quick trip over the weekend to The Hague and Amsterdam, where I was speaking to the board of the Jewish Humanitarian Fund, a foundation that gives grants to projects mainly in post-communist Europe.

I'd never been to The Hague before, and unfortunately I only had a little time to explore the city, which is the Dutch capital and a center of international human rights and other organizations.

Jewish history here goes back to the 17th century and there are a number of Jewish heritage sites in town.

I was only able to visit the Sephardic cemetery (which conveniently is located on the Scheveningseweg, just a brief walk from the hotel where my meeting was going on -- and just around the corner from the huge "Peace Palace" where the International Court of Justice is located and where on Sunday there was a crowd holding white balloons marking the U.N.'s International Day of Peace.)

My friend and colleague Michael Miller (who also was speaking to the Humanitarian Fund board) and I found the cemetery on the map and made our way to the entrance. The gate was locked, with a car packed just inside and it wasn't clear from the notice on the gate whether it would be possible to enter. But we knocked on the door next to the gate (which was marked with a mezuzah) and the man who lives there opened the gate and let us in.

Restored in the 1980s, the cemetery is a vast space surrounded by a red brick wall, and, as it typical for Sephardic cemeteries, the tombstones lie flat --I was told that the first graves were actually of Ashkenazic Jews, but the stones were laid flat in the Sephardic manner. (There are also a few upright stones in one section). Some are very crowded together. Most only bear the epitaph -- some in Spanish, some in Hebrew, some in Dutch. But some also bear carving -- a few with Cohen hands or Levite ewers; but we also so some with skulls and crossbones (similar but less elaborate than those in other Sephardic cemeteries in northern Europe, such as in Altona, Germany or Ouderkerk, Holland.) We found the tomb of a mohel with a small carving of a knife. (By the way -- this article, which I haven't seen yet, looks like an excellent source on cemetery imagery.)

The cemetery did not feature in the recent European Day of Jewish Culture, Sept. 7, but it did form one of the sites opened during the general Dutch day of monuments a week later. I was told that about 600 people visited it that day.

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