Amidst heavy snowstorms I set out on my quest, my heart in good spirits and my socks extra warm, to bring home digital pictures a-plenty of Antwerp, many a valuable impression, Belgian chocolates by the box, the one or the other fashion find (hey, I’m still me afterall), and to escape my mother’s constant nagging (Sure do hope this is not hereditary…). I can be an adventurer.


My journey begins at Cologne central station, where I board the ICE to Brussels. Based on my experiences on previous international train rides, I have reserved my seat when booking the ticket. Alas, the Eurocrat next to my seat has not taken that kind of provision, (Should my tax Euros not suffice for him to pay the 2€ extra for the reservation?) and I kindly remind him that I’ve got a reservation for the seat currently under occupation by his paperwork while he’s balancing a laptop on his knees (indeed, there’s wi-fi on ICEs) and a coffee paper-cup between his shin and the seat in front of him. Apparently, I’m charming enough for him to clear up while I stow away my trolley in the suitcase rack in the middle of the compartment. (That, or he understands I’m not up to negotiating my seat when I drop a fashion and a science mag and my micro-fleece cuddle blanket on the seat I’ve paid for while he hasn’t made a reservation for his as I can tell from the neat little overhead digital display.) Eventually he even moves to a different row. Wonder if this has got anything to do with me devouring a sandwich while stretching my legs and looking over his shoulder while he’s reading his email? I can be a diplomat.

My room isn’t ready yet as I arrive in Antwerp around noon. Despair? Panic? Anger? Nah, seizing the opportunity’s the way to go. Since I’ve booked a pretty central hotel, I just drop off my luggage and stroll off to the Meir, Antwerp’s main shopping street. During recent years, Antwerp’s been emerging as one of Europe’s fashion capitals. The street is lined with fashion shops of all kinds and price ranges. (If you go there and must tote your male significant other along, there also are two huge electronics stores. There’s hardly anything more annoying than bored men standing in the way between a rack full of clothes I want to take a look at and me.) I’m blissfully happy. This is the beginning of a wonderful friendship. I introduce myself to a few shops (Froylein, this is a neat fashion place. Neat fashion place, this is Froylein), and five hours and several shopping bags later, I’m back at my hotel. I’m in shopping heaven. One day after a few hours of sightseeing, a not unfamiliar discomfort tells me I’ve got a blister on my heel. The one time I don’t have those blister band aids on me. And there still are shoes to be tried on. I ignore the pain and shop for shoes. I can be a hero.

Antwerp’s got way more to offer than just shopping though. There’s the Diamond Museum, the Plantin Moretus Museum, the Rubens House, the old city…
Antwerp’s diamonds make up half of Belgium’s exports, and even with low-cost labour countries gaining more and more territory in that field, Antwerp still is the world capital of diamond cutting. The Diamond Museum offers its visitors insights into the physical aspects of diamonds as well as into the history and art of diamond cutting as well as of the political, social and historical issues of diamond trade. In addition, there are varying exhibits of masterpieces of diamond jewellery dating from different eras. Several of the pieces are donations or long-term loans to the museum. An outstanding floral Art Nouveau tiara conquers my heart. Why would anybody give a piece like that to a museum? I’d wear it in bed with my PJs!
Plantin and his son-in-law Moretus were contemporaries of MOT Johannes Gutenberg, and just like him they were pioneers of bookprint. In their time and age, it actually were the bookprinters that decided what books went into print, so the freedom of the press indeed did belong to those that controlled the presses. Influenced by the ideals of Humanism, Seneca’s Stoicism and his interest in science, Plantin printed quite a few groundworks of modern-day thinking and worldview and at the same time proved to be a skilled diplomat in times of religious turmoil in the aftermaths of the Reformation. The museum is located in a four-wing building complex that once was home to Plantin’s family and his craftshop; handwritten books, important early prints, the printshop, the family’s invaluable collection of books, and rooms as they were back in the day (minus the people, of course) are on display there.
Plantin’s friend Peter Paul Rubens also lived and worked in Antwerp for a long while. His home and studio have been made open to the public. There visitors can marvel at Ruben’s architecture and painting skills as well as his deep-rooted interest in Ancient philosophy and mythology and the cultural and political revolutions of his time.
Plantin, Moretus and Rubens beat wannabe-artist hipsters by far. BTW, hipsters in in the Flemish version are just as pathetic overseas peers. Uomo universale: hot. Hipster: lukewarm. I can be sophisticated.

