A cultural bridge too far? Israeli expats assess life in the Netherlands

‘Sometimes I miss that Israeli directness’

AMSTERDAM CANAL: At about 2 meters below sea-level, the city is built on 11 million support poles (photo credit: GAUTAM KRISHNAN /UNSPLASH)
AMSTERDAM CANAL: At about 2 meters below sea-level, the city is built on 11 million support poles
(photo credit: GAUTAM KRISHNAN /UNSPLASH)
On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be too much in the way of common ground between the Dutch and the Israelis. The former are generally thought of as an orderly, courteous and measured bunch while we tend more toward a go-with-the-flow ethos. As with any system, there are benefits and pitfalls of both approaches but how do Israelis manage the cultural divide between such disparate societies?
Yael Troudart appears to have juggled that sociocultural conundrum pretty well. The 28-year-old Jerusalemite relocated to Leiden around five years ago, together with her partner. 
“Yotam registered for a master’s degree at the music conservatory in Amsterdam [as a cellist], and I ended up doing a BA in psychology at the University of Leiden, so that was a convenient arrangement,” she says. Troudart herself played cello for several years but eventually opted for a very different career choice.
While the couple did not intend to set up their stall in the Netherlands on a permanent basis, their way of thinking evolved during the four years they spent there, before returning to Israel just over a year ago. 
“There were times when we considered staying on in Holland beyond our degree studies,” Troudart says. “We went there to study, and then to come back to Israel, but the longer you’re there you begin to think about staying. Life is very comfortable there. We had our own home and, in time, we found friends. We made a life for ourselves there.”
Ultimately, the “old home is where the heart is” adage won out. 
“We missed Israel – our family and friends,” she remembers, “especially our family. We’d generally see them once or twice a year. We’d come to Israel in the winter and in the summer, even though we’d spend most of the time close to the air conditioner in the summer,” she laughs. 
Gastronomy also came into the equation, as it generally does for Jews of all ilks.
“We’d go back to the Netherlands each time with a suitcase full of food from here – tehina, olives and other stuff.”
At the end of the day, Troudart says it was a matter of striking the right balance. 
YAEL TROUDART and her partner relocated to Leiden around five years ago. (Photos: Courtesy those mentioned)YAEL TROUDART and her partner relocated to Leiden around five years ago. (Photos: Courtesy those mentioned)
“As we intended to come back to Israel, it was very important to me to keep my relationships with my close friends here going. It was about maintaining a sort of double life – developing our social circle in Holland and keeping our close friendships here too.”
THAT IS probably less relevant for Israelis who emigrate. Ayelet van Kampen Arbel, as the surname suggests, is married to a Dutchman and is a longtime resident of Purmerend, a small town around 30 minutes’ train ride north of Amsterdam. 
“It is a bit like commuting between the Krayot and Haifa,” notes the 52-year-old former Haifaite.
It was love, and unhealthy habit, that drew van Kampen Arbel to northwest Europe. In her 20s she worked at the Tel Aviv branch of an international shipping company and, one day, someone came over from the company’s Schiphol Airport branch to check the Israeli end of the company machinations. 
“I followed my heart,” van Kampen Arbel laughs. “Marco was responsible for shipping to Israel. He came to my office – in those days you were allowed to smoke at work – and he sat down and began to roll a cigarette. I was entranced by the art of what he was doing. We talked about problems with customers and about the company, and we got to know each other a bit better.”
There was a company party that evening, and the cultural divide was duly spanned, with a little help from some Dutch courage – of the liquid variety. 
“The party was at the winery in Rishon Lezion and after a few glasses of wine we started dancing on the tables,” she chuckles. “It was a bit of shock for Marco, but he put away a couple of glasses too and joined in. The rest, as they say, is history.”
Love blossomed, the relationship took a serious turn, and the Israeli moved to the Netherlands in March 1996. The couple have three children and van Kampen Arbel is now something of a mover and shaker on the Israeli scene there. Together with fellow émigrée Hagar Vonk-Shafrir, she jointly manages the popular social media group Yisraeliyot BeHolland (Israeli Women in Holland). 
“I get a lot of satisfaction from my work with the group,” she notes. 
And it’s not just about having fun and exchanging comical observations of life. 
“We make a lot of connections between Israeli women, many of whom have found very good friends through us. But we also facilitate support for women going through tough times. We try to provide solutions, to refer people to others who can support them with whatever they are going through. It is important to have a channel of communication in Hebrew.”
AYELET VAN KAMPEN ARBEL is married to a Dutchman and a longtime resident of Purmerend. AYELET VAN KAMPEN ARBEL is married to a Dutchman and a longtime resident of Purmerend.
LANGUAGE IS an important cornerstone of life wherever you are living. It is not just a means of verbal communication; there are all sorts of cultural nuances that can only be conveyed in one’s mother tongue. That can also apply to a language one learns well and I wondered whether getting a decent handle on Dutch helps Israelis find their feet over there. 
“I speak Dutch,” she says, “but far from perfectly. My son is sitting here just now and he’s smiling because I make some terrible mistakes in Dutch.”
