An origin story in old Amsterdam

Every community needs an origin story, and the Sephardic community in Amsterdam is no different.

If it seems strange that a group of Jews from Portugal wound up in Amsterdam in the 1600s, it helps to understand what started in Spain a little more than a hundred years earlier. In 1478, a Dominican friar convinced Queen Isabella of Spain that Jews who had converted to Christianity were still secretly practicing their old beliefs. The queen and King Ferdinand petitioned Pope Sixtus IV to start an inquisition.

At first, the Spanish Inquisition only focused on people who had recently converted to Christianity, known as “new Christians” or conversos. But eventually, it came around to seeing all Jews and Muslims as suspect. It didn’t take long for Ferdinand and Isabella to decide that they couldn’t stand the presence of any non-Christians in their realm. And so, the edict was made: all still-practicing Jews had to either convert by July 31, 1492 or leave.

When the day came, most Jews left – and most who left chose to go to neighboring Portugal. The move might have been the easiest choice, but it wasn’t a fortuitous one. A mere four years later, these Jews found themselves in the exact same position when King Manuel I of Portugal declared that all Jews in Portugal would have to leave that country by October of the following year or have themselves declared to be Catholic. Even those who decided to convert faced a miserable fate, however, as they were treated with suspicion and murderous contempt. Some 2,000 conversos were murdered in Lisbon Massacre of 1506, and a separate Portuguese Inquisition was established in 1536.

Not surprisingly, some of these families decided to get as far away from the Iberian Peninsula and the clutches of the Inquisition as they could get. And this is when it made sense to find someone who shared a common enemy.

Enter the Netherlands.

In the early 1500s, the Netherlands and other lands in what are now the Benelux countries (Belgium and Luxembourg) were ruled by Spain under King Philip II. That didn’t necessarily sit well with the residents of those places, especially with the advent of the Reformation. In the Netherlands especially, people were drawn to a Calvanist brand of Christianity and became vociferously opposed to the Catholic church. Things came to a head with the Dutch Revolt against the Habsburg crown which began in 1568.

By 1581, the Dutch had achieved established their autonomy in the northern provinces and established a republic. At the start of the conflict, Antwerp had been the primary port, but it suffered during the conflict and was forced to surrender to the Spanish. The Dutch then blockaded the city and that severely diminished its economic standing. As it fell, Amsterdam rose.

You can start to see why refugee Jews from Portugal would start to look to Amsterdam as a haven. Not only did it offer the economic opportunities of an economic powerhouse on the rise, it was also the sworn enemy of Spain. And you know what they say about the enemy of my enemy? That’s my friend.

Technically speaking, the newly free Netherlands had decided to be open to all faiths except one – Catholicism. Still, the memory of the Inquisition burned brightly in every refugee’s mind. So when the first Portuguese Jews arrived in Amsterdam in 1596, free for the first time in their lives to celebrate Yom Kippur – the holiest day of the year – they did so with great trepidation.

The small band of refugees huddled together in the home of Samuel Palache, the Moroccan ambassador to the Netherlands, to mark the Day of Atonement. But Amsterdam, being a crowded city – and people being nosey creatures pretty much everywhere – took note of a group of foreigners coming together to behave oddly an say strange things in a foreign language.

They reported it to the authorities who decided that this, surely, must be the work of Catholics worshipping in Latin.

All of the hapless Jews were summarily hauled in to the court for questioning, and I can only imagine what they must have thought lay before them, the horrors of the Inquisition still fresh in their minds. But fortunately, one of the people in their group possessed enough language ability to explain that they were Jews – not Catholics – and that they had been speaking Hebrew, not Latin.

For perhaps the only time in the history of the world, the would-be persecutors were overjoyed to learn that these were Jews, not Christians. The refugees were sent on their way along with the message that it was OK to be a Jew in Amsterdam. Word soon spread, and the rush to settle in Amsterdam was on among Portuguese Jews.

Both the Portuguese refugee community and the city of Amsterdam would benefit from this. The Jews, naturally, gained a safe haven. Amsterdam gained new residents who brought with them a network of trade connections in places like the Caribbean with its sugar trade, and India with its spice trade, and who knew how to cut and shape diamonds or work fine metals.

It was truly the start of something wonderful.


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