The historical sanctuary of Amsterdam’s Jews

Amsterdam’s Portuguese synagogue is another museum of a once-great community.

THE PORTUGUESE SYNAGOGUE in Amsterdam 370 (photo credit: Ben Hartman)
(photo credit: 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.
The 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 Historical Museum.
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 synagogue’s courtyard.
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 survived.
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.