These days, the one district of Amsterdam that every tourist is likely to head to first is the Red Light District. The thing is infamous and has been for well over 500 years, when lonely (if that’s what you want to call it) sailors wandered off ships at the neighboring docks looking for someone to provide a little distraction for a few minutes. These days, the District is just a 10 minute walk from the main train station, so modern-day tourists frequently wander through Red Light District and its one-of-a-kind window shopping. And if that’s not your thing, there’s always its coffee shops.
Back in the Golden Age, sailors and their company aside, the big tourist draw of the day wasn’t the Red Light District but another quarter of the city: the Jewish Quarter. Tourists from England, Germany and France were amazed to see that Amsterdam not only allowed Jews to live their lives freely and openly, but that the Sephardic community here was affluent, educated and cultured — in contrast to Jewish communities they may have seen elsewhere. These tourists often wrote about what they saw, giving us a unique perspective on how the Portuguese Sephardic community of the 17th Century was perceived by its neighbors.
By way of comparison
To really understand the impression the Amsterdam Sephardic community made on its visitors, it helps to understand the perceptions Europe’s Christian community generally had of its Jewish neighbors in general, and the experiences tourists had when they encountered these communities when traveling abroad. Information below comes from Yosef Kaplan’s article “Amsterdam’s Jewry as Perceived by English Tourists and Other Christian Visitors in the Seventeenth Century”
Before the Early Modern Era, which dawned with the Dutch Golden Age, it was utterly common for Jews to be segregated from the Christians they lived amongst, either by being locked up in ghettos, by being required to wear distinguishing clothes or by being subjected to discriminatory laws. In Frankfort, Germany, for example, not only was” the Jewish community locked up in its own section of town, but both men and women were forced to wear a yellow badge on their clothing, demeaning headgear and a distinguishing collar.
And that was a county where Jews were permitted to live. England was closed to Jews and so was France, at least officially, as the Netherlands climbed in ascendency. Spain and Portugal had just kicked out its Jewish populations. Further to the east, the first pogroms were gearing up, driving many Jewish families westward in search of a safe haven.
In the places where Jews did live, visitors often portrayed them in an unflattering light.
English traveler and naturalist wasn’t impressed with what he saw of the Jewish community in Avignon, which is now France but was then a Papal land. Of the Jewish Quarter there, he wrote:
distinct from the rest of the Town, and easily found out by the smell, being the most sordid part of the City . . . nor is it the Streets alone that are thus fill’d with Dirt, their Houses within are as filthy and ill-housewis’d.
Other commentators were less generous, from the reviewer who said that Jews “smelled like garlic” to Englishman Sir Thomas Roe, who said that
The Jews are said to have a Marke upon them of infamie; the Men et Women are both said to looke paler et more-dead like then other people et it is certain that all their Women have a vile smel which is like carrion which cometh from their head et nose.
Not like the others
Against this backdrop, the Portuguese Sephardic community of Amsterdam stands out all the more. They were wealthy, well-perfumed, polyglot and, well, downright civilized: everything that the Jews encountered in other parts of Europe were not.
According to Roe:
The Jews are here allowed the free and open exercise of their religious worship. They live together in one quarter of the city, and are said to be in number about 20,000 souls. They are in better condition, and richer, than in most places where they are tolerated . . .
He was wrong on one count. In fact, the Jewish community at the time numbered just 5,000 at most. Kaplan suggests that it may be that the Portuguese were so visible in such prominent sectors of society that made their community seem large than it was.
Philip Skippon, a 22-year-old student who accompanied Roe on his journey, made his own observations about the Bourse, the famous Exchange building in Amsterdam that is sometimes called the world’s first stock exchange. “Men of several nations resort hither, but the most frequent strangers are the Jews, who fill one walk of the Exchange,” he wrote.
Skippon did note that the fabled wealth of the Portuguese Jews was not universal among them, however. Several in their community were poor; moreover, the Ashkenazi Jewish community, at that time smaller than the Sephardic community but rapidly growing, was desperately poor. And Skippon alone noted that sometimes Jews faced verbal abuse in the street because they were different.
