Jewish Havens: Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Jewish Havens: Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Jewish influence is visible all over Amsterdam, if you know where to look. Take, for example, the toy store called Goochem, near the Vondelpark. Its name is Yiddish for “sage,” though it can also mean “smartass,” or, sarcastically, “idiot.” There’s Joetjes, a trendy sock store named after the Yiddish letter tsvey yudn, which resembles a pair of socks; Bolleboos barbershop (balebos, “master of the house”); Mesjogge Wine Salon (meshugge, “crazy”); and, my personal favorite, De Gabber dog school (from khaver, “friend”). Even Amsterdam’s universal nickname, Mokum, is Yiddish, meaning “haven” and originating in the Hebrew word for “place.”

The story of Jewish Amsterdam, and its many languages, starts in the Jodenbuurt, the Jewish Quarter. Get off the metro at Waterlooplein, on the east bank of the Amstel River, and you find yourself surrounded by Jewish memorials. The Holocaust memorial bears the names of the more than 100,000 Dutch Jews, Sinti, and Roma who were murdered by the Nazis. Bronze cobblestones, called Stolpersteine, mark the former homes of deported Jews, a tribute by the German artist Gunter Demnig. On De Schaduwkade (the Shadow Quay), the names of murdered Jews line the canal. The Anne Frank House averages more than a million visitors every year.

Often, the story of Jewish Amsterdam is told through the lens of the Holocaust. But look deeper into these monuments of the Jewish Quarter, and you’ll see that the history of Amsterdam Jewry is deep and diverse. On the memorial plaques, you’ll find names like del Canho, Gazan, Polenaar, Mendes da Costa, Franco, and Groen: names from Portuguese, Yiddish, Spanish, and Hebrew, in many cases adapted for Dutch spelling. (“Gazan,” for instance, is a Dutch transliteration of chazzan, Hebrew for “cantor.”) What is the story of these names from across Europe?

Amsterdam’s first major Jewish community was composed of Portuguese exiles fleeing the religious persecution of the Inquisition. In 1579, religious peace had been guaranteed—even for Jews—in the Dutch provinces, thanks to the signing of the Union of Utrecht; two years later, the Dutch declared independence from Phillip II of Spain. These political realities enabled a Sephardi community to move into what is now Amsterdam’s Jewish Quarter. Those first arrivals sparked a steady trickle from Iberia of so-called “crypto-Jews”—people who had previously practiced their religion in secret. Now, arriving in Amsterdam, these Jews, many of whom came from Spain, identified as Portuguese to avoid any association with the warring Spanish Empire.

Even Amsterdam’s universal nickname, Mokum, is Yiddish.

Less than a century after those first Sephardim arrived, in 1675, Amsterdam’s Jewish community finished building the Esnoga (Judeo-Spanish for “synagogue”). The synagogue still stands—and holds services—today. Over time, Amsterdam’s Jews used Portuguese as a daily language less and less, until it finally declined to nothing. But the religious community held onto the old language, delivering a Portuguese liturgy at the Esnoga until about 1850, to a congregation that couldn’t understand a word. Even now, signs and flyers around the Esnoga are printed in the antiquated Portuguese.

In many ways, Amsterdam’s Sephardi community invented a model that continues to be practiced by many contemporary Jews. Its members adhered to Jewish law in the sphere of the Jewish community, but also had secular lives in the relatively lax Dutch state. They learned Hebrew in synagogue but were also proficient speakers and writers of Dutch. They grappled with questions of assimilation and modernization. The most famous denizen of the Jewish Quarter was Baruch Spinoza, whose radical theological writing ultimately earned him excommunication from the community, about which he wrote, glibly, “I enter gladly on the path that is opened to me, with the consolation that my departure will be more innocent than was the exodus of the early Hebrews from Egypt.”

The sanctuary of the Esnoga.

The Esnoga is the quintessential monument of Amsterdam Jewry: a grand courtyard and sanctuary that is a testament to the poor—but, compared to Ashkenazim, prosperous—Sephardi community of the Dutch Golden Age. But just across the street is another crucial building in the history of Jewish Amsterdam: the Great Synagogue of the Ashkenazi community.

Some Ashkenazim had settled in the Netherlands for short periods during the Middle Ages, but they had always faced persecution. Then, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Yiddish-speaking Jews from German ghettos started pouring in, first to small villages, and later, seeking opportunity, to big cities like Amsterdam. In 1671, the Great Synagogue opened. Despite its grand name, this was a much smaller institution than the Esnoga, which was completed four years later. By 1674, there were 5,000 Ashkenazim in Amsterdam—twice the number of Sephardim, though the former remained considerably poorer than their Portuguese counterparts. By 1800, after the Dutch economy had bottomed out following decades of war with England and a liquidity crisis, almost 90 percent of Amsterdam’s Ashkenazim were relying on charity to survive.

For 200 years, the city’s Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities lived in a complex cohabitation—often in conflict, often in delicate cooperation, jointly training rabbis but maintaining distinct religious institutions. Through it all, they shared the Jewish Quarter.

A West-facing view of the Jewish Quarter, which is now home to the Jewish Museum.

A West-facing view of the Jewish Quarter, which is now home to the Jewish Museum.

You can still visit the Great Synagogue but, unlike the Esnoga, it no longer has an active congregation. After World War II, the Ashkenazi synagogue never regained its member base. An orthodox congregation, it also struggled with increasing secularization, as “liberal” congregations began to take root and attract members (a movement known as “Reform Judaism” in America and much of Europe).

After the war, Dutch Jewry was a community in crisis, grappling with the simultaneous blows of emigration, fear of persecution, a disoriented host society, and a devastated population. Eighty percent of the community had been killed during the war. Then, between 1950 and 1986, nearly 10,000 Jews emigrated from the Netherlands to Israel, while others left for Anglophone countries.

Today, the Great Synagogue building houses the Jewish Museum, which showcases photo exhibitions from contemporary artists, ritual and household objects, and a meticulously preserved sanctuary. A bar mitzvah certificate, sealed behind glass, commemorates—in Dutch and Hebrew—one Ernst Wolfgang Stein’s “first time being called before the Torah,” in July 1942. The museum also documents the disappearance of a culture in the very spot where that culture once flourished. “They were unable to share their experiences with anyone, and could not picture their future here,” one plaque reads, of the post-war experience. “Some Jews lived in fear of a new wave of persecution. They looked with suspicion at Dutch society.”

A monument in the Jewish Quarter bearing the inscription of a poem by Jacob Israël de Haan.

A monument in the Jewish Quarter bearing the inscription of a poem by Jacob Israël de Haan.

These days, you’re more likely to hear Yiddish spoken in nearby Antwerp than in Amsterdam. Even so, the city’s Jewish population is once again thriving. The Netherlands is home to over 40,000 Jews, nearly half of whom live in Mokum. A monument stands between the two main synagogues, inscribed with a poem from the early 20th-century Dutch Jewish poet Jacob Israël de Haan: Die te Amsterdam vaak zei “Jeruzalem” / en naar Jeruzalem gedreven kwam / hij zegt met een mijmrende stem / “Amsterdam, Amsterdam.” Or: “He who in Amsterdam often cried ‘Jerusalem’ / and to Jerusalem found himself driven / now says in a wistful voice / ‘Amsterdam, Amsterdam.’”


This article was commissioned by Abigail Struhlicon

Featured Image: A wall in the Esnoga, bearing a Portuguese inscription, a list of names, and the congregation’s name, Ets Haim.

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