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.

Amsterdam Canal 370 (photo credit: United Photos / Reuters)
Amsterdam Canal 370
(photo credit: 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 another.
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 well.
Originally the maximum amount of time for completing this search was three years, but was extended to eight years in 1631.
Although the 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 opportunities.
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.
Note that relatively few of them found employment in the city’s brothels.
An 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.