Divided by a Common Faith

The Portuguese Sephardic community were the first Jews to reach Amsterdam when they arrived around 1593. As soon as it became clear that the city would not only permit them to live in the bustling city, but welcomed them there and would put few economic or religious restrictions on them, Jews who faced persecution from the inquisitions in Portugal and Spain began making their way to Amsterdam and setting up a thriving community there.

It didn’t take long for another community of Jews to take notice. When a series of pogroms kicked off in connection with the Chmielnicki Uprising in 1648, Jews from Eastern Europe began making their way to Amsterdam as well. They differed from the Iberian Jews in many ways. They spoke Yiddish, not the Portuguese or Spanish of their co-religionists who were already in Amsterdam. Their religious practices differed in ways both small and great. And, perhaps most significantly, they were overwhelmingly poor and undereducated, whereas the Iberian Jews were noted for their wealth and prided themselves in their appreciation of culture.

The Portuguese Jews were Sephardic, a term that means “Spain” in Hebrew. The new arrivals were Ashkenazi, which translates from Hebrew as “Germany.”

In a perfect world, you’d think the co-religionists would get along. But this is not a perfect world.

A Jew by any other name …

If there’s one thing that separates humans from the other animals, I’d say it’s our immense talent for creating divisions among ourselves. Of creating an “us” vs. a “them.” Of tribalism.

Interior of the Portuguese Synagogue, by Emanuel de Witte

We create lines of division everywhere. Nation against nation, sports team against sports team, sports team’s fan against other sports team’s fans, my faith against your faith, Democrats vs. Republicans, are you a cat person or a dog person and on and on and on.

Jews, I’m sorry to say, are no different.

“There are two sorts of Jews in Holland; some are Germans, and others come from Portugal and Spain. They are divided about some Ceremonies, and hate one another,” wrote Jacques Basnage in his “The History of the Jews from Jesus Christ to the Present Time” in 1708.

Specifically, he was writing about the Sephardim (Portugal and Spain) and the Ashkenazim (Germany and Eastern Europe). And as to whether they hated one another? Well, more on that in a moment.

Some background first.

The Jewish people were always mobile, all the way back to their nomadic roots. But when Rome took it upon itself to destroy Jerusalem in 70 CE, they were truly dispersed throughout the world: as far west as Spain, as far east as Iran and throughout North Africa. Though widespread, these communities managed to remain in contact with one another. However, over time, they developed their own customs, practices and cultures that were, in part, influenced by the non-Jewish people they lived among.

The Portuguese Synagogue, etching by Bernard Picard

In Spain and Portugal, the Jewish community fared rather well living under the Muslim Andalusian rule. While still afforded dhimmi status, they were allowed to reach honored positions in society. The legendary Jewish scholar Maimonides was first a doctor in Spain, respected by all. Many Jewish families were able to achieve a comfortable standard of living by the time the Inquisition came along and robbed them of it.

Meanwhile, things weren’t going so well for the Jews who had settled in Germany, Poland, Russia and Eastern Europe. Their history had been rife with evictions and resettlements. Pogrom followed pogrom. Whenever a plague or pestilence broke out, the finger of blame routinely pointed in their direction. As a result, their community was poor, often destitute, and their people were too busy scrambling to survive to be able to acquire art or produce literature.

Familiarity breeds contempt

By the time Ashkenazi Jews showed up in Amsterdam, the Sephardic community had established itself as a prosperous component of Amsterdam’s success. Its merchants were useful in maintaining the trade networks that powered the trade in sugar and tobacco in the West Indies, and its artisans knew how to cut diamonds brought in from the Dutch colonies in India. Some of the wealthiest Portuguese Jews were large shareholders in the Dutch East Indies Co. (VOC) By the end of the 1600s, they held a quarter of the shares in the VOC, making them very important players not just in Amsterdam, but in the Dutch Republic.

Portuguese Jew, by Jan Luyken

So when their poor cousins showed up from the east, they were something of an embarrassment to the wealthy Sephardim.

First, there was their abject poverty. No one likes to be seen standing next to a relative dressed in rags, after all. But that in itself could be easily fixed. True enough, the Portuguese community had set up several charity funds — for orphan boys to learn a trade, for orphan girls to get a dowry, for the care of the sick. But they weren’t crazy about sharing this goodwill with people who weren’t Iberian. They did, however, find one use of these funds that the Ashkenazi were worthy of: they would offer to pay to send some of them elsewhere, either to other Dutch towns or to colonies overseas.

