ANTWERP — The Jewish Diaspora and the diamond trade are not synonymous. Their stories don’t merely intertwine either. Together they have given rise to two cultural and literary archetypes, the Wandering Jew and the Court Jew. Is it just coincidence that the historic world routes of the diamond trade line up on a map showing Jewish settlements? It has been maintained that the reason why diamonds have been brokered, bought and sold—as well as cloven, cut and polished—by Jews lies in the nature of the Diaspora itself.
Far greater in value than their actual size might suggest, diamonds can be easily hidden or transported. For at least as long as diamonds have been highly valued Jews have often had to leave their homes on short notice. Once resettled somewhere, newly arrived, Jews not involved in diamonds have often found the processing of the stones conducive to their lifestyle, so the work gets readily taken up. It was also to be adopted for two other, basic reasons. Some of the tasks involved in processing diamonds can be learned quickly and are the sort of labor that can be done at home. Historically the piece work allowed the religiously observant to forgo toil on a non-Christian Sabbath or religious holiday. There is also, perhaps needless to say, the fact that in times past Jews were usually banned from most professions.
There is one more, crucial, element still to be considered when thinking about diamonds and Jews. The typical practice of trading diamonds has always necessitated their actual changing of hands many times. In this situation trust is of the utmost importance. Extensions of credit—not by banks insisting on a lot of oversight and onerous interest rates—required trust. Diamonds not only need to be held in the hand, furthermore. They also must be scrutinized by the human eye. They come in sixteen thousand varieties. No technology has ever existed for evaluating or sorting them. Diamond deals involve the sale of batches of stones, numerous varieties in each batch, hand to hand. A community of trust is of absolute necessity in conducting these deals. One characteristic of an orthodox Jewish community is that it is closed. The nature of this kind of group, moreover, is that it needs and nurtures trust among its members, faithful people . In recent days a good number of Jainists have emigrated to Antwerp, mostly from Gujarat. They, too, live closely bound to each other. Thus the Jews, and Indian members of the Jain sect whose members are also closely bound, comprise the core of the city’s diamond activity.
Eighty-five percent of the world’s diamonds changes hands on a single small street, Hoveniersstraat, in Antwerp’s Diamond Quarter—where we enjoyed our afternoon soup in that lunch spot filled mostly with Jews and Indians (it’s said that the Gujaratis also conduct their transactions in Yiddish), where soup was served whose flavor and consistency was to me like the mama loschen I listened to when I was being fed as a small child (which I almost hear in the Flemish-Dutch spoken all over Flanders, occasionally in Brussels), soup prepared by my mother or her eastern European Ashkenazi mother. Surely this recipe was brought to Antwerp well more than a century ago by Poles and their erstwhile neighbors who were on their way across the Atlantic but never departed, staying to work in the diamond trade. In the Jewish Quarter some shops sell Polish food.
Records show Jews living in Antwerp at least as early as the thirteenth century, possibly due to having been thrown out of France and England. The city would come to be the European heart of commerce over several periods and once many of the Iberian Peninsula’s Jews had settled in both Antwerp and Amsterdam after their expulsion (until the silting of its waterways, Bruge was most prominent and it was there that a breakthrough method for polishing diamonds caused a great increase in trade). Following the mid fourteenth-century’s Black Death they were kicked out of the city, yet these “Portuguese New Christians” were welcomed back a little more than a century later. The Sephardic community in Antwerp, involved in diamonds at that time, raised diamond polishing truly to a fine art so that the stones’ inherent beauty was much more apparent. More alluring jewels again stimulated greater levels of trade.
Eventually Antwerp’s Jewish population and diamond industry would shift to Amsterdam. Yet there were also Sephardim in London (later, Ashkenazi Jews in both London and Amsterdam, and Antwerp). The extent of Jewish presence in the diamond trade was made dramatically plain to all in the mid seventeenth century when Jewish resettlement in England caused a serious depression in the Low Countries’ trade—at the point in time when England, through its British East India Company permitting individuals to operate, was enjoying greater access to India’s diamond supply. The majority of the English diamond importers were Jews, as were the exporters in India.
The diamonds were sent from England to Amsterdam for cutting. However, after the French Revolution Jews were once again able to get a toehold in Antwerp; the subsequent formation of the Belgian nation state in 1830 and a consequent relaxed regulatory climate attracted larger numbers of Jewish diamond workers and traders to the city, Amsterdam migrants. The Belgian diamond community swelled dramatically in the late nineteenth century when the eastern European Jews who were intending to relocate to the Americas or Australia by way of Antwerp settled there instead. It wasn’t very long before a newly increased demand for diamonds around the world could be met by new supplies of the raw stones from South Africa rather than India or Brazil.