Antwerp’s home to Europe’s largest Chasidic community. Antwerp’s Jewish diamond cutters and traders have gained fame worldwide and have sparked the creativity of, among others, Noah Gordon (reading recommendation: Jerusalem Diamond). While in earlier days the community apparently settled mostly in the city centre, the arrival of the railway and along with it that of international diamond traders at Antwerp’s central station made it a necessity, out of security reasons, to pursue business close to the station. Gradually, the community developed in the surroundings of the station, which is within a few minutes’ walking distance from the Meir. All ours :) The Antwerp eruv encloses large parts of the city centre. Kosher food is easily available; even general supermarkets offer food with a hechsher.
Chasidic kids running errands by themselves in the city centre tell me that the community there perceives itself as relatively safe and well-integrated. But how does one tell, let’s say, an American and a Belgian Chasid apart? It’s the vibe, the little things you cannot really pinpoint, but that also tell you the difference between a secular Caucasian Northern American and a secular European. When it comes to women, the distinction is pretty easy; European women usually do not wear dark lipstick in the day.
So, there they are, the American frummies. First I spot two teenage girls; the unshapely skirts, the so many-seasons-ago and definitely not made for the mild current temperatures of Antwerp down-coats scream ‘Lakewood’. Indeed, when they overhear me talking in English to a cashier, they even greet me in English – though I am clad in skinny denims, tuck into 4”-heels Miss Sixty boots, plus a pistachio-olive greenish / greyish (one of the up-and-coming shades in fashion) parka. Languages do help bonding afterall. The following day I see those girls again. This time they are wearing the previous day’s purchase: semi-opaque tights. Some people’s 60 denier, other people’s experience of liberty and sassiness. Poor girls…
On a later occasion I’m at the checkout line behind some MO male my age. He buys snacks and a box of generic paper tissues. The latter almost prompts me to say, “I take it you’re single.” But I bite my tongue and am nice. Wouldn’t want to cause him embarrassment. I can be a philanthropist.

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  • That’s what the Gutenberg museum in Mainz says. His actual name was Johann Gensfleisch (= goose meat), which he changed because of career purposes. The first book he printed was a commentary by Rashi.

  • Hm. Interesting.

    If that’s true, though, why haven’t we made a bigger deal of it? We go out of our way to claim people like Marylin Monroe who got some sort of quickie Reform conversion just so she could marry Arthur Miller, but we don’t go around telling everybody “Gutenberg? You know, the guy who single-handedly brought Europe out of the Dark Ages and personally brought about the Renaissance? A Jew.”? I know I would, anyway.

    Did he convert or something? The entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia mentions nothing about that at all.

  • Nice to know there’s something to be said for Antwerp as a tourist destination. I’ve never really understood why there even is a Belgium. It’s the European equivalent of Connecticut. Shouldn’t we just carve it up and award it to its neighbors?

  • I tried to find some reliable info on the web, but it all fits the intentions of the respective editor. As far as I know, he remained Jewish throughout his life. As far as I know, there was no guild of printers emerging at his time, plus he was a goldsmith, too; a skilled craft usually pursued by Jews as they were the most skilled at that so they were exempted from joining guilds.

    Gutenberg, Marx and Einstein are considered the top three Jews of German-speaking origin, whose ideas have changed the world.

  • The guy who singlehandedly brought Europe out of the Dark Ages was an anonymous Irish monk.

  • Tom, Belgium’s a fairly new state; for a while, most of what we now know as Belgium was Spanish. For travellers with an interest in history the old Belgian Hanse cities are way more interesting than the Dutch industrial / harbour cities. Also, Belgians are known to eat well (eating out there is reasonably priced), while the Dutch have got a reputation (that many I know will even admit to) of creating food to fill up on, not to enjoy.

  • Oh, and Ephraim, apparently Antwerp’s famous in Japan as there’s some children’s story about a boy and his dog that walk to Antwerp everyday to see the paintings by Rubens. From what I’ve read that story is very popular in Japan, and there were Japanese families all over the place.

  • There’s a fine example of a Gutenberg Bible at a museum at my alma mater. The space, a rare-book library, is designed so that if a fire breaks out, the museum fills with carbon dioxide, preserving the books but killing those unfortunates who happen to be on the tour that day.

  • The fact that he was a goldsmith caught my attention (as well as all of the name changing), so perhaps he actually was Jewish. But if so, why was he so involved with, and patronized by, the Catholic establishment, eventually ending his life as a member of the Achbishop of Nassau’s court? I mean, if Gutenberg was a Jew, it seems to me that it would be more widely known.

    In the list of important Jews of German/Austrian origin, we must not forget the man whose contribution rings down the corridors of history and, unlike the contributions of Marx (and, some would say, Freud as well) makes life worth living: Franz Sacher, the inventor of the incomparable Sachertorte, truly one of the most sublime creations of the mind of man.

  • No visit to Vienna’s complete without one (or three, or four) of those suckers, uh, Sachers.

  • Jews, particularly ones skilled in crafts, serving at a bishop’s court were not uncommon; it was a symbiotic structure in which the bishop (or duke in the more secular world) granted that Jew and his family protection in exchange for his craft skills. “Hofjuden” (= court Jews), as they were called, constituted much of the intellectual Jewish upper class of the Middle Ages apart from the outstanding rabbis of that era.

    I can make Sachertorte.

  • If we’re going to have a discussion about Sachertorte, then let’s combine this post with Middle’s sex post. Freud, chocolate, Vienna, transgressive sexual fantasies and their real meaning… it all runs together. Hmm, some music– ok, I’ll gratuitously mention that former Belgian subject, the great Tabu Ley Rochereau.