Still, she does get by and, in fact, it was her partial mastery of Dutch that led to an unsavory incident. 
“I took my older son Tom, he was eight or nine years old at the time, to a pediatrician. I spoke to the doctor in Dutch. I have an accent but people can’t tell where it comes from. He asked me where I was from and I said Israel.”
Van Kampen Arbel says that things became a little murky after that. 
“He stopped talking to me and only talked to Tom. He asked him all sorts of questions, like how much water he drinks in a day. Tom was only eight and looked at me questioningly. I told him, in Hebrew, that he could say anything he wanted to the doctor. The doctor simply stopped relating to me.”  
After a while things came to a head. 
“I got up and told him that if he wanted to get a comprehensive picture of Tom’s state of health he had to ask me too. I told him that, if he stopped talking to me because I am from Israel, he is a racist and we had nothing more to talk about. He started shouting at me and said, ‘Here in Holland we don’t keep children at home, we send them to school.’”
That, for van Kampen Arbel, was too close to the discriminatory bone. 
“I told him that he should administer treatment and we didn’t go to him to get a political analysis. We left there and I called the hospital customer relations and asked for a new appointment but with a different doctor, because this one is a racist.” 
That didn’t exactly bear the desired fruit. 
“They took my complaint seriously, sort of. A week later I received a letter from the hospital saying they had spoken to the doctor and he said he isn’t a racist. And that was that.”
SEVERAL ISRAELIS I spoke to reported encountering antisemitism in the Netherlands, but not all. During her 25-years-and-counting sojourn there van Kampen Arbel says she has witnessed the odd anti-Jewish incident. 
“When I first came here and I told people I was from Israel, they would be enthusiastic or at least they didn’t raise an eyebrow. But, over time, that changed and people would look at me askance.” 
Is that a form of criticism of Israeli political shenanigans, or bona fide antisemitism? 
“That’s just the backdrop,” explains van Kampen Arbel. “Things deteriorated and developed to the point that at my elder son’s elementary school one day there was a big swastika on the wall. I saw I wouldn’t be able to erase it and I knew that if called the municipality they wouldn’t understand what I was talking about.”
The proactive Israeli in van Kampen Arbel took over. Action was required immediately and, as it turned out, artistically. 
“I drove straight to a hardware store and bought some spray paint. I turned the swastika into a bunch of flowers. I made it into a work of art,” she laughs. Since then she has been on the lookout for more distasteful stuff. 
“I keep the spray in the car. I have deleted three more pieces of antisemitic graffiti, and my younger son was verbally abused and called a Jesus killer.”
TWENTYSOMETHING COUPLE Nahar Davis and Zen Vinyard are not sure about the antisemitic slant on life in the Netherlands. They initially moved overseas around five-and-a-half years ago to Rotterdam, where Vinyard was enrolled at the Willem de Kooning Academy. Yet by the second year, with Davis having started her first year at the art school, they decided to return to Israel, and spent around a year and a half living in Haifa before moving back to the Netherlands – this time to Schiedam, right next to Rotterdam. 
“When we first got here we were warned, I think by Israelis, to be careful about saying we are from Israel,” Davis recounts. 
“And to keep clear of certain neighborhoods,” Vinyard adds. “When we joined the Israelis in Holland [group] we were advised to steer clear of certain neighborhoods. We eventually realized they meant Muslim areas.”
Vinyard says that may not be due to concerns over anti-Israeli, or antisemitic, feelings. 
“I can understand that on a certain level. That may be because the people living there are very religious and that is a religion which is very foreign to me.” 
“Since then we have been through Muslim areas and it didn’t feel uncomfortable at all,” Davis notes. “When we lived in Rotterdam there was a mosque nearby and it wasn’t a problem at all.”
Davis says she was actually cautioned about revealing her identity by someone from foreign climes. 
“The only time I got a negative response to saying I was Israeli was at a sort of Internet café. There was an American with a laptop looking at websites with news about American military activities. We started chatting and when I told him I was Israeli he told me I should be careful and I shouldn’t say it out aloud.” 
Then again, Davis and Vinyard got friendly with a Moroccan who knew they were from Israel. Sometimes Israelis and Arabs get on better when they are away from the Middle East. 
“Yes, there’s a Palestinian and Israeli who opened up a falafel place in Amsterdam,” Davis observes,
Back to the subject of vittles, the Schiedammers say that although they are largely self-sufficient, being avid cooks – especially with all the current pandemic restrictions on businesses and movement – they wouldn’t mind being able to pop along to a hummus place from time to time. 
“It would be nice to sit in a favorite hummus eatery,” says Vinyard. 
And it is not just about the food. 
“There is the whole experience of the place [you get in Israel].” 
That, he says, is hard to come by even in the more cosmopolitan parts of the country. 
NAHAR DAVIS, the writer’s daughter, and partner Zen Vinyard at home in Schiedam: Rarely experience anti-Israel sentiment. NAHAR DAVIS, the writer’s daughter, and partner Zen Vinyard at home in Schiedam: Rarely experience anti-Israel sentiment.
