Portuguese Synagogue (Amsterdam)
Exterior of the Portuguese Synagogue.
|Groundbreaking||April 17, 1671|
|Completed||August 2, 1675|
The Amsterdam Sephardic community was one of the largest and richest Jewish communities in Europe during the Dutch Golden Age, and their very large synagogue reflected this. The synagogue is a popular tourist attraction.
The Sephardim (Hebrew for "Jews of Spain") were issued with the Spanish Royal Alhambra Decree in 1492, whereby they were given the choice of exile from Spain, or conversion to Catholicism, or failing to do either, execution. Of Spain's estimated 200,000 Jews at that time, around half converted; many by coercion, others because of social and financial pressures preventing their departure, and a few out of genuine religious conviction. They became Spain's Jewish-origin New Christians or conversos (i.e. "converts" to Catholicism).
Of the other half of Spain's Jews who did not convert, and instead chose exile, some sailed south (becoming the North African Sephardim), others went east (becoming the Eastern Sephardim), but most crossed the border west to Portugal.
In Portugal, however, Jewish life was interrupted only a few years later, when there too they were issued with the Portuguese decree against the Jews in 1496. While in theory, the Jews now in Portugal who chose not convert to Catholicism also had the option to be expelled (or executed) by 1497, the Portuguese king, not wanting a similar Jewish flight and brain drain as happened in Spain, in practice blocked Portugal's ports of exit, and subsequently reasoned that those who stayed behind agreed to become Christians by default. Thus the Jews in Portugal were forced to convert to Catholicism in 1496 after the decree and, all but a few who did manage to flee, became Portugal's Jewish-origin New Christians or conversos.
For the next few centuries thereafter, the Inquisition, both in Spain and Portugal, continued to investigate the conversos and their descendants on suspicions that, in secret, they continued to practice Judaism as crypto-Jews. Many in fact were crypto-Jews behind closed door, while publicly professing to be good Catholics. In Spanish and Portuguese these crypto-Jews were called Marranos (borrowed from the Spanish word for "swine", whereas "marrão" is swine in Portuguese).
The persecutions and trials by the inquisition against New Christians of Jewish heritage lasted well into the late 1800s. Furthermore, the legal distinction between so-called Old Christians (of untainted Spanish or Portuguese blood) and New Christians (those with Jewish origins) was maintained for centuries, with a person's pedigree always on record.
Because of this institutionalized anti-Semitism, many of the New Christian crypto-Jews (marranos) who actively maintained Jewish practices in secret, and even some sincere Christian-practicing New Christians of Jewish origin who nevertheless kept being hounded, persecuted and executed from charges of crypto-Judaism laid simply by reason of their Jewish ancestry (usually as a pretext for the confiscation of their property), wished to enjoy a freedom from anti-Semitic persecution and freedom of religion. This was offered by refuge in Amsterdam.
It is in this historical context that a substantial migration of conversos out of the Iberian Peninsula (mostly Portugal, but also Spain) took place between the 1600s up until the early 1800s. Many of these New Christian conversos of Jewish origin (persecuted after, rightly or wrongly, being accused of relapsing to Judaism) left the Iberian peninsula in a constant stream.
Once in Amsterdam, they returned to Judaism openly and publicly. They called themselves Portuguese Jews, even though some also came directly from Spain, and most of the Portuguese-born contingent also had recent ancestry in Spain. They wanted to avoid being identified with Spain, which was at war with the Dutch Republic at the time during the Eighty Years' War. This branch of Sephardi-descended returnees to Judaism are also known as Western Sephardim.
Construction and building
On December 12, 1670, the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam acquired the site to build a synagogue and construction work began on April 17, 1671, under the architect Elias Bouwman. On August 2, 1675, the Esnoga was finished.
The inscription above the entrance is from Psalm 5:8: "In the abundance of Thy lovingkindness will I come into Thy house". The sign also contains "1672", the year the building was intended to be completed, and "Aboab", the name of the chief rabbi who initiated the construction project.
The building is free-standing and rests on wooden poles; the foundation vaults can be viewed by boat from the canal water underneath the synagogue. The entrance to the main synagogue is off a small courtyard enclosed by low buildings housing the winter synagogue, offices and archives, homes of various officials, the rabbinate, a mortuary, and noted Etz Hayim library. The interior of the synagogue is a single, very high rectangular space retaining its original wooden benches. The floor is covered with fine sand, in the old Dutch tradition, to absorb dust, moisture and dirt from shoes and to muffle the noise. Only five synagogues in the world have a sand floor, and this is the only one with such a floor surviving outside the Caribbean region.
During the 1955–1959 renovation, the former Etz Hayim seminary auditorium was redesigned as a winter synagogue; central heating and electric lighting were added. The benches were taken from a synagogue originally built in 1639 and the Hechal dates from 1744.
Baruch Spinoza was expelled for his writings from this synagogue community.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Portugees-Israëlietische Synagoge.|
- History of the Jews in the Netherlands
- Sephardic Jews in the Netherlands
- Spanish and Portuguese Jews
- Joods Historisch Museum, a Jewish historical museum occupying four former synagogues adjacent to the Esnoga
- Jekuthiel Sofer, an 18th-century scribe at the Esnoga.
- Curaçao synagogue
- Tzedek ve-Shalom, Sephardic synagogue in Suriname built by a community that flew the Inquisition
- Website of the Esnoga
- Archive of the Portuguese-Israelite community in Amsterdam, in the Archives Database of the Amsterdam City Archives
- Consecration of the new Portuguese synagogue August 2, 1675. Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana
- Website of Ets Haim, Sephardi library
- UNESCO listing in the World memory