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Chapter 5

Mokum

During the thirteenth century, there were some Jewish folk living in the south east of the Lowlands, but somehow disappeared by the middle of the fourteenth century following a severe time of Roman Catholic persecution throughout the country. Two hundred and fifty years later, towards the end of the sixteenth century, came a new wave of Hebrew arrivals in Amsterdam. The new Protestant Republic of the United Netherlands had finally freed itself from the barbarous Church of Rome rule, and the resultant climate was very different to that of any other European nation. Amsterdam was experiencing a period of great economic prosperity, and became rapidly the main centre of European trade. This is a scriptural principle; for the LORD God, blessed be His holy Name, had promised in His Word that, “Those who love Israel shall prosper” Psalm 122: 6.

Montelbaans Tower

The religion and rule of Spain had finally been overthrown, and now there was a new measure of freedom in the Republic. The Union of Utrecht was clearly the important motive for Jews coming to Amsterdam, however, the flourishing trade also proved a strong inducement for Jewish merchants to settle there. For the poor Jews, the Netherlands offered a safe and a much-improved lifestyle. The Dutch were becoming increasingly wealthy and their purchasing power made the potential for selling by small Jewish traders and hawkers greater than elsewhere in Europe.

First, to arrive were the Sephardic Jews from Spain and Portugal. Most were “Maranos” or pseudo-catholics, who had converted under the threat of death. With understandable fears, they did not openly live as Jews in the beginning, in spite of the freedoms of the Netherlands. In 1598, the magistrates of Amsterdam at first determined that Spanish and Portuguese Jews could receive Dutch citizenship.

Around the year 1600, a Rabbi from Emden, Rabbi Uri Ha Levi, arranged to meet a number of Sephardic refugees at the Montelbaans Tower, which was built in 1512 and it still standing to this day.

Rabbi Uri Ha Levi met the refugees at the tower, and took them to a narrow street next to

the white house on the left – “Jonkerstraat” and there they commenced the new community

After meeting the “Maranos” from the north, he took them to Jonker Street just across from the tower where they all lived in a large house and held their very first official ordained Hebrew religious services in a warehouse in 1602. This street is just five minutes walk from what would soon become what would be the “Jewish heart of Amsterdam,” the city that would be soon known as the “New Jerusalem of the West.”

The new arrivals found a prosperous city, which seemed immense yet it was so compact for it was intersected by countless canals and narrow streets. It was a city that would provide the kind of home that the Jewish people of Israel dreamed about for over fifteen hundred years. In Amsterdam, they could freely live as Jews, practising the Torah (the Law) and worship their one true God openly and without any fear whatsoever!

Large numbers continued to arrive, but the obvious problem arouse, for very soon housing was in very short supply. As the Jewish people preferred to live as close as possible to their Synagogues and Kosher facilities, etc, it was difficult to accommodate them, thus the authorities sought a suitable site to build new homes for all these new arrivals.

They chose a site known as Vlooyenburg, for already in 1593; a square island had been raised from the waters of the Amstel River on the eastern side of the city. Prior this section being filled in, there had already been a raised section on the bottom of the river over on which, more often than not, water would flow. It was called Vlooyenburg for the reason that “vlooyen” is old Dutch that means “to flow.” Sadly some wicked anti-Semitics that have said that the name was directly related to the other meaning of the Dutch word, “vlooyen” being “fleas.” Being a Dutch born person, I can assure you for it that this is totally unfounded, for strangely enough fleas do not swim!

Here is a map of Vlooyenburg

 

An old photograph of Vlooyenburg, note the “Moses & Aaron Church” - top right

Vlooyenburg would afterwards be bordered by Zwanenburgwal (Swans’ Rampart), Leprozengracht (Lepers Canal) named after a nearby home for lepers, and the Houtgracht (Wood Canal), so called for the area was used by timber merchants. Later came the two intersecting streets, Lange Houtstraat and Korte Houtstraat (Long and Short Wood Streets), which divided the island into four equal parts. The Island provided ample accommodation for the new arrivals. Daily services as well as those for the Sabbath, and all the Feasts were still being held in private homes or warehouses, as the authorities had not as yet granted permission to build Synagogues. Then in 1614, the Burgomasters (Mayors) of Amsterdam approved the purchase of a plot of land at Oudekerk on the Amstel River, close to the city to establish a Jewish cemetery. This cemetery can still be visited, with old gravestones that tell its story of the poor, rich, and famous Jewish of their time.

