In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Jews in Amsterdam

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • The Birth of the Community
  • The Religious Culture and Identity of Amsterdam’s Jews
  • Economy and Society
  • Trade and International Networks
  • Jewish-Christian Relations in Early Modern Amsterdam
  • Primary Sources

Renaissance and Reformation Jews in Amsterdam
by
Kenneth Austin
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 September 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0519

Introduction

Having been expelled from the Netherlands in the Middle Ages, Jews only began to re-establish themselves there at the end of the sixteenth century. Amsterdam soon emerged as not merely the leading Dutch settlement, but the most important Jewish congregation of the Western diaspora, frequently described as a “New Jerusalem.” At first, those who settled there were Marranos or “New Christians,” Jews who had converted to Christianity, often for their own protection, especially in Spain and Portugal. The political and religious divisions of the Dutch Revolt (c. 1566–1648), and the formation of the United Provinces of the Netherlands in 1579, independent from Spanish rule, created a more fluid and tolerant environment for those of different religious outlooks. A small number of Sephardic conversos started to arrive in Amsterdam from 1593, and at first they were obliged, at least officially, to continue to deport themselves as Christians. But their mercantile expertise, extensive networks, and disinclination to cause trouble for the governing authorities all contributed to a growing acceptance of these emigrants. Jewish worship initially took place in private, but in 1612 the community was permitted to repurpose a private house as a synagogue, a first indication of more formal acceptance of their presence as Jews. Especially given their origins, the members of the Sephardic community had to devote considerable energies to reacquainting themselves with the nature and expectations of their Jewish faith, and on instilling orthodoxy within a community which had by necessity worshipped separately and with various compromises in place. In due course, Ashkenazic Jews also started to descend on Amsterdam, particularly in the wake of the Thirty Years’ War (1618–1648), which ravaged much of Europe, and the Chmielnicki Uprising in Poland (1648–1657). These Jews were typically much poorer than their Sephardic brethren and were only permitted to enter the city on the understanding that they would be supported by their Portuguese predecessors. In fact, over time Ashkenazim came to outnumber their Sephardic counterparts: by the late seventeenth century, there may have been 2,500–3,000 Sephardic Jews, and 5,000 or more Ashkenazic Jews. Nonetheless, the existing scholarship has focused much more heavily on the Sephardim than the Ashkenazim. The Sephardic congregation in particular was home to many influential rabbis and a vibrant religious and cultural life, reflected, for instance, in their impressive synagogue, and in the many books—in Portuguese, Spanish, and Hebrew—which issued from its presses.

General Overviews

While there were earlier efforts, particularly by Dutch Jews, to write histories of the Jews of Amsterdam and other settlements, the major developments in the historiography really began to take shape from the 1960s onward. In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, scholarly endeavors focused largely—and entirely understandably—on the twentieth century, given the Nazi occupation. But, as time passed, attention shifted back to the earlier periods. The first issue of the biennial Studia Rosenthaliana, concerned with the history of the Jews in the Netherlands, appeared in 1967. The following year witnessed the founding of the “Institute for Research on Dutch Jewry” at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Continuing collaboration between Israel and the Netherlands saw the first “Dutch Jewish Historical Symposium” in Amsterdam in 1980. The fifteenth such event took place in Amsterdam in October 2021. There are relatively few studies which provide a comprehensive general overview of Amsterdam’s Jews in the early modern period. Appearing only three years apart (though the latter draws heavily on a PhD written rather earlier), Bodian 1997 and Swetschinski 2000 are the two best places to start and offer complementary accounts of the Portuguese community during its 17th-century golden age: Bodian’s other works deal with various features of the so-called “Jewish nation” and the Sephardic diaspora, and this is reflected in a somewhat broader perspective; Swetschinski, while still recognizing the importance of international connections, is more focused on the Amsterdam locale. Pelham 2019 covers a longer period, in a more explicitly popular-oriented study. Sutcliffe 2007 is an extended review essay of nine monographs and essay collections published in the first years of the twenty-first century, which the author frames as part of a broader process by which some of the “myths” about the Sephardic community are subject to more rigorous examination. Blom, et al. 2001 and Blom, et al. 2021 are substantially wider in scope, geographically and chronologically: both collections of essays cover Dutch Jewish history between the Middle Ages and the modern period. Not only do they provide a welcome broader perspective, but, given the importance of Amsterdam’s Jews in the early modern period, they have much that is directly relevant too.

  • Blom, J. C. H., R. G. Fuks-Mansfeld, and I. Schöffer, eds. The History of the Jews in the Netherlands. London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2001.

    First published in Dutch in 1995, this is a general survey written by a group of leading scholars, which provided a state of the field relating to Dutch Jewish history. The volume is organized on broadly chronological lines, and sections 2 (“From the Middle Ages to the Golden Age, 1516–1621”) and 3 (“The Republic of the United Netherlands until about 1750”) contain much of interest, set in a national context.

  • Blom, J. C. H., David J. Wertheim, Hetty Berg, and Bart T. Wallet, eds. Reappraising the History of the Jews in the Netherlands. London: The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2021.

    Billed as a successor to Blom, et al. 2001, this collection of essays provides an updated and fully revised history of Dutch Jews, reflecting the impact of the burgeoning scholarship of the intervening two decades. Again, the focus is broader than Amsterdam alone, but chapters by Swetschinski (covering the post-medieval to 1639), Israel (demography and economic history to 1750), and Kaplan (religious, cultural, and social history to 1750) have much to offer.

  • Bodian, Miriam. Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

    Thoughtful and insightful examination of the cultural identity of the 17th-century Sephardic community of Amsterdam, in which the author emphasizes the continued significance for this group of their Iberian roots. In practice this study draws most heavily on a relatively small group of figures from its intellectual elite: helpfully, brief biographies of the thirteen figures most frequently discussed are provided at the end of the main text.

  • Pelham, Lipika. Jerusalem on the Amstel: The Quest for Zion in the Dutch Republic. London: Hurst, 2019.

    Pelham, a BBC journalist and documentary-maker with a particular interest in interfaith encounters, provides an accessible account of the Sephardic community of Amsterdam during the seventeenth century.

  • Sutcliffe, Adam. “Sephardic Amsterdam and the Myths of Jewish Modernity.” Jewish Quarterly Review 97.3 (2007): 417–437.

    DOI: 10.1353/jqr.2007.0051

    Review essay covering nine monographs and essay collections relating to the Sephardic community of Amsterdam in the Dutch golden age, published in the period between 2001 and 2006. While the majority of the article provides a sequence of reviews of these volumes, this is preceded by a brief survey of the historiography more broadly, and Sutcliffe does throughout seek to make connections between the different items.

  • Swetschinski, Daniel. Reluctant Cosmopolitans: The Portuguese Jews of Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam. London and Portland, OR: Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2000.

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctv36zptp

    Based on a PhD thesis written twenty years earlier, this volume provides a thorough and multilayered examination of the Sephardic community of Amsterdam through the seventeenth century. While some reviewers have suggested that the volume might have done more to incorporate the scholarly advances of the last two decades of the twentieth century, it remains—with Bodian 1997—a key point of reference.

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