  • I’ve had some pretty good chocolate cake in Belgium. There’s a little chain called Exki that sells organic and, depending on the product, fair trade ready-made fresh dishes. The quality’s way above fast food, the price range is fair though, cheap compared to NYC eateries. I’d give up the one or the other kink for that chocolate cake even though I’m pretty discriminating when it comes to pastries I haven’t baked myself. I always get my baking chocolate (Callebaut) in Belgium; it’s got the fullest flavour.

  • I know about Court Jews and I suppose Gutenberg could easily have been one; it is just that the entry in the Catholic Encyclopedia makes no mention of the fact that he was Jewish and states that his family was a member of the patrician class in the town of his birth and could trace their line back quite a ways. I can’t imagine a Jew being a member of the patrician class in any medieval European town, regardless of his wealth, position or accomplishments.

    But deliberately covering up Gutenberg’s Jewishness, or effectively denying by omission, isn’t so surprising I guess.

    I can aslo make a Sachertorte. And I made some apple strudel from scratch the other day. It was OK, but I have to get the dough more paper-thin. But it wasn’t bad for a first try.

    My next project will be a Schwarzwälder Kirschtorte, probably thee only chocolate cake I can think of that could compete with a Sachertorte.

    Question, though: I got into an argument with a guy the other day who insisted that a Sachertorte did not necessarily need to be made with apriot jam and that his mother had always used raspberry jam instead. That sounds quite tasty, but doesn’t a true Sachertorte require apricot jaam? That’s how the Hotel Sacher and Demel’s make them, anyway, or so I have been told.

  • Ephraim, the patrician class was determined by wealth only, which set them off against the plebs, the pauper. As for tracing the lines back, that seems a popular thing to claim particularly in the US to give some geneaology credibility, but as a matter of fact, there were no reliable birth and death records whatsoever before the Council of Trient. In the Middle Ages, made-up family trees could well be used to prove one’s heritage as in medieval view, the most recent document was the most authentic one.

    Gutenberg’s considered Jewish over here, but I cannot tell how observant he was in actual practice.

    Store the dough for Strudel in a fridge overnight and roll it on a clean tea towel powdered with flower; that’ll also help you rolling the strudel up and move it to the baking tray.

    Donauwellen (= Danube waves) are a nice alternative to Schwarzwälderkirschtorte, and, for a start, easier to bake.

    Sachertorte requires apricot jam; really strict patissiers will only use Austrian “Marillenmarmelade” (Marille is the Austrian word for apricot).The apricot jam serves to balance the flavours of the dark chocolate, keeps the cake from drying up and the canache from sinking into the cake.

  • Well, it still seems to me that the Catholic Encyclopedia deliberately omitted Gutenberg’s background so as to pass him off as a Catholic. There’s no way anyone could read that article and think otherwise. Not a whiff of Jew anywhere. I’ve got to say, though: “Goose meat”? How the hell does a person get such a name?

    Of course I used a floured pastry cloth for the strudel; it is impossible to strectch and roll the dough without it. Duh. However, I didn’t refrigerate the dough over night. I will try that next time. Getting it thin enough will just take practice. My father says his mother could get it so thin it covered the entire dinner table and he could practically read the newspaper through it.

    I figured that apricot jam was required for a real Sachertorte; however, a raspberry version sounds pretty good, if “inauthentic”. But I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with plain old American apricot jam. It seems to work just fine.

    My father used to make what he called a “Black Shadow Cake”, a traditional cake in his family, which is a chocolate sponge cake filled with raspberry jam and iced with sweetened meringue over which is dripped melted bittersweet chocolate (the “black shadow” part). Really good.

    Never heard of Donauwellen. Maybe they’re easier to make than a Schwarzwälderkirschtorte, but why take the easy way out?

  • I just Googled Gutenberg and that was one of the results, so I read it. FWIW, Wikipedia says nothing about Gutenberg’s Jewishness either.

  • Looks like his forebears took over some formerly Jewish-owned land following a 13th C. pogrom.

  • ….Good news for Freud, who takes third on froylein’s German-speaking Jewish worthies list (edging out Heinrich Heine in a photo finish).

  • Yeah. That’s why I figured he wasn’t a Yid.

    But, who knows? Maybe he came back to town after the pogrom and took over a the house of a fellow Jew who didn’t come back. I suppose stranger things have happened.

    Found a recipe for Donauwellen. Think I’ll stick with the Schwarzwälderkirschtorte.

  • Ephraim, if you want to treat yourself to something, get the book “German Baking Today“. The recipes are nicely explained and easy to follow; you get both, metric and imperial measures, and there are lots of German classics (breads, too) as well as novelty pastries in there.

    As for the Gensfleisch, suppose his ancestors thought of it as a treat. 🙂 Just consider what the name ‘Rivka‘ (possibly) means…

    P.S.: I just see the book is currently unavailable, and people demand ridiculous prices for used copies. If you’d like, I’ll grab a copy as soon as I can get hands on one and post it to you.

  • Thanks, but no need, froylein. It sounds much too expensive.

    I appreciate the thought, though.