Sjabbes in Sjoel (shabbat shalom from Zwolle)

Looking towards the synagogue on Samuel Hirschstraat in Zwolle

It’s only a ten-minute walk from my house to the beautiful synagogue on Samuel Hirschstraat, a majestic brick structure from the late nineteenth century, designed to house a much larger community than the thirty Jews remaining in Zwolle. On Saturday morning, the door is locked for safety concerns, but when I ring the bell (not the intercom buzzer, which is electric and thus forbidden on the sabbath), I am warmly welcomed. The left side of the prayer book may be in Dutch instead of the English I am used to, but on the right side are the same Hebrew prayers, frequently sung to tunes familiar to me from home. It’s a bit of a surprise to start with adon olam — the concluding prayer that can be adapted to almost any melody, from This land is your land to Hamilton’s You’ll be back — and also very comforting: we may be in Zwolle, but this is definitely shul. Or, rather, sjoel.

Because it is winter, when attendance is so low and heating is so expensive, we meet in the small chapel. In sephardic style, the bima (the podium from which the Torah is read) is in the center, with pews facing each other (men on the left, women on the right). It is a warm and friendly group; as each male congregant enters, he comes around to shake hands with first the women and then the men. Following the service, we go upstairs to a dining room, where the wine is blessed and we share tea, coffee, delicious homemade coffee cake, and oranges.

Jewish people first came to Zwolle at the beginning of the 14th century, but in August of 1349, all Jews of the city were burned, to “honor” God, it was alleged, and call down God’s mercy on a community decimated by the Plague. At a time when we are struggling with a powerful and mysterious pandemic, this history is a startling and brutal reminder that our own fears can be as deadly as illness. Jews returned to Zwolle in the 18th century, and established their first synagogue in the Librije — the former library of the Domenican monastery, by the water’s edge; by 1899, the Jewish community of over 700 needed a new building.

“My house shall be a house of prayer for all people.”

The Torah from which we read is a survivor, hidden in a nearby bank vault during the 5-year Nazi occupation of the Netherlands during World War II. But fewer than 250 of the Jewish people of Zwolle survived the war. On small brass pavers throughout the city, I see traces of my lost Jewish neighbors. The stolpelsteiners, or “stumbling stones,” each engraved with the statement, “Hier woonde” (here lived), followed by a name, birth and death dates, and the locations in which those events occurred. The stones mark the last spot where someone, later murdered by the Nazis, lived freely and by choice. The artist, Gunter Demnig, placed the first fifty memorial stones(commemorating Roma-Sinti people) in Berlin over 20 years ago; his goal was to replace the narrative of mass victimization with the reminder that each person dragged off, dehumanized, murdered, disappeared, was a unique individual, worthy of dignity.

There are now over 70,000 stumbling stones, or struikelstenen, as they are called in Dutch. For Demnig, the markers are an intrusion of memory into quotidian life, a reminder of the Talmud’s affirmation that “a person is only forgotten when their name is forgotten.” The stumbling stones remind us that the millions who died were each a human being, someone who lived and loved; they tell us that on this spot, here in our neighborhood, birthdays were celebrated, deaths were mourned, family meals eaten, books read.

There are plans to install twenty stones here, later this month , and to continue until there is a memorial for every one who was murdered. Already, there are many more stumbling stones in Zwolle than living Jews in its synagogue. They are here on Terborchstraat, around the corner, in front of the cute little pizzeria with the wood-fired oven. There are at least 8 struikelstenen in the Melkmaarkt, the square where we go to buy cheese and bread and vegetables, tasty fried fish, and the occasional fresh stroopwaffel. No longer shiny, the brass markers are dirty and dull from the winter, poignant, silent witnesses, calling us — if we take a moment to look down — to remember that we are all created in the image and likeness of God.

My neighbors on Terborchstraat. May their memory be for a blessing.

Lice happens

Gerard ter Borch, Mother Combing Her Child’s Hair, known as ‘Hunting for Lice’, c. 1652 – 1653. Image courtesy of Mauritshuis, The Hague.

At the Mauritshuis in the Hague, Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring is everywhere. She is outlined in sequins on the uniforms of the coat check attendants and guards, reproduced on myriad items in the gift shop (umbrellas, notebooks, keychains), morphed into a rubber duck or embroidered as a cat (each with the requisite earring and scarf) on bags that sell for over thirty dollars each.

Standing in Gallery 15 of this exquisite dollhouse of a museum, I was book-ended by the actual painting on my right, and, out the window, her face — with its sweet, perhaps melancholic glance, its open mouth with light-glossed lips — waving in the heavy wind.

