The historical sanctuary of Amsterdam’s Jews
Amsterdam’s Portuguese synagogue is another museum of a once-great community.
THE PORTUGUESE SYNAGOGUE in Amsterdam Photo: Ben Hartman
AMSTERDAM – The wooden ceilings soar overhead at Amsterdam’s Portuguese
Synagogue, while below your feet lies a light dusting of sand, traditionally
used in Dutch buildings of the 17th century to ward off the moisture left by the
rain which is never far off in the Netherlands.
The smell of sawdust hits
you when you enter the “Esnoga,” built in 1675 to house Amsterdam’s Kahal Kadosh
Talmud Torah Congregation with seating for 1,200 men and 400 women.
Esnoga is a national landmark of the Netherlands that reopened in December
following lengthy renovations. The synagogue boasts a massive ark made out of
solid Brazilian jacaranda wood (a tropical wood that was quite expensive at the
time) and lined with 17th-century gold leather. In a nod to authenticity, the
synagogue has no internal electric lighting system and is lit by candles on
dozens of brass holders throughout the main hall.
With most of
Amsterdam’s Jewish community today living outside the city center, the synagogue
is another museum of a once-great community, albeit one that still holds
services, with high attendance on holidays or during the rare visit by a member
of the Dutch royal family, said Mirjam Knotter, the curator of the Jewish
Knotter said she spends half of her time working in
fund-raising for the next door Jewish Historical Museum, mainly to pay the high
price of restoring the museum’s “treasure chambers,” which hold hundreds of
items including gold-inlaid Torah coverings and silver and gilded Jewish
ornaments protected by the museum.
The synagogue complex’s collection of
Jewish ritual objects is entrusted to the care of the museum, and includes the
Ets Haim library – Livrania Monetzinos.
Built in 1616, the museum says
the library is the oldest still-functioning Jewish library in the world. The
library was included on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register since 2003 and
is protected by Dutch law as part of the nation’s heritage. On its racks are
works in Latin, Greek, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, French, German, English,
Yiddish and Ladino.
The synagogue was founded by Spanish and Portuguese
Jewish immigrants who descended from Jews who fled the Iberian Peninsula during
the Spanish Inquisition.
In 1670, the Sephardi community decided to build
a synagogue, and went with a design by Elias Bouman, who had also worked for the
Great Synagogue of the Ashkenazi congregation. The synagogue was commissioned by
Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca.
The main building is surrounded by a square
of single-story buildings that housed children’s school rooms and the hazan’s
house, and provided students and teachers with shelter from the rain in the
The complex also includes the winter synagogue,
the former home of the congregation’s midrasha, and the site of the
congregation’s regular weekly services.
The winter synagogue is next door
to the congregation’s boardroom, covered in a deep red carpet embroidered with a
phoenix rising from the ashes, a symbol of the community which was reintroduced
after World War II.
The grand synagogue survived the second world war
intact and the Jewish books and objects stolen by the Nazis were recovered in
the years after the Holocaust. Following the community’s decimation in the
Holocaust, the synagogue held its first post-war service on May 9th, 1945, where
in Holland, only 28,000 Jews out of a pre-war population of 120,000
Today, the Jewish community of Amsterdam numbers around 15,000,
according to the European Jewish Congress, with smaller communities in
Rotterdam, The Hague, and elsewhere.