Second, there was the matter of religion. Oh, sure, they were all Jews. But they were very different kinds of Jews. The Sephardic Jews, who had been accustomed to blending in with their Catholic neighbors in Spain and Portugal as a matter of survival, tended to blend in with their Dutch neighbors as well. They mimicked their neighbors manner of dress and copied their style in facial hair and hairstyle. The Ashkenazi, on the other hand, insisted on wearing full beards and Jewish headgear. How gauche!

The Sephardic community was eager to keep their community separate from the Ashkenazi. Edicts were drafted prohibiting their members from buying meat from Ashkenazi butchers. Indeed, some were temporarily excommunicated for breaking that rule. Children from one community were warned against marrying into families from the other community. And Ashkenazi Jews were not allowed to become members of the Sephardic synagogue.

Was this division solely over theological differences? Or, in part, was this from a Sephardic desire to show their Dutch hosts that they were not the same as their impoverished, less-educated brethren?

From the outside looking in

The Dutch were not just open-minded about allowing Jews to settle in Amsterdam — they were actively curious about their new neighbors. Rembrandt lived smack dab in the middle of the Jewish quarter and he made the people around him the subject of many of his paintings, and several artists also depicted Jews or painted their houses of worship.

Passover seder in a Sephardic home, by Bernard Picard

Writers described their trips to the synagogues, and dignitaries frequently made a visit to them as well. Even visitors from other countries made a point of visiting the synagogues and Jewish quarter.

Many of them took notice of the differences between the Sephardic and Ashkenazi communities, says Samantha Baskind in her 2007 article “Distinguishing the Distinction: Picturing Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam.”

Rembrandt, for example, seems to have preferred using Sephardic models in his earlier works, but switched to Ashkenazi models in his later art. In particular, he seems to have thought that the “look” of the Ashkenazi fit his idea of what a Biblical Hebrew should look like.

A French-born etcher who lived in Amsterdam, Bernard Picart, depicted religious ceremonies of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities. But he showed them very differently.

For instance:

Synagogue Etching, by Rembrandt. Art historians believe this depicts an Ashkenazi synagogue.

“Le Repas de Paques chez les Juifs Portugais,” a scene of a Passover Seder, presents another elegant Sephardic family, here eating at their dining room table amid luxurious items in the china cabinet, a coat nonchalantly laying on a chair, and a cozy roaring fire. Without the caption underneath, which gives the print its contemporary title, the viewer would have no idea that this family was observing a sacred rite of the Jewish people; the books held by some Jews are not obviously haggadot nor is the Seder plate clearly differentiated from any other platter of food.”

Not so when he depicts an Ashkenazi home, which is “not attractive.”

And compare his depiction of the Sephardic synagogue: “a grand, detailed view of the large Portuguese synagogue wherein the Jews sit on benches amid beautiful chandeliers.” … To the Ashkenazi synagogue: “less couth, pious German Jews packed into a modest space and includes one unassimilated worshipper sitting on the floor.”

Portrait of a Young Jew, by Rembrandt

Baskind says these different depictions point to an underlying belief among the non-Jews of Amsterdam: the assimilated, wealthier Sephardic Jews were more familiar, less threatening and less “other” than the poor, more pious, less assimilated Ashkenazi Jews.

And, truth be told, it was an attitude shared by the Sephardic community to some extent as well.

  • Baskind, S. (2007). “Distinguishing the Distinction: Picturing Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews in Seventeenth- and Eighteenth-Century Amsterdam.” Journal for the Study of Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewry

4 thoughts on “Divided by a Common Faith

  1. Thank you, thank you for including all these images! Sixteenth century Prague had a sizeable Jewish community due to the tolerance of Emperor Rudolf II – and these were almost certainly Anshkenazi. I have struggled to figure out how they dressed. Though your Amsterdam is 100 years later and further west, these photos still provide some valuable guidance.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey … I actually just picked up a book about the Jewish community in Prague going back to about … I’m not sure when offhand, but deep into the middle ages. It appears to be an art book that accompanied some museum exhibit (I haven’t really delved into it, but my synagogue was giving it away a few weeks ago as it was clearing shelf space in our library) It not only has depictions of clothing, but everyday things like household items, ritual items, portraits, etc. It certainly sounds like it will be of more use to you than me. Hit me up with a mailing address and I’ll send it your way.


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