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History of Jews in Amsterdam: Constitutional Capital of the Netherlands

DEMOGRAPHY AND ECONOMY

The beginning

The first Ashkenazim arrived in Amsterdam from the end of the 1610s onwards. They left the German countries owing to the Thirty Years War, which devastated the economy and resulted in anti-Jewish measures. At first they depended socially and economically on the Sephardi community, but were in the same position as to legal status.

The first Ashkenazi synagogue services were organized for Rosh Ha-Shana and Yom Kippur 1635. Until then the growing group of Ashkenazim had visited the Sephardi synagogue. From 1636 they hired a room to serve as a synagogue, which resulted in the establishment of an independent Ashkenazi kehillah in 1639. Its first rabbi was Moses ben Jacob Weile of Prague. The community acquired its own cemetery in Muiderberg in 1642.

While the first Ashkenazim were of German descent, a second group of Ashkenazi immigrants settled in Amsterdam in the wake of the *Chmielnicki pogroms of 1648–49 in Poland and the Russian invasion in Lithuania in 1655–56. These Polish Jews brought with them their own minhagim and soon established their own minyan. Although the existing Ashkenazi community was opposed to it, they formed their own kehillah with a rabbi and cemetery in 1660. The Polish community maintained ties with the *Council of the Four Lands. In 1670 the Polish kehillah numbered 70 members versus the 238 of the so-called High German kehillah. Only by pressure of the local authorities were the two communities unified in 1673. From then on, only the chief rabbi was allowed to have a minyan; Chief Rabbi Saul *Loewenstamm followed the Polish rite. After his death in 1790 this Polish minyan was allowed to be held in a room under the Uilenburgerstraatshul. From the beginning of the 18th century the Ashkenazi community called itself Talmud Torah.

Demography

The Jewish population clustered in the eastern quarters of the city. While the Ashkenazim kept growing in numbers, the Sephardim had stabilized. The great migration from Eastern Europe started after 1726. In 1674 there were 5,000 Ashkenazim. This number quadrupled in the next century. In 1795 Amsterdam counted 22,000 Ashkenazi inhabitants.

Ashkenazi Jews from Amsterdam, in their turn, founded communities in England and the New World. The communities in Surinam, Curaçao, and London were considered daughters of the Amsterdam one. The London Great Synagogue was therefore called the "Dutch Jews' Synagogue."

Economy

Ashkenazi Jews were active in those parts of economic life that were not organized via the guilds. On the whole, the Amsterdam government was not very strict in the enforcement of protective laws, which enabled Jews to work on the edge of privileged jobs. They worked in the markets, were peddlers, opened small shops and were active in the money business, the diamond industry, the silk industry, the tobacco industry and in sugar refining. The majority of the Ashkenazi Jews were very poor. In 1795 87% of them lived on poor relief, while the city average was only 37%. There was a small elite consisting of wealthy businessmen such as Ruben Gompertssohn, Abraham Auerbach, and Benjamin *Cohen. Much of their business was with Germany and Poland, where they could exploit their Ashkenazi network. In London, too, branches of Amsterdam Ashkenazi firms were established by the firms of Cohen, Goldsmid (Goldsmith), Preger (Salomons), Diamantschleifer, and Van Oven. The economic crises of 1763 and 1772–73, which affected Dutch economy as a whole, also damaged the Amsterdam Ashkenazi community.

ORGANIZATION

Parnassim

The economic elite supplied the kehillah with community leaders. The most wealthy members were elected to be parnassim. This oligarchy ruled the community with a firm hand. They were in close contact with both the local authorities and the Sephardi mahamad. Within the city the Ashkenazim enjoyed the status of a semi-autonomous "High-German Jewish Nation." This meant that the community could handle all internal affairs, including justice. The parnassim took care of relief for the poor, taxed the members and represented the kehillah outside the Jewish community. They could even put someone in jail or exile him from Amsterdam, and they were allowed to have a small police force.

Religious establishment

Just as in the Sephardi community (after which the organization was modeled), the rabbis were subordinated to the parnassim, which was a source of regular tensions. The religious establishment was headed by the chief rabbi, who presided over the local bet din. Until 1749 two dayyanim supported him in this task; from that year on, the members of the Beth ha-Midrash Ets Haim (erected 1740) supplied the two other members. The community had two ?azzanim and two upper-wardens in its service. A whole range of melammedim, school teachers, educated the Ashkenazi youth. There were several schools, such as Lomde Torah for boys up to 13, the school of the orphanage Megadle Jethomim (since 1738) and talmud torah for the youngest children. Many ?evrot (membership associations) organized lessons for adults. At least once a week the ?evrah rabbi gave a lesson.