But other writers stressed the sameness between the Sephardic Jews and their Dutch neighbors. “The men are most of them of a tawny complection with black hair, some have clearer skins, and are scarce discernable from the Dutch,” Skippon wrote.
And sometimes, this was for a good reason. Amsterdam not only was a haven for Jews fleeing persecution on the Iberian Peninsula and Eastern Europe, it had also become a destination for Christians who felt a calling to convert to Judaism. Legally, this was not supposed to happen, and yet it did:
Indeed, at that time Holland was known as a significant center of conversion to Judaism in Europe. Although it was forbidden for the Jews to convert Christians, nevertheless there were quite a few such conversions, especially of people who came from elsewhere. Several English people came to Judaism and were absorbed in one way or another within the Portuguese Jewish community. Some of these converts were buried in the Sephardic cemetery in Ouderkerk in the first decades of the seventeenth century.
Cultured men behaving badly
The men of the Sephardic community were reputed to be educated, cultured and, well, a bit untrustworthy. Sometimes, this naughtiness amounted to run-of-the-mill male privilege run amok, while other times, these rumors turn more ominous.
Many visitors remark that the Sephardic men are talented in many languages, which was a necessity of life for them. Generally, they spoke Portuguese at home, Dutch at work, Hebrew at the synagogue and perhaps Spanish when they spoke of literature or the higher arts. For their part, the Portuguese considered themselves to be paragons of civility, far much more so than their Ashkenazic co-religionists.
They were even a bit dapper. Skippon reports that “they carry much perfume about them.” So maybe it’s not surprising to find out that they also earned a reputation as insatiable ladies’ men.
In fact, they became so known for their womanizing of Christian women that the Amsterdam city fathers became alarmed in the early years of the 17th Century. In 1616, a law was passed forbidding absolutely all carnal relations between Jewish men and Christian women — even prostitutes. Not that this seems to have stopped anything. Throughout the century, court cases continued of Christian women suing Jewish men for child support.
A shande for de goyim.
More worryingly, though, were the rumors that spread about Jewish traders manipulating the commodities market by manufacturing, and I kid you not, fake news. This good or bad news would move the price of sugar or silk or other commodities up or down as they liked.
many tymes the Crafty Jewes, and others have contrived to Coine bad newes to make the Actions fall, and good newes to raise them, the which craft of doing at Amsterdam is not taken notice of, which is much to be wondered at, in such a wise Government as Amsterdam is.
Stop me if you’ve heard that one before.
Where are the women?
But if the men were a wonder to behold, the Portuguese women were … nowhere to be seen. Or, more accurately, they were at home, where they rarely left without a male escort. A holdover, Kaplan says, from the days the Sephardic Jews lived side-by-side with their Moorish neighbors.
Some of the tourists noticed that Sephardic women were hardly present at all in the public sphere, in contrast to the rather prominent presence of Dutch women, and even in contrast to the rather impressive presence of Ashkenazi women, who dealt in a variety of professions and trades, and whom one could encounter in many public places. The Sephardi women always appeared in public accompanied by men, and they never appeared in court alone.
One visitor, Sir William Brereton, quipped of the Sephardic community that “their wives restrained and made prisoners.”
Some of the gender division practices were codified into community law. For instance, unmarried women weren’t permitted to enter the synagogue except for on Yom Kippur. And for some reason beyond my understanding, apparently some women liked to try to sneak into the synagogue at night, so a rule had to be written to prohibit it.
Finally, Skippon confirmed that the Portuguese Jewish women, like many Orthodox Jewish women today, covered their hair after marriage. “Maids wear their own hair, but after marriage they cut it off and wear locks.”
- “Amsterdam’s Jewry as Perceived by English Tourists and Other Christian Visitors in the Seventeenth Century”, in Frankfurt’s ‘Jewish Notabilia’. Ethnographic Views of Urban Jewry in Central Europe around 1700, edited by Christoph Cluse and Rebekka Voss, Themeband Frankfurter Jüdaistische Beiträge, Frankfurt Jewish Studies Bulletin 40 (2015), pp. 259-283.