The view from Gallery 15 (photo courtesy of Stanley Yavneh Klos)

But The Girl with the Pearl Earring is not the only painting in the Mauritshuis, or even in the gallery. Not for the first time, I was struck by how, for so many, the museum experience has become the selfie by the masterpiece (Girl with the girl with the pearl). I am not criticizing that impulse per se; anyone who follows my husband’s facebook page has seen me posed, like Let’s make a deal‘s Carol Merrill, next to whatever of the world’s masterworks we might be viewing. What surprises and, frankly, disappoints me is the way in which folks so frequently ignore what else is in the room.

Right next to The Girl, and pretty much unnoticed, hangs a much smaller work. Painted by Gerard Ter Borch (originally from Zwolle!), Woman combing her son’s hair depicts a simply but well-dressed woman, her hair neatly pulled back in a bun with a cap, her brown velvet coat edged with white fur, carefully searching her son’s blond hair for lice. He, too, is clean and composed, holding an apple in his hands, with his brown eyes gazing at what seems to be a window just outside the frame of the painting.

What is going on here? The Girl with a Pearl Earring is celebrated for its mystery: no one knows who the Girl is (Vermeer’s daughter? His maid, as Tracy Chevalier and Scarlett Johansson would assert?). In contrast, Woman combing her son’s hair (or Lice hunting, as it is also known) comes out of a tradition of genre painting that had a great deal of significance in seventeenth century Dutch culture, but whose meaning has been largely lost to those who haven’t learned about the period.

Before this time, known as the Dutch “Golden Age” (the gold, my students remind me, coming from the slave trade), the Netherlands had a long tradition of beautiful religious art; oil painting, in fact, was developed in the low countries before spreading to Italy. After the country became Protestant, however, art changed. The Calvinists were iconoclasts, who white-washed their church walls and destroyed many Catholic images, viewing them as idolatrous rather than sacred. But although art was no longer a part of worship, it did not disappear. Rather, it became part of the secular economy, a symbol of wealth and prosperity in upper- and middle-class homes.

And artists, instead of focusing on sacred images, became specialists: some painted the exquisite flower paintings I love, or the still lives that I can appreciate at an intellectual level, but, frankly, do not find appealing. Others depicted stories from the Bible, not as objects of veneration but as moralistic fables. And some created what are known as genre paintings, images of every day life and values.

Woman combing her son’s hair is such a work, giving us a glimpse into 17th-century life and hygiene. This is clearly not a scene of squalor or moral depredation, a “Jan Steen” family, where life and values are topsy-turvy.

Jan Steen, The Merry Family (image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)

Rather, then, as now, lice happens, even in the “nicest” households. If you have ever had the experience of receiving a letter from your child’s school, announcing that lice has been detected, you know such missives generally emphasize that lice should not be considered a sign of uncleanliness or a source of shame. (“Lice prefer clean hair” is a frequent assertion to signify that you are not a bad mother, even if your child has bugs in her braids.)

Perhaps such letters should include a copy of Ter Borch’s image, which underscores that lice hunting is not a sign of bad but good housekeeping, a “maternal duty,” as a similar work in the Rijksmuseum, by Pieter de Hooch, is known.

Pieter de Hooch, The Maternal Duty (courtesy of the Rijksmuseum)

Unlike the close-up of the image by Ter Borch, de Hooch draws back to show us the tidy and well-appointed household, light flowing in through clean panes and an open window, to shine on the spotless floor as, before the tidily made box bed with its white pillows, a mother carefully explores her child’s head. Like the images of the Madonna lactans of the 14th and 15th centuries, this is a moment of supreme maternal care and intimacy: Just as the Virgin Mary nurses her own child in a sign of the humility that paradoxically exalts her, so the housewife — not a maid or a servant — conducts this humble task of lice hunting, demonstrating that no detail is beneath her notice or attention in the most important work of caring for her family.

Madonna of the Firescreen (courtesy of the National Gallery via Wikicommons)

As a mom, I am drawn to these images of quotidian child care, which speak to me of my own experience. Just as I, now long ago, spent countless hours suckling my own babies, I have also (fortunately, also now long ago), invested considerable time in patiently combing through long, curly hair, with a tiny comb and lots and lots of conditioner, in the curious intimacy of hunting for lice.

