Högskolan på Gotland: Idéhistoria

Yosef Kaplan on the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam

Idéhistoria A, mom 2 - startsida

In Amsterdam in the first few years of the 17th century, the nucleus of Portuguese merchants who had settled in the city were granted recognition, hedged by restrictions similar to those imposed in Hamburg. Manuel Rodrigues Vega, a prosperous Portuguese merchant from Antwerp who settled in Amsterdam in 1595 became the first Portuguese to receive residential rights, and it was he who laid the foundations for Jewish life in the city.

How did those former conversos who had reached the haven of Amsterdam find their way back to Judaism? They lacked a real knowledge of Jewish Law, and Halakhah was totally unfamiliar to them. How could they observe Jewish rituals without knowing the prayers and customs? They were greatly helped by Sephardi rabbis and scholars who came from the Ottoman Empire, North Africa and Italy. A particularly important role in consolidating Judaism in Amsterdam was played by Rabbis Isaac Uziel and Joseph Pardo, and the Ashkenazi rabbi Saul Levi Mortera, from the old established Jewish communities outside Holland. They were also supported by R. Moses Uri Halevi an Ashkenazi Jew from Emden. By the end of the second decade of the 17th century there were two Sephardi congregations in Amsterdam: "Bet Ya'akov," founded at the beginning of the century, and "Neve Shalom," apparently founded c1608. The leader of the former was the prosperous Jacob Tirado, who later immigrated to the Holy Land; and the latter congregation prayed for a time in the home of R. Samuel Palache, a Moroccan Jew, an agent and ambassador of the Moroccan Sultan, Mulay Zidan. Toward the end of the second decade of the century there were three Sephardi congregations in Amsterdam, as the "Bet Ya'akov" congregation split in 1618, and "Bet Israel" was founded as a result.

On November 8, 1616, the Amsterdam authorities officially recognized the right of the Jews to reside in the city, but did not define their status. Shortly before, the northern Dutch states and western Friesland had approached two jurists for their views on the right of the Jews to reside there. The text of Adrian van Pauw's opinion has not been preserved, and only the views of the renowned jurist and theologian Grotius are extant. Despite his ambivalent approach to the Jews and Judaism, his views undoubtedly reflect the beginning of a new attitude toward the Jews.

The reluctance of the authorities to adopt a stand on Jewish rights did not prevent the Spanish-Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam from prospering and flourishing. In 1612 it numbered close to 500 souls; the number had doubled by 1620, and in 1672 it reached slightly more than 2.500. The Jews of Amsterdam were not confined to certain neighborhoods or streets, but they preferred to concentrate in one area. On one of the main streets in which they lived, Breedstraat (known today as Joden Breedestraat), lived the artist Rembrandt.

The Sephardi community in Amsterdam was one of the most established and organized in the Jewish world, with renowned social, religious and educational institutions. From 1614 the Jews of Amsterdam buried their dead in a cemetery in Ouderkerk on the banks of the Amstel river. The cemetery is famous for its lavish tombstones and the unique symbols decorating them, which clearly reveal Christian-Catholic influence. In 1615 this congregation established a special society, based on the Venetian model, to provide financial aid for poor orphan girls from the western Sephardi world who were about to marry members of the community. Some time later a Talmud Torah was set up, which became known as "Ets Haim." The Spanish-Jewish educational network in Amsterdam was known for its exemplary organization, its focus on progressive pedagogic methods and its emphasis on the teaching of Hebrew. The charitable funds set up by the Jews of Amsterdam extended aid to needy Jews throughout the world. Particularly noteworthy was the Terra Santa Fund which supported scholars and poor Jews in the Holy Land and the Fund for Redemption of Captives.
In 1639 the three Amsterdam congregations united and set up the "Talmud Torah" congregation. The years which followed were the peak era for this community. The secession of Portugal from Spain in 1640 granted Sephardi Jewish merchants in Amsterdam more convenient access to the ports of the Lusitanian kingdom, and this sparked an unprecedented economic boom. The peace treaty signed in 1648 between Spain and the Dutch Republic also facilitated trade with the Iberian Peninsula. The waves of migration of conversos from Spain and Portugal swelled the ranks of the Sephardi community. During this period some of the most prosperous Jews in the western Spanish diaspora settled in Amsterdam. Among them were the brothers Abraham and Jacob Israel Pereira and Baron Antonio Lopes Suasso.

Yosef Kaplan: "The Return to Judaism: "Spanish and Portuguese Jews in the West in the Early Modern Era," in Odyssey of the Exiles: The Sephardi Jews 1492-1992 (Beth Hatefutsoth: Ministry of Defence, 1992), pp. 56-58
© 2003 Mikael Hörnqvist
Idehistoria A, moment 2