Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue
ENGLISH CORNER, CON LINDA JIMÉNEZ – This week’s trivia question: How many Sephardic families live in Amsterdam now?
In 1492 Spain expelled its Jewish population. Many who fled to Portugal were nevertheless forcibly baptized after 1496. More than 100 years later, their descendants – victims of the Inquisition who wished to live as Jews – began to arrive in Amsterdam. At that time the Dutch Republic was at war with Spain, so to avoid being identified with the Spanish enemy these refugees from the Iberian Peninsula called themselves ‘Portuguese’ Jews. During the seventeenth century large numbers of Ashkenazi Jews arrived from Central and Eastern Europe. They soon formed the largest Jewish community in Amsterdam and Holland.
There were originally three Sephardic communities: the first, Beth Jacob, already existed in 1610, and perhaps as early as 1602. Neve Shalom was founded between 1608 and 1612 by Jews of Spanish origin. The third community, Beth Israel, was established in 1618. Eventually, in 1639, they merged to form Talmud Torah, the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam which still exists today. Portuguese Jews played a significant part in the cultural and economic development of the Dutch Republic. Moreover, they enjoyed a freedom of religion unique in Jewish history. The community produced rabbis, scholars, philosophers, artists, and bankers as well as founders and trustees of major international commercial companies.
The site of the present synagogue (the Esnoga or Snoge) was acquired in 1670 and construction work began the following year. On August 2,1675 the Esnoga was solemnly inaugurated.
The cultural heritage of the Portuguese Synagogue includes the Ets Haim library, which contains valuable historical Sephardic documents. The synagogue also has a collection of dazzling ritual objects made of gold, silver, copper, and valuable textiles that the Portuguese-Jewish community has produced over the course of more than four centuries. This collection of approximately 800 objects is so unique that it has been designated as a protected collection and is covered by the Cultural Heritage Preservation Act in its entirety.
A unique characteristic of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue is that electricity has never been installed there, and at night it is lit by hundreds of burning candles. Aside from religious services, spectacular candlelight concerts are held there.
We spoke with David Nunes Nabarro, the shamash, or sexton of the synagogue, about the building itself and Amsterdam’s Sephardic community. (During our interview, he used some Hebrew words, and since many of our listeners might not understand some of them, I have interjected the English translations.)