Synagogues

The Great Synagogue was erected by Elias Bouman in 1671. It had place for 399 men on the ground floor and 368 women on the balconies. In 1730 it was joined by the Neie Shul, which was built next to the Great Synagogue. The latter was replaced by a much larger synagogue in 1750–52, in which 596 men and 376 women could follow the service. The complex of synagogues in the heart of the Jewish quarter was completed by two smaller ones, the Obbene Shul (1685) and the Dritt Shul (1700, completely rebuilt 1778). These two synagogues were attended by people from the lower social classes, while the more prominent and wealthy members attended both the Great Synagogue and the Neie Shul. From 1766, the Jewish inhabitants of the Uilenburg-quarter could visit their own synagogue, the so-called Uilenburgerstraatshul.

Rabbis

Most chief rabbis were from Poland. Some of them were important Talmudic scholars and prominent dayyanim, such as David ben Aryeh Leib *Lida (1679–1684). The most famous personality, Zevi Hirsch ben Jacob Ashkenazi (who obtained his title ?akham ?evi in Amsterdam), served the community from 1710 until 1714. He left the kehillah after a conflict with the parnassim, being succeeded by Abraham Berliner from Halberstadt (1714–1730). After a period in which the community was split into factions over the choice of a new chief rabbi, the local authorities decided that Eleazar ben Samuel of Brody should be entrusted with the task (1735–1740). The son-in-law of the ?akham ?evi, Aryeh Leib ben Saul *Loewenstamm from Rzeszów, thereupon became Amsterdam's chief rabbi (until 1755). He became the founder of the Dutch rabbinical Loewenstamm dynasty: his son Saul ben Aryeh Leib Polonus succeeded him and served until 1793, when his grandson Moses Saul Loewenstamm took over (until 1815).

Politics

The economic position of the Jews in the city was endangered by the 1748 Doelist Revolt. The Doelists advocated the expansion and enforcement of the protective laws and wished to secure the position of the guilds. Had the local government adopted the Doelist position, the Jews would have suffered grave economic losses. Thanks to the stadholder William IV, however, order was restored in the city and the Doelist coup aborted. In the second half of the 18th century the Amsterdam Jews gradually politicized. Although they did not participate in local government, they became more and more involved in the political battle between the enlightened Patriot faction and the Orangist faction. The parnassim tried to secure the neutrality of the community, but the great majority of the members supported the Orangists. In the 1787 Patriot Revolution, which also caused regime change in Amsterdam, Ashkenazi Jews battled on the streets with Patriotic mobs. When stadholder William IV was reinstalled with the help of his brother-in-law, the king of Prussia, Amsterdam Jewry celebrated this victory extensively.

CULTURE AND INTELLECTUAL LIFE

Language

The vernacular of the Amsterdam Ashkenazim was West-Yiddish, which was brought in by the first settlers from Germany. The influx of Polish immigrants did not change the predominance of the West-Yiddish dialect. From the end of the 17th century this language was spiced up with a growing number of hollandisms. Hebrew was taught at the Jewish schools and by private teachers. Only at the end of the 18th century did a small part of the community, its elite, use Dutch as its vernacular. But in the lower social classes too, the language contacts between Dutch and Yiddish were extensive.

Printing

During the 18th century Amsterdam was widely know in the Ashkenazi world as the capital of Hebrew and Yiddish printing. Amsterdam was renowned for its quality of printing and the typesetting of Hebrew letters, known as otiyyot Amsterdam. Besides Christian and Sephardi printers, some of whom also printed Yiddish books, Ashkenazim too were very active in this field.

*Uri Phoebus started his printing firm in 1658, moving to Zolkiev in 1692. R. Moses ben Simon *Frankfurt (1678–1768), besides a printer also dayyan, published many classical Hebrew works and Yiddish translations. He believed the classics of Hebrew literature should also be accessible to the Yiddish reading public. The most prominent Ashkenazi printer was Samuel Proops (1702–1734), who printed many siddurim, ma?zorim, and halakhic works as well as musar literature for the entire Ashkenazi world. In 1730 he published Appiryon Shlomo, the first sales catalogue of Hebrew books. The firm was continued by his family until 1849.

