Rembrandt and the Jews of Holland

Ever since the 1580s after the Act of Abjuration was issued and Philip II of Spain was deposed, increasing numbers of Jews found their way back to what became the Dutch Republic.

A painting in the Joodse Historische Museum of the Esnoga Synagogue, painted in the 18th century showing the affluence of the Jews at the time (photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
A painting in the Joodse Historische Museum of the Esnoga Synagogue, painted in the 18th century showing the affluence of the Jews at the time
(photo credit: ROBERT HERSOWITZ)
Was Rembrandt van Rijn a Jewish convert and what kind of relationship did he have with his Jewish neighbors in Amsterdam? These are questions that have been asked by art historians for the past 200 years and form the subject of conferences and exhibitions throughout the world. 2019 marks the 350th anniversary of Rembrandt’s death. The Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam will be mounting a series of exhibitions to mark the occasion. According to research from the last century, almost a third of the artist’s works had a Jewish connection either because they portrayed Jews or depicted scenes in which Jewish models were used. Rembrandt’s house, now a museum still stands on the Jodenbreestraat (Jewish Broad Street), a stone’s throw from the famous Esnoga Spanish Portuguese Synagogue.
The myths that Rembrandt secretly converted to Judaism and was closely connected to his Jewish neighbors were circulated in the 19th century by Jewish collectors. The exhibition curator at the museum, Edward Van Voolen, noted author and Reform rabbi mercilessly dispels these myths.
Despite this, it is difficult not to connect Rembrandt, his students and the Jewish community of Amsterdam. One need only look at the works of Aert de Gelder, one of Rembrandt’s most devoted pupils who came from the town of Dordrecht to study with the master in Amsterdam. His works included “Esther and Mordechai,” “The Jewish Bride,” “Ahimelech Giving the Sword to David,” “Judah and Tamar” and “the Banquet of Ahasuerus.” All these paintings by de Gelder echo the themes of some of his great teacher’s epic biblical paintings such as “David’s Farewell to Jonathan,” “The Jewish Bride” (purportedly Isaac and Rebecca which has pride of place in the newly refurbished Rijksmuseum), “Belshazzar’s Feast” and “Moses with the Ten Commandments.” The latter two also show Rembrandt’s use of Hebrew script. In many of these works, figures are depicted with beards, kaftans, and skullcaps. So how did this Judeo-Christian cultural osmosis come about?
Ever since the 1580s after the Act of Abjuration was issued and Philip II of Spain was deposed, increasing numbers of Jews found their way back to what became the Dutch Republic. When Catholic Spain gave way to Protestant rule in Holland, the Jews were able to practice their religion once more. They settled in Amsterdam near the synagogue and established what became known as the Jewish Quarter and what they called the New Jerusalem.
Until then they had masqueraded as practicing Christians, attending mass and performing Catholic rituals while they tried to observe their true religion in secret. They were accorded rights that allowed them to practice their faith as long as they did not over socialize, proselytize or intermarry with Christians.
This may explain Van Voolen’s assertion that Rembrandt had very little to do with the Jews. He points out that only one subject of his paintings, the physician Ephraim Bueno has been conclusively proven to have been Jewish and a neighbor who commissioned the work. Many commentators and writers, including the well-known British historian and novelist Dr. Philippa Gregory whose novel “The Queen’s Fool” tells the story of conversos who flee to England via Holland, point out that even after Jews had fled Spain they were terrified of the long arm of the Inquisition. They needed to keep a low profile to prevent their persecutors from taking revenge on them or their converso families who were still living in Spain and elsewhere in Europe. After all, the Inquisition began its bloody work in 1231 and continued for 700 years until the last documented execution in1826. Even in the tolerant Protestant Dutch Republic, Jews were still conscious of not flaunting their Jewishness. There were spies lurking everywhere.
So when Van Voolen and others claim that there is no proof that Rembrandt’s models were Jewish or that he had close connections with the Jewish community at the time, it is important to reflect on the social history of the period where such liaisons could have been kept secret. This does not mean that the Spanish Portuguese or Ashkenazi Jewish immigrants were totally inconspicuous. Indeed they were an exotic looking group of individuals with distinctive ethnic features. Some of theme dressed differently and spoke with different accents. They must have attracted the attention of their fellow citizens, not least the artists among whom they lived. Their religion was also respected by their church-going Protestant neighbors who embraced the Old Testament. They were familiar with all the leading characters of the Hebrew Bible, which in turn inspired the artists to choose models who would reflect authentic Jewish physical characteristics in their biblical paintings.