Decades later, with the help of Flemish sympathizers the Germans virtually eradicated the Jewish population of Antwerp—not right away due to the diamond trade, but the inevitability of German occupation meant that most of Antwerp’s Jews died in Auschwitz. Out of this debacle arose Israel’s diamond industry—a fit rejoinder. Even so, Antwerp’s charisma proved irresistible. After the war, with concerted efforts, the Antwerp diamond juggernaut was restored to its former prowess and then some.
As for the rise of modern Antwerp, the story of its art and architecture—are they merely tangential to histories of diamonds and diaspora? How amazing that diamonds tell so much of Antwerp’s story of an uniquely urban dynamic—an admixture of businesses and peoples, languages, thrilling and scary energy, graceful and gorgeous architecture as well as garish and tawdry architecture, art and artlessness, possibly thoughtlessness, verve. I understand now how the poet Armand Schwerner (whose ancestors were rabbis) could have been imbued with, like the city itself, an astonishing energy—to be found in his psychologically deep, riotous epic poem The Tablets—almost an outlandishness and certainly a daring originality. The fact that he came from here is obvious to me. It’s not merely a matter of his multilingualism or unique and far-reaching imagination. There is also his supple regard for beauty not without its perils, and there is his irony.
Diamonds are cut and polished to a perfection. Their designs bring into being paradigms of exquisite expression. And then there is their obduracy in and of itself, their unforgiving tangibility, also responsible for their huge value. Diamonds are our aesthetic and material facticity like nothing else, for better or worse. Ephemeral beauty is caught in the diamond jewel, held there.
The Central Station is a work of perfect beauty. The boulevard proceeding from it seems to have emerged from this city’s superlative edifice that is a perfection not merely in the etymological sense of completion but rather in the sense of consummation, in any case an acme of beauty. The station sits flush against the Diamond Quarter—whose buildings, outdoor walks, passageways indoors are without glory or grace. Yet the station and the Quarter each bless human industry and ingenuity, as was epitomized by the industrial age’s railroads and more prophetically the agrarian past that unwittingly has led to postmodernity’s magical ride into insubstantiality—up through the point of our digital revolution that values ephemera such as the glow of color and light emitted from mobile phones as well as from polished, smartly cut diamonds, and in yet another way the haunting coloring and sense of light in Rubens’ still lifes (in still another way in the saturatedly colorful products on display in the equally throw-away box stores on the shopping boulevard, so near to the grand train station).
The humble, undersized synagogue we photographed in the Diamond Quarter (shall we compare it with the newly restored, opulent, magisterial synagogue just lavishly feted in Berlin?) is nevertheless the evidence of Jews living openly as Jews (not conversos, “Portuguese New Christians”). It stands just a single street over from the great towering, majestic, decorative, utterly lush and otherwise gorgeous central station, the city’s jewel. These two buildings were erected at the same time. Can this coincidence, too, be simply a paradox?
This fundamental juxtaposition of a stone-built, eventually a religiously built, graceful world being celebrated by the station, and an unrelentingly, programmatically boring, seemingly self-diminished world being portrayed assiduously through the architecture and mannerisms in the Diamond Quarter (perhaps equally religious), serves as a corollary to the cacophony of spoken and written languages, dress codes, skin colors, body languages, and buying habits to be found on the promenade and shopper’s boulevard where the Rubens House survives within this international city. The juxtaposition of the crowded shopping district and the quietude of Rubens’ home is in itself the stark contrast with which progress must always present us.
If you did not have the street address for the Rubenshuis you could miss it except for a glass rectangle set dead in the middle of the walk in front it, off from the stores, with cafés either side. To enter what was actually Rubens’ house you purchase admission across the way in this see-through container. Inside it the gift shop is transparently partitioned in trompe l’oeil fashion from the ticket desk. Then you step back outside to enter an early seventeenth-century, sumptuous world, a world of another order. The rooms of the house, all the spaces inside and out, are a sanctuary.
Rubens lived and worked here most of his adult life. He and his wife, Isabella Brandt, bought the house in 1610. Some land came with it, so they added extensions and a garden pavilion, all of which he designed. The enlargement and accompanying outdoor arrangements, as would happen later in the train station, combine the aesthetics of Roman antiquity and the Italian Renaissance. He was a very wealthy man. You might wonder if his self-centered immodesty in life—not in his art—helped him to accrue the many paintings, sculptures, fine furniture and trappings he and Isabella came to own. He was a collector who filled the spaces with widely esteemed, increasingly valuable art until his death three decades after they moved in. That collection has been replaced with the artist’s own creations.
