Jews in Amsterdam

Amsterdam became a haven for Jewish refugees from the Inquisition.

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Now that it seemed the Jew could finally cease their wanderings, they began to poor into Holland from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Germany and Antwerp. At first, religious services were held inconspicuously in private homes as well as the residence of Samuel Pallache, a Sephardic Jew who was Morocco’s ambassador to the Netherlands from 1612 to 1616.

To a certain extent, the position of the Jews was regularized in 1597 when burghers’ rights were granted to members of the “Portuguese nation” in Amsterdam. It was not until 1606 that one finds the first official reference to Joodche Gemeente (the Jewish congregation), but by 1609 the Sephardic community numbered 200 souls and supported two synagogues. A decade after, a third house of worship would be founded….

Jews Fascinated Their Dutch Neighbors

Ironically, it became better to be known in Amsterdam as a Jew than as a “Portuguese merchant,” thanks to anti-Iberian sentiment after the breakaway from Spain. Many Dutch intellectuals became fascinated with the somewhat exotic inhabitants of the Jewish quarter and sought them out for conversation.

At the outset of his career, Rembrandt, young and unknown, sketched many of his Portuguese neighbors, including Menasseh ben Israel [eminent rabbi and scholar; who petitioned Oliver Cromwell for the readmission of the Jews to England in 1655-6]. Conversely, the Sephardim reaped the benefits of the lively intellectual life created by Amsterdam’s savants, who eagerly cultivated theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, mathematics and oriental languages.

The Jewish Printing Capital of Europe

In 1617,the heads of the Jewish school voted to establish a printing press. Within the decade, several private Hebrew presses were also set up including that operated by the renowned intellectual Menasseh ben Israel. During its first twenty years, his multilingual press produced more than sixty titles, including Bibles, prayerbooks, and his own original works. Well known among the philosophers, scientists, and theologians of Amsterdam, he gave sermons that attracted flocks of Christians as well as Jews, and would even represent his enterprise at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1634. By this time, since Hebrew printing had decayed in Venice, Amsterdam was effectively the Judaic printing capital of Europe…

Lisbon on the Amstel

Meanwhile, in contrast with the Sephardim in the Ottoman Empire, the Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam remained deeply immersed in Spanish and Lusitanian high culture as it evolved in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. While the Ottoman Sephardim distinguished themselves by continuing to use medieval Spanish in everyday

speech, writing this Ladino in Hebrew characters and incorporating Hebrew words and expressions, the Amsterdam Sephardi used the living Spanish or Portuguese of his day, constantly changing linguistically and written with Roman characters.

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Jane S. Gerber

Jane S. Gerber is a Professor of History at City University of New York. Her book, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, won the 1993 National Jewish Book Award for Sephardic Studies.