Yiddish literature

Of especial importance were the two Yiddish Bible translations. Jekuthiel ben Isaac Blitz's translation was published in 1676–79, while the rival work by Joseph Witzenhausen was printed in 1678. Numerous translations of Hebrew books into Yiddish were printed, including Sefer *Josippon, *Manasseh ben Israel's Mikveh Israel, the travelogue of*Benjamin of Tudela and Menorat ha-Ma'or of *Aboab. But original works in Yiddish were printed, too. One of the bestsellers became the universal Jewish history book She'erit Yisro'el by Menahem Mann ben Shlomo *Amelander. Contemporary history was presented in a number of chronicles. In the years 1686–87 (and possibly over a longer period), the Amsterdam Ashkenazim could read the news in the oldest known Yiddish newspaper, the Dinstagishe un Freitaghishe Kurantn.

Intellectual life

Besides the traditional patterns of religious learning, a number of Amsterdam Jews developed new intellectual activities, often parallel to contemporary Christian developments. In the 18th century some studied at the universities of Leiden and Harderwijk. Hartog Alexander van Embden (Herz Levi Rofe) obtained the rank of doctor in medicine at Harderwijk University in 1716. Active as a physician, Hebrew printer and keeper of a bookshop, he was part of a small group of Jewish intellectuals, interested in science and scholarly debates. In 1775 David ben Phoebus Wagenaar translated *Mendelssohn's Phaedon into Hebrew, which remained unpublished. Salomon *Dubno, the grammarian, teacher, and friend of Mendelssohn, spent the last years of his life in Amsterdam and had profound influence on a circle of young Ashkenazim. Eleasar Soesman was active as a publicist for both Jewish and Christian audiences and therefore wrote both in Hebrew and Dutch. He was in contact with various Christian scholars, especially theologians and Hebraists, for whom he wrote his Hebrew grammar Mohar Yisrael (1742).

Like the Sephardim, the Amsterdam Ashkenazim were great lovers of the theater. Yiddish theater not only blossomed during Purim, when all kinds of Purimshpiln were produced and performed, but also on a more regular basis. From 1784 onwards, Jacob H. Dessauer led a Jewish opera- and theater-group, which also included women. This group was very active and performed many contemporary plays for a Jewish audience.

MODERN COMMUNITY

Today, the Jewish quarter, which was destroyed during the Nazi occupation, has been largely abandoned; only the “Snoga,” the Sephardi synagogue remains in use there. Nonetheless, the quarter is still full of monuments and historical sights. The Rembrandthuis (Rembrandt House) is located on Jodenbreestraat, and contains a collection of his works. Among the pieces displayed there are numerous biblical scenes, and several portraits of prominent seventeenth century Jews.


A painting of an Ashkenazi synagogue in Amsterdam.

Not far from the Rembrandthuis are several restored synagogues. A large complex houses the Great Shul (built in 1670), the Obbene Shul (1672), the Dritt Shul (1700) and the Neie Shul (1730); all four were badly damaged during WWII and its aftermath, and have recently been renovated. The shuls reflect the rapid growth of Dutch Ashkenazi Jewry in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries – each synagogue was constructed when the previous one proved too small for the expanding community. The complex also contains a mikva and houses the Jewish Historical Museum, which has a large collection of memorabilia and ritual objects.

Around the corner, on Plantage Middenlaan, is the Hollandsche Schouwberg. The spot was once the site of Jewish dramatic performances; later, it was the gathering spot for Jews who were rounded up and deported by the Nazis. A Holocaust memorial stands there today.


The Beth Chayim Sephardi cemetery,
which dates back to 1614.

The “Snoga,” the Sephardi synagogue that has been in almost continual use since 1672, stands nearby. It is famous for its magnificent interior, its sand covered floors, and its library, which contains priceless copies of some of the scholarly works that made Amsterdam famous during the Golden Age. Down the road, on Waterlooplein, is the site where the previous Sephardi shul stood, in which Baruch Spinoza was excommunicated. The house he grew up in is nearby as well, and today houses a church.

The Anne Frank House, at Prinsengracht 263, is one of the most visited sites in all of the Netherlands. The small house in which the Frank and Van Damm families hid for two years today houses a museum. Much of the house, however, has not been changed from its original state: posters of movie stars still hang on the wall of what was Anne's bedroom, and the kitchen walls are marked with pencil lines where the family marked their children's growth spurts.

The government of Amsterdam announced on May 23, 2016, that they would be compensating the city's Jewish community to the tune of $11 million, to make up for taxes imposed on Holocaust survivors returning to the city following World War II. Survivors were forced to pay taxes as well as insurance fees when they returned, on homes left vacant after the owners were forcibly taken away by the Nazis. Amsterdam's government decided to give the money to the Jewish community because finding the individual people or relatives entitled to compensation would be too long and arduous a process.