Why Amsterdam’s beloved nickname is a centuries-old Yiddish word, ‘Mokum’

Recalling a golden age for the Netherlands and Dutch Jewry, on today’s streets of Amsterdam, mamaloshen still peppers local slang

Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, consecrated in 1675. The sanctuary, still without electricity, is lit by 1,000 candles for special occasions, January 2018 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)
Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, consecrated in 1675. The sanctuary, still without electricity, is lit by 1,000 candles for special occasions, January 2018 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

AMSTERDAM — Centuries before Amsterdam became synonymous with weed and over-tourism, it was the beloved “Mokum,” or safe haven, for European Jewry. Although only a fraction of Dutch Jews survived the Holocaust, echoes of that era still fill the canal city in the form of Yiddish-based slang, including Amsterdam’s most enduring nickname.

Of all the ways in which Jewish and Dutch culture blended, few are as easy to spot as the entry of Yiddish into Dutch slang. Many of the words have Hebrew origins, making it possible for Hebrew-speakers to fish out the lef (courage, or heart), ponum (face), or brooche (blessing) in a conversation.

“It is well known that many languages have appropriated Yiddish words to add spice and color to colloquial speech,” wrote Yiddish scholar Sol Steinmetz in his book on the migration of Yiddish across cultures.

“Among Dutch Jews for example,” wrote Steinmetz, “Yiddish has disappeared as language; yet Yiddish words absorbed by Dutch have not disappeared.”

The word Mokum, or “place,” is Amsterdam’s version of New York’s Big Apple — a nickname indistinguishable from the city it romanticizes. In 1955, Dutch singer Johnny Jordaan scored a hit with the bouncy “I Prefer Amsterdam.” It was a mere 10 years after the war in which 102,000 Dutch Jews were murdered in Nazi death camps, but Mokum was a good place to live again.

“I prefer to be in Mokum without money, than to be in Paris with one million,” crooned Jordaan in what was called “a hiccuping Mokum vibrato” by one reviewer.

“Mokum is my paradise. I’ll take Amsterdam, with its Amstel and the IJ, because in Mokum I am rich and happy at the same time,” sang Jordaan, who grew up close to where Anne Frank hid from deportation, in his namesake Jordaan neighborhood.

Among its public appearances in recent years, the song “I Prefer Amsterdam” was played at the 2013 Ajax championship. As the Netherlands’ most legendary soccer team, Ajax — called “the Pride of Mokum” — had several Jewish players and owners before World War II. The squad continues to be associated with Jews and Israel, but not always in a warm context.

To the south of Amsterdam, fans of rival team Feyenoord Rotterdam have been known to hiss loudly, “like gas chambers,” when competing against the despised “Jewish” Ajax. Chants of “Jews to the gas” are sometimes heard in the Rotterdam stadium, including when the “Super Jew” fans of Mokum’s Ajax unfurl their Israeli flags and sing “Hava Negila.”

‘Pride of Mokum’

More than 500 years ago, Amsterdam welcomed Jews after their expulsion from Spain and Portugal. Within a century, Dutch Jews were practicing their religion more openly than anywhere in Europe, free from the Inquisition and bans on where they could live, not to mention from wearing signs that marked them as Jews.

The Portuguese Synagogue, at left, was the largest shul in the world at the time of its consecration in 1675, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands (public domain)

Contrary to the Golden Age image, very few Jews made it out of the slums by amassing wealth. The Joodse Buurt (Jewish neighborhood) was decrepit, overcrowded, and filled with the untidy sight of bed-sheets hanging from windowsills. Rembrandt lived close to these everyday “street” Jews, some of whom he sketched and painted.

Visitors to Amsterdam’s Jewish enclave were known to express both disdain and rachmones, or pity, upon seeing the run-down neighborhood and attendant sores (worries). As much as the imposing Portuguese Synagogue and complex of Ashkenazi shuls were the crown jewels of Mokum, most of Amsterdam’s Jews lived and died in poverty.

In the area of the former Jewish neighborhood and market, some of the stalls feature enlarged images of what the area looked like before World War II, January 2018 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Many of the Yiddish-based words still heard in Dutch entered via the local “cant,” or jargon, used by petty criminals. In Amsterdam, Jews who engaged in dishonest activities brought Yiddish into the underground code-speak, called Bargoens. The words kalletje (prostitute, from the Hebrew word kallah, for bride) and penose (“criminal world,” from parnasa, or bread-winning) conjure those seedy origins.

‘Take some Mokum with you,’ an artistic place to fill up your water bottle on the Damrak, close to Dam Square, January 2018 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

Some historians view the initial acceptance of Jews in Amsterdam as a matter of pragmatic economics. A number of Jews brought business networks with them to the Netherlands, for instance. However, life was not without restrictions and limitations even for “tolerated” minorities. Most of the trades banned Jews from employment, and Christian “oaths” were required to practice law or become a professor.

On the eve of World War II, a sizable portion of the 80,000 Jews who lived in Amsterdam were refugees from persecution, as had been the case since the Spanish Inquisition. By most accounts, the community had never been more “assimilated” into society, including thousands of refugees from Nazi Germany who — like Anne Frank — considered themselves Dutch.

These days, fewer than 30,000 Jews live among a population of 17 million people in the Netherlands. More than three centuries ago, when the Portuguese Synagogue rose atop pillars sunk into the marsh, about 8,000 Jews called Amsterdam home. Long before the founding of Ajax, they built the original “pride of Mokum” by setting a new standard for Diaspora Jewish living.

‘Shadow Wall Names,’ a monument in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, to Holocaust victims. Located along Nieuwe Keizersgracht, the series of plaques commemorates 200 Jews who lived in the houses directly across the canal before their murder in Nazi death camps, January 2018 (Matt Lebovic/The Times of Israel)

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