That time spent is a reminder, paradoxically, of privilege. Cutting off the hair might be expedient, but drastic, cruel — historically, a sign of shame. As a mother, I was fortunate to have a job and a life that allowed me time to nurse my babies, and later, as necessary, to take time to attend to their other needs, when they were sick, or scared, or, perhaps, vermin-infested. Ter Borch’s painting, like De Hooch’s, celebrates that privilege in the context of the 17th-century Protestant work ethic, which allies fiscal prosperity, along with cleanliness, with Godliness. The good mother has time to invest in this time-consuming, intimate responsibility that is a synecdoche for the housekeeping that is her maternal duty.

And what about the lice? There are some who like to say, “Everything happens for a reason,” but I don’t agree with that. I believe that “everything happens” — including lice — whether we expect it or not, and it is our job to make sense of it, and, even, to find the good in it. We may or may not agree with the vision of motherhood, or all of the values, of these paintings by Ter Borch and De Hooch; we may prefer the mystery and luminous beauty of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring. But Lice hunting also reminds me of the unanticipated moments of intimacy and grace we may sometimes find in doing the humble tasks that are our duty to others.

Image courtesy of Mary Kate Andrepont

Red light, green light, one two three.

The second story: Tolerance

Sarah van Sonsbeeck’s installation, “We may have come in different ships, but we’re in the same boat now”

When I was walking to the train station from the Rijksmuseum last week, struggling to keep my new Van Gogh umbrella (“almond blossoms”) from being blown inside out by winter storm Ciara, I suddenly noticed red lights twinkling around the windows I was passing. Some kind of Mardi Gras celebration, I wondered, feeling just a teensy bit wistful. Then I saw the woman framed by the lights, clad only in a black lace bra and garters, looking bored. Of course: the red light district.

I have seen similar women as I walked from my boutique hotel in Groningen to the synagogue, and out the windows of the Oude Kerk, the oldest church in Amsterdam, when I took students there to see an installation about refugees that had us struggling not to touch sheets of what looked like gold wrapping paper spread on the cathedral’s massive stone floor. The gold mylar blankets, frequently seen in photos of refugees after their harrowing sea crossings, serve to recall to visitors the intimate connection of this Dutch church to the sea, and to sailors, as a place of protection, blessing, and final rest.

The artist, Sara van Sonsbeeck, evokes Martin Luther King in her title, “We may have come in different ships but we’re in the same boat now,” but also reminds viewers that the church served an essential physical and imaginative role in a community dependent upon maritime industry. “The church was one of the few public, covered places where sails and nets could be mended, and a place where naval heroes were buried. The barrel vaulting was also fabricated like the inverted hull of a ship using shipbuilding techniques. And it is not for nothing that the main section of the church is traditionally known in Dutch as the ‘schip’, or nave. In the church there are actually fragments of paintings that feature motifs found on sailors’ tattoos.”

Like the installation in its local church, the Red Light District is part of a story of tolerance that is central to the Dutch narrative.The Netherlands became a haven for Jews after their Expulsion from Spain, and, despite its Calvinist outlook, adopted a sort of “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy toward Catholics in the 17th century.  The Dutch COC, founded in 1946 just after World War II, is the world’s oldest existing LGBTQ organization, and, on April 1, 2001, the Netherlands became the first country to legalize gay marriage. The Netherlands famously allows for the legal consumption (although not production) of marijuana, which you can buy in “coffee shops” (distinguished from cafes) throughout the country but particularly in Amsterdam.

And, of course, there’s the legalized sex trade. The Netherlands ranked 1 out of 167 countries, and was the only country to score an A, on the Global Slavery Index released by the Walk Free Foundation. But the trafficking figures in the Netherlands were reported to be five times higher than expected, with approximately 6250 victims a year, According to the report, 2 to 3 out of every thousand high school students falls under the control of a pimp, with authorities aware of only 11% of these situations.

On a more local level, my students tell me that, although sex education in the Netherlands is considered a model for other countries, access is variable. My “value creators” team (students at Windesheim Honours College are required to devote a semester to a team project designed to address one of the UN’s 17 sustainability goals) has chosen the topic of sex education for refugees. What the focus will be — anatomy and physiology, sexual harrassment, positive relationships, or how to give pleasure — has yet to be determined.

Like the complexities of the sex trade, my students remind me that tolerance is not static, but an exercise, something on which we must continually be working. Like Sarah van Sonsbeek’s golden sails, spread in the Oude Kerk, tolerance is not fixed; it must be expanded and furled and trimmed and maneuvered to catch the wind. Sometimes it needs to be mended. Sometimes there is no wind, and we all must row together.