This old-world home of equally sublime paintings has been protected against its surrounding neighborhood’s detritus of temporaneity that comprises our new first world. Having figured out how to get to what was their house in the late afternoon, where the Rubens raised their children and collected art—a diamond in the rough, so to speak—we contemplated another order of imagery than what had held our attention along the way. I don’t wish to give him credit for the flourishing of Antwerp. Instead I’ll say Rubens was its beneficiary. (Nor, for all its out-of-proportion financial presence, would I give credit to the mostly Jewish world-wandering diamond workers who insisted on a life in Antwerp over the course of several historical periods.)
Yet, like diamond jewels, Rubens’ pictures are present, have a presence. And they can be subtly disturbing. Viewing especially the careful, delicate still lifes, I wondered if he had wished to demonstrate a painterly perfection, no easy feat, since the images of the various objects in these paintings—a dead rabbit or pheasant, fruit or bowls and cups—must somehow have needed to be assembled so that they would not look arranged while, at the same time, each of them seems to exist on its own, apart from the ensemble. This paradoxical effect, so immediately striking, is as palpable as the things themselves in the paintings. Or perhaps in them there is not a disturbance so much as that visual conundrum.
On the other hand, in maybe the least likely or explicit way, another of his paintings unnerves in a manner not dissimilar to, finally, the juxtapositions within the Antwerp cityscape, which tells an unintentional story, at first not to be detected, about the costs of civilization. One of his sprawling oils is a large tableau that has been tilted at an angle toward the visitors below from its room’s high ceiling, the picture playing its part in one of the grander rooms now stuffed with his art. The disturbance in this picture is quite calculated. The painting’s narrative consists of some purebred beagles, presumably from an estate situated outside the frame, in the midst of attacking two large bears, one male and one female, just at the edge of some woods. The bodies of the upright bears, even their faces, in some way express the moment of recognition that they have found themselves in a life-and-death struggle. Before they know it, they are besieged. The dogs are all over them. A few have been flung to the side, bleeding, wounded. Others have blood in their mouths, in their fangs.
For all the dramatic violence in the story, the subtleness of the imagery does not go unnoticed. Like the contrasting dark browns and bright cerulean, red or other attention-getting hues in many of Rubens’ still lifes—the spot of bright blood at the mouth of a dead rabbit hanging upside down or in the festive plumage of a wild bird pierced by an arrow and now lying upon a kitchen table—the compelling, comfortable, ordered world of Antwerp comes into relief. And we are reminded that it is the artist who has done this. Indeed, we have been led to him in our journey from the train station—just as much as through our appreciation of his quiet flamboyance.
Domesticated dogs—soft and cuddly to the touch, who in their look express the greatest empathy, in his depiction marked by the bright blood of the bears (as well as their own)—have been drawn out from the estate to lose all sense of everything around them. They are aware of nothing else, can think of nothing else, other than the slaying of these great beasts who are their prey. Surely he wanted us to wonder how these dogs, bred for domesticity, the most obedient of all creatures, can kill, still do possess such ferocity, such bestiality, within them. This Rubens can bring off with the greatest aplomb.
What one realizes about living in Brussels for a while (or in Ghent where I’m teaching, or in Antwerp) is that everthing here works. There is a calmness. Many people in Brussels keep pet dogs they take everywhere, frequently on the metro. These dogs are invariably well behaved, totally quiet. I have thought of how dogs at home behave too often, barking at passersby, sometimes snarling at other dogs or even at us. A dog’s empathy involves absorbing, inhabiting its human’s emotional state and point of view. Do we Americans wear our savagery openly, undisguised? I write this as Europe, particularly Belgium, makes ready for the centennial of what in America is still called “The Great War,” more usually “World War I,” what is referred to here by the possibly sanitized “14-18.” The brevity alone of this name, its casualness, seem to me so incongruous to the enormity of Belgium’s suffering in that war (widely regarded, the great Belgian novel is titled The Sorrow of Belgium). The Belgians’ agony in that conflagration is obvious to anyone visiting the Royal Museum of Military History in Brussels or touring Iepers (Ypres) that was totally razed. The war in 1914 quickly spread throughout Flanders and elsewhere—the Germans never imagined that the Belgian government would not give way to their request to march through in order to attack France, and this rare act of principled bravery was to garner its terrible result. In the centennial exhibits the war flashes out of a European dormancy overnight, seemingly all at once, a horrible and senseless reality everyone knew was pointless and ineluctable, a drama to be played to its awful end.
Anyway, here the trains usually run on time.
February, Train to Ghent
Strand of empty
trees in a green
field, muddy ditch
near – passing my
window – they are
there and I am
here, the warm car
the muffled pitch
of wheels on steel
their books or phones,
out of the rain,
a gray day like
the day before.