In 1892, Temple Emanu-el, a Jewish Reform congregation in New York City, donated a collection of rare Judaica books and manuscripts to Columbia University. Richard James Horatio Gottheil, the son of Temple Emanu-el’s rabbi and Columbia’s newly established professor of Rabbinical Literature (his title would change many times over the next few decades) was instrumental in the donation of the gift, which had been acquired by Temple Emanu-el from a bookdealer in Amsterdam in 1872. The collection contained 2500 books and 45 manuscripts, many of which were produced in the Jewish community of Amsterdam.
Sephardic (Spanish and Portuguese) Jews had arrived in the Netherlands as early as the 15th century. There were close connections between Spain and the Netherlands, and King Philip II of Spain controlled the Netherlands from the mid-16th century. However, by time of the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 one hundred years later, most of the northern Netherlands had achieved independence as the United Provinces. The United Provinces’ joint history with Spain, combined with its break from Catholicism, meant that these lands were familiar to Iberian Jews while showing much more tolerance of non-Catholics. Different cities in the Netherlands had different policies regarding Jewish practices, and Amsterdam was well known for its relatively tolerant policies. Another critical aspect of Dutch policy by the mid-17th century was that its Jews be recognized as citizens even while abroad, and thus restrictions on Dutch Jews in other lands (including Spain, from which many Jews had fled in order to safely practice Judaism, which was banned in Spain following the 1492 expulsion of the Jews) were necessarily limited.
Crypto-Jewish migration to Northern Europe from the Iberian peninsula would increase from a trickle to a flowing river over the next two centuries. Those Jews who had converted publicly to Christianity to survive in Spain in the 15th century and beyond realized that travel to Amsterdam meant that they could return to their Jewish practices and communities. These Jews maintained their Iberian connections, however, speaking Portuguese and writing in Spanish for centuries. A collection at Columbia of correspondence between the Sephardic communal leaders of Hamburg and Amsterdam beginning in the mid-17th century is written in Spanish, with snippets of Ladino thrown in (the letters shift to Hebrew and Dutch in later centuries). Saul Levi Morteira was an important rabbi and teacher of Judaism, and his book Tratado de la verdad de la ley de Moseh y providencia de Dios con su pueblo was a critical text in teaching Jewish practice to the former conversos. An image of Morteira (right), teaching in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, is from one of Columbia’s three manuscript copies of the work, and is the only known contemporary drawing of the rabbi in existence today.
The arrival of many conversos to Amsterdam led to the creation of a number of polemical works (often in manuscript, because Jews printing anti-Christian texts would have been a bit too much for their neighbors even in tolerant Amsterdam). A set of “Dialogues” between a “Reformado” (a Protestant), a “Catholico,” a “Turco” (that is, a follower of Islam), and a “Judio,” debating which was the true religion, was probably written in Amsterdam around 1737. The diversity of the speakers in the dialogue also illustrates the religious diversity that existed in the multicultural Amsterdam of the 18th century. (For more on the multicultural diversity of early modern Amsterdam, see Dr. M. (Maarten) Hell’s presentation in the 2021 Norman E. Alexander Celebration of Collections, beginning around 55:30.)
Spanish and Portuguese writing by Jews in Amsterdam wasn’t only polemical, however. Sephardic Jews looked toward Spain for inspiration in their own writing as well. Thus we have Rabbi Isaac Aboab de Mattathias writing a play about the Biblical figure of Joseph in the style of Spanish Golden Age Literature in 1685 (although in a distinctly Jewish style, as the play also includes elements of Portuguese and Ladino). Aboab’s works have been compared in style to those of Miguel de Carvajal’s Tragedia Josephina and Lope de Vaga’s El Caballero de Olmedo, indicating that he would have been familiar with the works of the great Spanish writers of his time.
Not all Jews in Amsterdam spoke Iberian languages, of course. Ashekenazi Jews from Central and Eastern Europe usually spoke Yiddish, and there is even documentation of Judeo-Arabic Jews from North Africa coming to print works at Amsterdam’s famed presses. Dutch was not completely neglected, however. The Libraries have a couple of examples of Jewish works in Dutch – a translation of the Psalms and the penitential prayers before the Jewish New Year, created for Sarah de la Farra in 1714; and a translation of prayers for Passover, Shavu’ot, and Sukkot according to the Sephardic rite written by Michael Lopez Pinto (1734). The streets of early modern Amsterdam resounded with voices in many languages – those in the Jewish neighborhoods covered a broad range, from Spanish, Portuguese, and Ladino, to Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, and even a bit of Dutch!
For questions about this post you may contact Michelle Margolis Chesner, the Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies, at firstname.lastname@example.org.