Oudekerk Jewish Cemetery dates back to 1614

In spite of all the foregoing, there were a few restrictions imposed. It was decreed that Jews could not “by spoken or written word, bring the Christian religion, to even the smallest degree, into contempt or scorn, nor attempt to convert or to circumcise any person of the Christian religion.” This was the extent of restrictions imposed on the Jewish people in the Netherlands.

In 1618, Jose Pinto rented from a pastry baker, Jan Thivart, a warehouse situated on the Houtgracht (by now renamed Waterlooplein). It was used for the “Beth Yisroel” (House of Israel) Congregation, one of Amsterdam's three Portuguese Hebrew congregations at the time. The other two being, “Beth Jacob” (House of Jacob) and “Naveh Shalom” (Abode of Peace), they also obtained quarters nearby in the same street. In 1639 the three congregations merged into one, and enlarged the warehouse, creating the first Synagogue in the Netherlands, now named the “Talmud Torah (Study of the Law) Congregation.”

This is an artist impression of the Moses’n’Aaron Houses after the secret Catholic church had been installed

Above: These were the first ever-official “House Synagogues” in Amsterdam. Baruch de Spinoza lived in one of these. Much later it housed the underground Catholic Church, and this complex was rebuilt to become the large “Moses & Aaron Church” that remains to this day and the two wall statues are still shown in its wall.

It would be in this house Synagogue that the philosopher and lens grinder, Baruch de Spinoza was excommunicated for his non-traditional Biblical exegesis in 1656, aged twenty-three. Spinoza became famous as a philosopher for his emphasis of the human aspects of religion. He rejected the revelation as laid down in the Scriptures, as a guideline for human actions, and replaced it with reason, thus denying the authority of the Word of God.

As a point of interest, he was born in one of the houses known as the “Moses and Aaron” houses, one of which was also the place of worship for the congregation, “Naveh Shalom” until 1639. Stone tablets depicting Moses and Aaron decorated two of the houses that eventually became the site of the secret Catholic Church in Amsterdam. Today a grand building built in 1841, known as the Moses and Aaron Church occupies the site, and is now used solely as a concert and meeting hall by the city of Amsterdam. The original tablets have been placed on the rear wall.

The original 1639 “Moses-n-Aaron” carvings remain in the large church wall to this day

 

However, Amsterdam’s very first Synagogue was built in 1639 and was named the “Talmud Torah.” It was located just down the Road from the three House Synagogues at Waterlooplein Vlooyenburg.

An artist impression of the Talmud Torah Synagogue as built

 

The interior of the original Talmud Torah Synagogue

In 1642, Prince Fredick Henry came to the Talmud Torah and honoured the Synagogue with a special visit. On this occasion Rabbi and famed printer Menassah ben Israel delivered a festive address comparing the Commander in Chief, to Judah of Maccabee. Sadly the first Synagogue of Amsterdam had a coloured history thereafter. When a new much larger Synagogue was opened in 1675, the “Talmud Torah” was renamed “De Herschepping” (the re-creation). From 1675 to 1875, it was used as the Hebrew wedding hall, and from 1875 to 1931 as a general meeting place, but only for the very poorest of Jews. Sadly, this fine building with such a rich history was purchased by the city of Amsterdam in 1930, with the intention of tearing it down to construct a new police station. “De Herschepping” was demolished in 1931, but remained a vacant site until long after the war. Eventually a housing complex was built on it, with not a single reminder left to remind us of its existence, which is such as shame!

“De Herschepping” (left with balcony) previously the Talmud Torah Synagogue is seen her in the late 1920s

Obviously the building had seen many changes over the years and was now just three windows wide

The section on the left had been separated from the original Synagogue and it had become a house

Returning to the story of the migration, Jews from other parts of Europe began to arrive, and by 1648, there was a growing influx of Ashkenazi Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe. They also settled in the area around Vlooyenburg and the Jodenbreestraat (Jewish Wide Street). The Ashkenazi, being the High German Jewish community, soon outnumbered the comparatively few, but influential Sephardim (Portuguese – Middle Eastern community), especially when one of the most tragic outbursts of persecution raised its ugly head throughout Eastern Europe, in the middle of the seventeenth century.