At a symposium held at the Yeshiva University Museum in 2016, scholars and intellectuals, including Jewish Art historian Sir Simon Schama, critic and author Leon Wieseltier, Prof. Shelley Perlove, Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik and the the museum’s director Jacob Wisse, gathered to discuss the topic of Rembrandt and the Jews.
Rabbi Soloveichik of the Moshael Strauss Center called Rembrandt’s portrayal of Moses with the Ten Commandments “profoundly Jewish.” He pointed to the fact that the Moses depicted is shown without horns thus correcting the mistaken interpretation that led Michelangelo to portray the Torah figure with horns. In addition the tablets are shown with 5 commandments on each tablet, the layout traditionally used by Jews. In Rembrandt’s time Christian depictions of the tablets showed 4 on the first tablet and 6 on the second. Rabbi Soloveichik called the Hebrew calligraphy “superlative… almost like a Torah scroll.” He presented evidence that he had gathered to show that the probable source for the Hebrew inscription was an Amsterdam synagogue that no longer exists but which Rembrandt or one of his Jewish students definitely visited. This was the very same Shul which had excommunicated Baruch Spinoza making it “more welcoming to Rembrandt and his student than to Spinoza.”
Prof. Shelley Perlove, co-author of the book “Rembrandt’s Faith” and professor at the University of Michigan declared that Rembrandt did use Jewish models. She specifically referred to the figure of Jesus in the 1648 painting, “Supper at Emmaus.” She pointed out that in this painting, Jesus is shown pulling at a plaited challah reflective of the Sabbath loaves used in Jewish homes on Friday nights in 17th century Amsterdam. Prof. Perlove explains that Rembrandt was a stickler for authenticity. In some of his works Jewish figures are portrayed wearing skullcaps and tallit-like fringes. He also painted biblical scenes that depict the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
Impressively, the depictions adhere closely to architectural illustrations based on descriptions from the Mishna, Talmud and Josephus that were published in Holland in 1630.
“No artist before or after Rembrandt,” Perlove said, “drew on Jewish sources in this way.”
So how did Jewish life in Amsterdam evolve after the “golden age” of Rembrandt?
In 1795 after the French Revolution, the Jews were fully emancipated. The National Convention of September 2, 1796 proclaimed: “No Jew shall be excluded from rights or advantages…associated with citizenship in the Batavian Republic, and which he may desire to enjoy.”
By the turn of the last century Jews represented 2% of the population. There were 51,000 Jews living in Amsterdam and it was called “Jerusalem of the West.” According to the Dutch census the population grew by 250% peaking at 154,000 in 1941 before the Nazi invasion. Just four years later, there were only 35,000 Jews left. Today there are only 30,000 Jews living there according to the most recent census. With the loss of two-thirds of the Jewish population, the Jews of the Netherlands have struggled to rebuild themselves. Following the establishment of the State of Israel, thousands of Jews have made aliyah leaving the present community barely able to sustain itself.
Having once lived in Amsterdam, I recently became aware of the dwindling presence of Jews there when I visited the city in the summer. Most of the Jews are now concentrated around the suburbs of Buitenveldert and Amstelveen. In a recent survey conducted in Holland in 2018, many Jews say that antisemitism is on the rise. Almost half of those surveyed said that they take active steps to hide their Jewish identity.
“We avoid walking around with kippot showing,” a Dutch friend told me. “And it’s also not a good idea to openly wear a star of David pendant in public,” he added. I could not help thinking how this current state of affairs and the need to hide one’s Jewishness is a throwback to Rembrandt’s time.
With the spread of antisemitism across Europe, the present situation is a far cry from the heady days of 1967 after the Six Day War when Israel and the Jews were greatly admired and respected by the Dutch people and the government. A reflection of how things have changed in the country is best expressed in the Joodse Historische Museum in Amsterdam where a constantly repeated video of the former Dutch Queen Beatrix is displayed in the main gallery. She was speaking to the Knesset in 1995 and her words contain a degree of irony that must resonate strongly with the present day Jewish community:
“The cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam, above all, became the center of a flourishing and extensive Jewish community, so much so indeed that our capital acquired the enduring nickname, “Mokum” or “Makom” – the safe place. Jewish libraries and seminaries arose. The Jewish synagogue became one of the most beautiful and serene buildings in the city, as it still is, restored recently to its old splendor. The studies of medicine and law, among other disciplines, attracted many talented Jewish students and scholars. One of these was the controversial Spinoza, who lives on as one of the great philosophers of European history. In a later age Dutch Jews played a significant part in quite different areas as well.”
Despite the demographic changes that have occurred in Holland in recent times, and the considerable shift in attitude towards Israel by the Dutch government, Jews continue to enjoy good relationships with their non-Jewish Dutch neighbors much as they did during the time of Rembrandt.