Friday, October 27, 2017

The Jews of Amsterdam

October 27, 1275 is noted as the first time the name “Amsterdam” was recorded as the name of a settlement near a dam on the Amstel River. That small fishing village grew into a vibrant city that became a safe-haven for both Sephardi and Ashkenazi Jews in the late Middle Ages.

During its early years, Amsterdam came under the influence of several different rulers, including Phillip II of Spain. As part of the Union of Utrecht in 1579, the citizens of Amsterdam left Spanish rule, which they resented due to its high taxes and religious intolerance of Protestants. This treaty included a prohibition of persecuting a person for their religious beliefs, a rule that was particularly note-worthy for the Portuguese Jews who were living their public lives as Christians to avoid persecution by the Inquisition. In Amsterdam, they could shed their converso personas and live as Jews.

It is believed that Sephardi Jews began arriving in Amsterdam in the late 1500s and that their first organized service took place in 1596, which led to the formation of Congregation Beth Jacob. By 1608, the community was large enough to support a second synagogue, Neweh Shalom, and a third, Bet Yisrael, in 1618. The three consolidated into one in 1638.

Amsterdam was also a haven for Ashkenazim. The first Ashkenazi Jews to settle in Amsterdam were Jews fleeing the Thirty Year War in Germany. By 1635, they established the first Ashkenazi synagogue. In 1648, there was an influx of Polish Jews fleeing the Chmielnicki pogroms and, in 1655, Lithuanian Jews took refuge there from a Russian invasion. The numerous different communities led the government to require a unified community.

Like most cities in the Middle Ages, Jews were restricted in their professions and interactions with non-Jews. However, their protection from overall persecution allowed Amsterdam’s Jews to flourish. The city became a center of Jewish printing and an oasis of Jewish scholarship and accomplishment.

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