A Visit to Amsterdam – Mike Newman

Millicent & I recently visited Amsterdam for the weekend. We did not go to the red-light area or visit the cafes where certain forms of cake are sold. We did however do the normal tourist things we went to Rijksmuseum to see the Rembrandts to the Van Gogh museum and of course a trip round the canals.

We spent some in the Jewish quarter which is located close to the opera house on the Amstel River and is a collection of buildings incorporating the Jewish Museum including the Ashkenazi synagogue and the still functioning Sephardi synagogue.

Dutch Jewry originates with Sephardim fleeing from the Spanish inquisition they were tolerated in Amsterdam as the Dutch were involved in a war of independence against the Spanish. The Dutch who were Calvinist also had a benign attitude towards Jews they were tolerated, allowed to practice their religion provided they did not make too much noise about it. The Sephardim prospered their professions ranged from high finance to pedlars. They become integrated into Dutch Commercial life and amongst other things financed William & Mary’s invasion of England in 1688. Prominent Dutch Jews of the time included Manasseh ben Israel who petitioned Oliver Cromwell for the successful readmission of the Jews into England and Spinoza who was excommunicated for his heretical views.

Esnoga Synagogue Amsterdam

Esnoga Synagogue Amsterdam

On December 12, 1670, the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam acquired the site to build a synagogue and construction work began on April 17, 1671. The synagogue known as the Esnoga which is Ladino for synagogue was finished August 2, 1675 they had a 8 day dedication ceremony.

On December 12, 1670, the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam acquired the site to build a synagogue and construction work began on April 17, 1671, under the architect Elias Bouwman. On August 2, 1675, the Esnoga was finished.

The inscription above the entrance is from Psalm 5:8: “In the abundance of Thy loving-kindness will I come into Thy house”. The sign also contains “1672”, the year the building was supposed to have been ready, and “Aboab”, the name of the chief rabbi whose initiative it was to build the synagogue.

The building is free-standing and rests on wooden poles and the foundation vaults can be viewed by boat from the water underneath the synagogue. The entrance to the main synagogue is off a small courtyard enclosed by low buildings housing the winter synagogue, offices and archives, homes of various officials, the rabbinate, a mortuary and famous Etz Hayim library. The interior of the synagogue is a single very high rectangular space retaining its original wooden benches. The floor is covered with fine sand, in the Old Dutch tradition, to absorb dust, moisture and dirt from shoes and to muffle the noise. It is the only synagogue not in the Caribbean to have a sand floor, and is one of only five synagogues with a sand floor.

The building is free-standing and rests on wooden poles. The entrance to the main synagogue is off a small courtyard enclosed by low buildings housing the winter synagogue, offices and archives, homes of various officials, the rabbinate, a mortuary and famous Etz Hayim library. The interior of the synagogue is a single very high rectangular space retaining its original wooden benches. The interior is very plain no stain glass no doubt taking its inspiration from the surrounding Calvinist churches The floor is covered with fine sand, in the old Dutch tradition, to absorb dust, moisture and dirt from shoes and to muffle the noise. It is one of only five synagogues with a sand floor. The synagogue has 2 fine sofas by the Ark which are used whenever prominent people visit and each year for the Chatan Torah and Chatan Breshith. The synagogue also has several fine brass chandeliers and is lit entirely by candles the pews are extremely uncomfortable I would not like to be there for Yom Kippur.

There are a lot of similarities between this shul and Bevis Marks although Bevis Marks is smaller and slightly younger there has always been an association between the two communities. The Amsterdam shul donated one of the chandeliers currently in use in Bevis Marks.

The Sephardim were joined by Ashkenazim who established their own synagogue which is now the centre of the Jewish Museum which depicts the history of Dutch Jews from the beginning until now. There were some particularly poignant clips of a shul being dedicated in September 1939 showing the proud Dutch Jews holding sifrei torah as part of the dedication. Life changed in 1940, over 100,000 Jews were expelled during the German Occupation via the Westerbork transit camp. Many including Anne Frank were hidden by their neighbours. Today there are around 43000 left in Holland mostly in Amsterdam.

Amsterdam is easy to reach, a 35 minute flight from Southend. You can quickly absorb Amsterdam in a long day, although 2 or 3 days are really needed to savour the city.