His/Her Story: Portuguese women in Amsterdam
Adapting to Jewish life in Amsterdam was a challenge for all of the Iberian conversos, but even more so for the conversas.
The canals of central Amsterdam Photo: United Photos / Reuters
Amsterdam was a thriving port attracting newcomers in the 17th and 18th
centuries. Among those who chose to relocate there were Iberian conversos
from Portugal and Spain, many of whom were fleeing the tentacles of the
Inquisition, or who preferred not to wait for a showdown. The Portuguese
conversos were descendants of forced converts of 1497, the majority of whom were
Spanish exiles who mistakenly thought that crossing the border was a wise and
safe choice. These Portuguese conversos, who referred to themselves as members
of the Nação Portuguesa (Portuguese nation), had extraordinary ties to one
Upon their arrival in Amsterdam, they created a Jewish
community, whose members were living openly as Jews for the first time. While
there were quite a few wealthy and successful businessmen among them, there were
also numerous poor and needy Jews seeking charity and aid. Information about the
extensive welfare activities initiated during this period has been analyzed in
depth in a new publication by Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld. (See Poverty and Welfare
Among the Portuguese Jews in Early Modern Amsterdam, Littman Library, 2012.)
Thus we learn that among the newcomers were women in financial straits, often as
the direct result of their emigration.
Single women lacking funds could
not marry without possessing a dowry or dotar. Thus a Dotar Society was
established based on the precedent set by the Sephardim in Venice. Members of
this society paid a hefty sum to join it, while preference in the bridal
lotteries was given to their relatives.
Interestingly, girls from
throughout the Sephardi Diaspora applied for these dowries, although local
Sephardi girls had priority. Apparently, there were never enough funds for all
the applicants; consequently, one could remain on the waiting list for years!
Once the dowry was allotted, the prospective bride had to procure a groom as
Originally the maximum amount of time for completing this search
was three years, but was extended to eight years in 1631.
community was concerned with the Iberian conversas, no girls’ school was
established. However, in 1734, Mazon Abanot, an orphanage for girls, was
created, providing education, food and work – but only opened its doors during
the day. During this decade, two societies helping mothers of newborns during
their first month of motherhood were set up. Sidcat Nassim was established for
the ill. In the 1740s, Hesrat Nashim and Quesut la Ebion distributed clothes,
while Parnasad Almanot provided money for widows.
Statistics show that
women received the highest benefits from these charity organizations, probably
because they were perceived to be vulnerable. Some of them had fled the
Inquisition, often arriving penniless. Married women with small dowries, or
whose partners had minimal funds, also needed help.
Many wives could not
fend for themselves when their husbands left Holland in search of new economic
While Portuguese women were not encouraged to be
independent, many of them, particularly the less fortunate, did indeed work.
Some engaged in spinning or cooking; orphans made or repaired clothes, while
poor women served as maids, domestics and washerwomen.
relatively few of them found employment in the city’s brothels.
example of a petition (in this case a request presented to the Dotar Society),
accurately reflects these women’s lives.
“Ribca Enriques de Acosta...
always living a God-fearing life with due respect and deference, begs you to use
your great benevolence and clemency and to admit my daughter to the lottery,
which is a great mitzvah and much valued in the eyes of the Lord, as I am
without any means to protect her because of my sins and I pray the Divine
Majesty... that He may grant you many years for protecting orphaned girls and
widows...” (Ibid., p. 204.)
Interestingly, as generous as this community
tried to be, the allotted funds did not suffice; consequently these women needed
supplements in order to survive. Adapting to Jewish life in Amsterdam was a
challenge for all of the Iberian conversos, but even more so, or so it seems,
for the conversas.
The author is a professor of Jewish history and
outgoing dean at the Schechter Institute, as well as academic editor of the
journal Nashim. She has published books and articles on Sephardi and Oriental
Jewry and on Jewish women.