As a child attending a non-Jewish primary school in Aerdenhout, a small village 20 kilometers away from Amsterdam, the Netherlands, I was often asked by my friends which religion my family belonged to. “Wij zijn niks,” “We are naught,” was my answer in typical Dutch which meant that we did not practice any kind of religion. Religion of whatever kind was totally absent in the extreme.
Yes, we had a menorah and a Christmas tree—but this did not carry any religious meaning. It just happened that my father was Jewish and so we had a menorah as a kind of reminder of our ancestry, and that it was my father’s unclear and irreligious conviction that we be proud of this. Why? I do not think that my father would have been able to give a comprehensive answer. Perhaps, perhaps, he would have argued that Jews had made an extremely disproportionate contribution to humankind. And for him, Spinoza’s “secular enlightenment” philosophy was perhaps the peak of this phenomenon.
Certainly, my brother and I had no clue; neither did we ever question this when we were youngsters. Our father constantly said that we were of Portuguese Spanish Jewish ancestry and consequently members of the most unusual Jewish community in the world, the “Portuguese Gemeente,” the Amsterdam Sephardi community. Indeed, for hundreds of years this was the most unusual, strangest community. Nearly all of its founders were raised as Catholics (they were Marranos, Jews who had lived as Catholics while maintaining a very basic Jewish identity) who had been expelled from Spain and Portugal in 1492 and made their homes in “liberal” Amsterdam. In 1675, on the completion of the construction of its majestic synagogue also called Esnoga or just Snoge, it became even more famous (at the time it was the largest synagogue in Europe).
In my home, religion was a nonstarter; although, paradoxically, we had a white tablecloth and special food and a lot of “nosh,” sweets, and peanuts after the meal on Friday night. This was the custom at my father’s parents and most Lopes Cardozos in Amsterdam, who were all Jewish; hence, we inherited this custom without ever questioning it or asking for any deeper significance.
This was also the practice of most secular Jews in Holland. A white tablecloth and good food on Friday night! It was unheard of not to do so. The same was true about certain foods such as pork, horse meat, shrimp, or eel—these were all taboo. Why? Nearly nobody posed this question. Tradition! Jews just did not eat this “appalling” food!
Interestingly, all these “secular” Jews lived socio-cultural Jewish lives to the full. Most of them had mainly Jewish friends. There were Jewish musical and dance parties, and the telling of Jewish jokes that were difficult for an outsider to understand was very common. They had their own Jewish Dutch language and many expressions entered the general Dutch language (Amsterdam was called “Mokum,” luck became “mazal,” etc.). However much the gentile world was socially involved with the Jewish Dutch population, there was a cultural gap, a kind of friendly wall with colorful flowers possessing a pleasant odor, but a gap, nonetheless.
My mother came from a religious Christian background but had dropped it all when she met my father (or perhaps even before). So, the Christmas tree held no religious significance whatsoever for her either. We had a tree for only two reasons: all the residents in our street had trees and it was fun. Having a Christmas tree was the “custom,” and not joining our neighbors was seen as unfair to us, the children, and possibly a mild form of “treason”!
We are “niks,” “naught,” was a general expression in most of the Netherlands, among non-Jews too. People had turned their backs on religion, and this had become the new fashion. To be “niks” was part of Dutch culture. In fact, if you still went to church it was more of a liability: you belonged to a group of primitive and simple people who lacked proper education.
While still being completely secular myself, I asked why people maintained this perception of churchgoers and the religious, and I never received an adequate answer. All that people would say was that science, philosophy and intellectual progress had made religion obsolete. When I asked why this was the case and I requested examples, I was generally met with silence. Very few people offered serious responses. Later it became clear to me that most people did not properly understand what science is, and what its limitations are, and that the concept of religion belongs to an altogether different category.
About that later.