Thursday, August 1, 2002

Not Kosher, But Definitely Jewish

Ajax, de Joden, Nederland

100 Years of Ajax

In Leon de Winter's novel Supertex, Max Breslauer, son of Simon, meets Esther d'Oliveira, a Jewish woman. Where do they go on their first date?

They drink a bottle of champagne at De Meer, and during an exciting moment in front of the Ajax goal, Esther grabs Max's hand. She holds it for the rest of the game. 'We were two of the last to leave the stadium and we couldn't stop our passion anymore on the steps in the catacombs of the stadium. We embraced and nervously kissed for the first time.'

Esther doesn't even know the rules of the game of football, but by taking her to Ajax, Max sort of tells her: "We're both Amsterdam Jews."

Ajax is not a Jewish club. It's always been a club of - mainly - white Christians. Nevertheless, Jews have something special with Ajax.

Inside his office, around the corner of the ArenA, Uri Coronel, vice president of insurance company AON Nederland, tells his Ajax story.

"I was born there, almost. We didn't have any family, they had all died, hardly anyone came back. But we had a very large circle of friends, 99% Jewish, and almost all the men went to Ajax."

I ask whether Ajax was a place to meet other Jews to his family.

"Indeed, it was. You met plenty of Jews over there. But you need to see that in the right proportion: if I say 'plenty', I mean 'a few hundred'." I say that that's a lot, in a country with hardly any Jews. "It's a lot", says Coronel.

Does it annoy him that Ajax officials keep saying that Ajax doesn't have anything to do with Jews?

"To those people the issue doesn't exist. We see a hundred Jews and say: that's a lot of Jews. They see a hundred Jews and say: see? It's nothing. Or they do not see they're Jews at all."

There are other places where Jews meet. Sal Meijer's sandwich shop, the Jewish institutions, and the synagogue for those who go to the synagogue in the first place. But there are more football fans than religious people in Holland, these days.

Ajax is the main thing that connects Jews, even inside the synagogue. When the club played AC Milan in 1994, on Yom Kippur, people were standing outside the synagogue, listening to the radio, which is forbidden on that day. The more devoted people were inside, but were told about the goals.

You could find it scary that Dutch Jews feel the urge to meet one another. You could call it some sort of racialism. But Jews in Holland just have different experiences than the people around them. Living among non-Jews, always aware of the void around them (the huge synagogues with no-one inside, only half a table of relatives at weddings), they experience permanent solitude. Ajax fills up the void - a bit.

Rob Cohen sits at a table in Soccer World restaurant, one arm over the banisters. He's at home here. Cohen doesn't like football, but Ajax is his 'hood club. Ajax is to him what De Kuil was back in the old days, on Rembrandtplein: not kosher, but definitely Jewish. It mildly annoys him when Michael van Praag says that Ajax is not a Jewish club.

Cohen: "He's completely right - formally. We are not under rabbinal supervision here. However, you could consider whether you should rub that in."

Ajax seems to be denying its Jewish aspect in an almost panic way, sometimes. In the time of the UEFA Cup games against Hapoel Haifa, Evert Vermeer told every newspaper about the swastika flag hoisted over De Meer in 1938, about the Wehrmacht being stationed there and about the dismissal of Jewish members. It sounded as if Ajax was rather 'wrong' than Jewish.

A hundred years is a nice age to become a grown-up. Ajax could now say: 'We proudly acknowledge the Jewish aspect of our identity. We will commemorate the thousands of Jewish fans that got killed during the war with a statue of Eddy Hamel inside the ArenA."

However, Ajax is getting less and less Jewish these days. Outside the ArenA there are ABN-AMRO posters saying 'the sponsor'. Thirty years ago, they would have had the mugs of Caransa, Kroonenberg and the Van der Meydens on them.

The Amsterdam Jews are now middle-class and hardly produce any Mullers and Swarts anymore. Marcel Peeper, son of an Amsterdam textile trader, was the last 25% Jewish player who made it to the Dutch national team, via Ajax-2, Haarlem and FC Twente. After only 18 minutes in his first and only Holland game, in Kiev against the Soviet Union, on 28 March, 1990, he broke his leg.

Even the stands have become less Jewish. In the 1970s and 1980s there were ten to fifteen thousand people at De Meer, mainly Amsterdammers. There are thirty to fifty thousand at the ArenA, mainly non Amsterdammers. The Jews are still there, concentrated in a few sections, but they seem to drown, among so many people. Ajax has become less of an 'Amsterdam club', says Sjaak Swart. "It is of course nice that those people from out of town come to watch Ajax, but..."

Coronel was the man behind the construction of the ArenA. "We just had to", he says. "But it does have consequences. The culture has changed, that's for sure."

The ones who surprise me at the ArenA, are the ones who are not there: the dead Jews, of course, but there's just a tiny handful of Turks, Moroccans and Surinamers. Strange, right in the middle of Amsterdam South-East.

It's an Amsterdam phenomenon. I've lived here for four months, coming from London, to write this book. The segragation in this city struck me every day. If you ask me, it's more extreme than in Johannesburg, where my family comes from and where a lot of restaurants have mixed crowds and some white people drive to Soweto for a night of black jazz. Almost every bar or restaurant in Amsterdam is either completely black, or completely white.

The Amsterdam Jews felt they were part of Holland sixty years ago, apparently more than the brown and black Amsterdammers do nowadays. The proof: they went to Ajax. They were supporters of this institute of Dutch gojim. It could not save them.

In a hundred years time, someone will probably write a book about the Turkish aspect of Ajax. It will be thicker than this book.

© Simon Kuper; all rights reserved. Reproduction, redistribution or re-use of any kind prohibited without written permission by the author.

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