Boodschapen: Making groceries in a time of uncertainty

Photo courtesy of Stanley Yavneh Klos

One of my favorite places in Zwolle is the Grote markt, which features an open-air market on Fridays and Saturdays. Each day has its own vendors, but there are always tasty cheese samples to nibble, fresh-baked bread still warm from the oven, bright orange peppers and little green brussels sprouts. I prefer the appelflappen sold on Fridays, seemingly familiar pastries that raise the simple apple turnover to an art form, but the Saturday bakery has the best croissants. Fortunately, the fish folks, Visschers, are there on both days, so the XL zak of freshly fried kibbeling is now a tradition in our house, although we forego another Dutch treat my mother would have loved, raw herring with chopped onions.

“Making groceries” is a fabulous New Orleans locution that means to go shopping. After six weeks in the Netherlands (along with 297 days of Duolingo), I can now make groceries (boodschapen) pretty much all in Dutch, augmented by lots of smiles, nods, and the occasional hand gesture. I have learned how to request my bread be sliced (“ja, dank je, sneden” is so much more civilized than tilting my parallel hands up and down very quickly, like a frenzied flight attendant ). I can ask to pay by debit card (“ik wil pinnen”), proclaim that something is very tasty (“Lekker!“), and offer an appropriate thank you and farewell (“Dank je wel. Tot ziens!”). I even managed to explain that I needed dark roast coffee (Veel donker en sterk voor de French Press).

Learning languages has always been both fun and important to me. I find great joy in deciphering the meaning of words that secretly make me giggle with their fluted vowels, rolled r’s, and aspirated g’s that sit slightly higher in the throat than the ch in Chanukah.

My struggles in expression and comprehension also serve to humble me, reminding of my own strange privilege: I teach at a Dutch university, in an international program conducted solely in English. I am continually in awe of the remarkable linguistic gifts of my students, completing university and professional work in a second or third language. When we break into small groups, the discussion may take place in Dutch, German, Spanish or something else, but when we come back together, it’s in my mother tongue.

I love the way language can open the door to another culture, creating a sense of connection and community. My Dutch students smile and laugh encouragingly when I greet them in Dutch or use a Dutch expression. And, in general, I have found the Dutch very patient (veel geduldig) in putting up with my toddling linguistic efforts — not only the vendors at the market, who take time to understand me, but the unfortunate patrons stuck behind me, waiting to be served. Speaking Dutch, however is still very challenging; although I can now navigate basic needs (for those of you dealing with hoarders, ik heb wc-papier nodig is “I need toilet paper”), I quickly reach a point where I am lost, where I can neither express myself nor understand what is being said.

Somehow, my labors with Dutch seems a fit metaphor for this moment of incomprehension, when we are all struggling to make sense of what is going on. No matter what language we speak, this is a time of confusion, uncertainty, fear, for all of us.

Boring pantry staples just in case, slightly redeemed by excellent chocolate

Thursday, instead of the market, we went to the Jumbo, the big supermarket located outside of the original city walls, to stock up, just in case. We bought pasta, canned vegetables, boring but practical nonperishables, despite the fact that, Thursday, although meetings of more than one hundred people had been cancelled, the university and all the town’s amenities – cafes, museums, churches, the synagogue – were still open for business as usual. Friday, however, we woke to the news that all classes were canceled (we will go to online learning until April 1st), that museums were closed, and that Belgium, our neighbor to the south, had declared a state of emergency. Today, so had Spain, while Denmark, Poland, and other countries had closed their borders. Windesheim is calling home all our seniors doing capstone research abroad. Like so many others at this challenging time, I am confused and sad, feeling grateful for what I have but gently mourning the experiences I had anticipated in the months ahead.

I was back at the market today with my winkelwagen, the little covered shopping cart that has quickly become one of my most prized possessions here in Zwolle. On an unusual sunny day, it was more crowded than usual in the market, and the cheesemonger (ill-advisedly, I’m sure) was still offering tastes of a variety of cheeses.

In the center of the square, the statue of the Archangel Michael was still keeping watch over the community. Michael, described as leading God’s army in Revelation, the final book of the New Testament, is the patron saint of Zwolle and frequently depicted in Dutch art struggling with a dragon or serpent.


“The Archangel Michael kills the devil.” Lucas Kilian, after Peter de Witte, after Hubert Gerhards, 1589 – 1615. Image courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

The green glass sculpture in the marketplace, however, depicts Michael in a more gentle guise, keeping watch over the citizens of Zwolle. This archangel Michael is familiar to me from the Jewish tradition, where he is described as protector of both the community and its individual members. In the Hebrew Bible, Michael appears to Daniel as the protector of Israel, while the prayer recited at bedtime calls on Michael and three other archangels to surround us in protection: we invite Michael to be at our right hand, Gabriel our left, Raphael (my personal favorite) behind us, and Uriel, before us, lighting the way.

It is a comforting thought, in these confusing times, to envision ourselves surrounded by Michael and his companions. But, in Hebrew, the word malach, angel, also means “messenger.” In a passage quoted in the Reform Jewish prayer book, Rabbi Lawrence Kushner reminds us that, not only may we not recognize the messengers, the angels, all around us, we, too, have the capacity to choose to be angels:

“And so we understand that ordinary people are messengers of the Most High. They go about their tasks in holy anonymity. Often, even unknown to themselves. Yet, if they had not been there, if they had not said what they said, it would not be the way it is now. We would not be the way we are now. Never forget that you too yourself may be a messenger.”

In this time of uncertainty and confusion, when borders are closing and our institutions are going dark, we must choose to remember that the universal language is shared in acts of compassion, kindness, and love.

A modern statue of St. Michael gazes at the market

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.