“There is a falafel place in Amsterdam; it’s not the same. People there behave differently, and they even put mayonnaise on their falafel. All sorts of awful things!” he chuckles. “Even if you find good hummus, the peripheral stuff – the furnishings and ambiance here – makes it all feel a little forced. In Israel it feels natural.” 
For Davis, that aspect of life over there ties in with the discrepancy between Mother Nature’s climate-compatible offerings. 
“I miss being able, for example, to pick sage leaves or mint and make a cup of tea.”
The accepted cultural code in the Netherlands can also be a little trying. 
“In Israel people are generally more direct, even if they can be coarse,” Davis continues. “Sometimes I miss that directness. You don’t always know where you stand with the Dutch. It is a bit like when you are a child if your dad is sad or angry, and you ask him if he is OK. He’ll say everything is all right but you’ll know it isn’t.”
WHILE DAVIS and Vinyard are not certain they will stay in the Netherlands permanently, van Kampen Arbel says she is there for the long haul. Stands to reason after 25 years, although the never say never rule also applies. 
“After all this time I don’t always manage with the cultural differences, and I miss Israel. But I made the decision to live here and I hold the key to my own happiness, and having my own family with me is so important.” Then again… “If Marco came to me one day and said he wanted to move Israel, I’d pack my suitcase in a minute,” she laughs.
Riki Nudler is another veteran expat who is active in the local Israeli community while keeping close tabs on goings-on back here. Her daughter is currently serving in the IDF and the 49-year-old Nudler says she is far from inured to troubling news from the Holy Land. 
“There was the recent item about a female Israeli soldier disarming a terrorist. Of course I immediately thought about my daughter, even though I knew she wasn’t involved.”
Nudler has been living in Maastricht in southern Holland for the past 16 years. She moved there with her late husband Ori. Sadly, Ori died around a year and half ago, from ALS. Fortunately for Nudler she got a lot of state support with the logistical fallout. 
“I feel at home here, even though I haven’t managed to learn Dutch. When my husband became ill I saw the good side of life here. People helped and the social authorities helped me a lot. A cleaner was sent to my home, and I got assistance with all sorts of paperwork. I wouldn’t get even a tenth of that support in Israel.”
Nudler maintains a sunny outlook on life, and doesn’t even moan about the weather. 
“To begin with I’d complain about that a lot. But I came to appreciate the fact that you get four real seasons here, sometimes on the same day,” she adds. 
She also has her finger on the local Israeli pulse as the editor of the online Hebrew-language Dutchtown magazine.
“That helps to connect Israelis. I live in Holland but I am an Israeli in Holland. I live a full life here.”
YAM MATOKI and Roi Zuckerman with Gibor the dog.YAM MATOKI and Roi Zuckerman with Gibor the dog.
YAM MATOKI also has serious health issues she feels are better addressed in her adopted home of Schiedam. She and partner Roi Zuckerman left Israel when Zuckerman landed a job in the Netherlands around 18 months ago. 
“I suffer from femur fibula ulna syndrome,” Matoki explains. “It is pretty rare and in Israel no doctor would prescribe me medical cannabis. They say try all these chemicals and narcotic stuff, which I know have serious side effects. Here in Holland, I can get ahold of cannabis legally, which helps to alleviate my chronic pain.”
Both have Polish passports and, as Zuckerman is an animator, he can work from anywhere. They feel quite at home in the Netherlands. 
“Maybe it’s just the neighborhood we live in, but people are friendly and greet each other on the street,” Zuckerman notes. “And they are generally more relaxed about the coronavirus and about wearing masks. It is calmer here.”
The nisht ahin, nisht aher (in limbo) Yiddish expression currently applies to Omri Hadani. The double bass player, who was a staple on the Israeli jazz scene for some years, moved to Amsterdam a few months ago to study classical bass. He is now on a furlough back in Israel, although he expects to return to the Netherlands as soon as it becomes possible.
He says his transition challenges were exacerbated by the current pandemic pandemonium. 
“I think moving to a different country is always tough but the coronavirus thing made it even more challenging.” After such a brief stay in Holland, Hadani says he has yet to get accepted Dutch social behavioral modes down pat, but is feeling his way through his new surroundings. 
“It can be difficult to cope with the mentality change but I spent most of my time with Israelis, and with students and teachers, and that meant we had a common musical language. This helps a lot.”
The young bassist says it is very much a swings-and-roundabouts situation. 
“The Dutch are more relaxed and more organized in Holland, but they lack the warmth you get from Israelis.”
A year and a bit on, after four years in the Netherlands, Troudart says she has had time to reflect on that divide. 
“In Israel I am considered a bit reserved and polite, but there people thought I was abrasive. You know, we Israelis have to have our say, and generally all at the same time,” she laughs.  
DOUBLE BASS player Omri Hadani moved to Amsterdam a few months ago to study classical bass.DOUBLE BASS player Omri Hadani moved to Amsterdam a few months ago to study classical bass.