This was the rebellion of the Ukrainian peasants led by the evil Bogdan Chielnicki, 1595 – 1657. He was a Greek Orthodox Cossack, who stood against Polish Roman Catholic rule in the Ukraine, and he was the cause for Jews to flee their homes. Chielnicki and his rebels vented their fury upon the Polish rulers and nobility, members of the Roman Catholic Church, as well as the Jewish communities. As the Jews were such an easy target they suffered the most and thus, hideous massacres took place over a ten-year period, between 1648 and 1658, which was responsible for the torture and the hideous slaughter of over one hundred thousand innocent Jewish men, women, and little children and even babies. This indiscriminate slaughter remained unparalleled until Hitler's insanity, during the Holocaust. Many Hebrew’s who fled, came to the “safe city” that they had heard about, it had become known as the New Jerusalem of the West being the city of Amsterdam.

The number of Sephardic Hebrews in Amsterdam levelled off at around three thousand during the course of the seventeenth century, whereas in contrast, during the eighteenth century the Ashkenazi Hebrews numbered at almost twenty thousand. In 1635, Ashkenazi services were being held in the home of Canter Anshel Rood in the heart of Vlooyenburg. With numbers now rapidly increasing due to the Ukrainian rebellion, therefore a more permanent home, a large Synagogue became an important matter for the Ashkenazi community. At the same time, the “Talmud Torah” was also considering building a new larger house of worship.

Rabbi Sabbatai Zevi, the great deceiver!

These projects did not commence until 1670, why? One of the main reasons was that many Jews throughout Europe, as well as in the Netherlands tragically believed that the long awaited Messiah had finally come in the form of Sabbatai Zevi.

This individual had proclaimed himself as the long awaited Messiah in the Holy Land, amid the blowing of trumpets and the adoration of his followers. Dutch Jews, including a good number of deluded Rabbis believed that he indeed could be the promised Messiah, but very quickly they were disillusioned when their Sabbatai betrayed his Judaic faith, when under force he converted to Islam on September 16 1666 – note the number 666 measures in the date, just proving that he was just another part of an evil plot of deception, but not the final one! Life soon returned to normal in Amsterdam and with the community having learned a very powerful lesson, both communities commenced the planning of their respective Synagogues in 1670.

Rembrandt van Rijn’s House is seen here in the 1920s

A Man named van Rijn. In the Jodenbreestraat (Jewish Wide Street) there is a house that was built in 1607. From 1639 to 1660, this was the home and workshop of the world famous painter, Rembrandt van Rijn. He chose to live in the very heart of the Jewish quarter, were he would find many excellent subjects to paint and draw. Next door, was a house, which was owned by another artist, Hendrick Uijlenburg, who operated an art school? Rembrandt himself was associated with this school for four years from 1631. It was there, where he met Mr Uijlenburg’s niece, who became his wife. Rembrandt loved to paint Jewish subjects, which is evident in his many works on display in Amsterdam’s “Rijksmuseum” and in Rembrandt’s home today. Jews would often commission him to paint their portraits.

Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel (1604–1657)

Rabbi Manasseh ben Israel, famed for being the first printer in Amsterdam, had his portrait painted and four etchings made for his book “Piedra Gloriosa,” a tract written in Spanish concerning the coming of the Messiah. Some of Rembrandt's other works were entitled. “Jews in the Synagogue,” “a Jewish Wedding” and “the Beggars,” depicting a Rabbi giving alms to the poor. Rembrandt, although not Jew, is very much part of the history of Jewish Amsterdam, even to this day.

The Jewish influence made such an impression on Amsterdam and the Netherlands that it continues to persist in Amsterdam today. In the Netherlands, everyone knows the name “Mokum” which is the Yiddish word for “City.” Its usage reflects the importance Jews attached to Amsterdam. Yiddish also influenced the way the people of Amsterdam speak to this day. They use the word “mazel” for “luck,” “meshuche” for “crazy,” to name just a couple of examples. In addition, the Hebrew population has influenced the Dutch sense of humour and cuisine. Salt meats, gherkins, pickles, and mey cheese are all part of Amsterdam’s Jewish heritage. Then there are the grand buildings built from 1670, the four Synagogues, to be described in the next chapter, all visible evidence of the once flourishing Jewish community, which were acclaimed as the builders of the “New Jerusalem of the West.”

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