We are our stories, and our stories don’t just deserve to be told, they need to be heard. It’s more than a shame that so many of these stories were never heard during the time their storytellers were alive. But we have a chance to hear some of them today.
Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel was the most forward-thinking rabbi in Amsterdam, if not the world, in the 1600s. He was considered the most famous Jew in Europe then, but he struggled to find respect among his neighbors. He’s still an inspiring figure today.
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.
Jews, I’m sorry to say, are no different.
Rabbi Aboab da Fonesca was always in the wrong place at the wrong time. Until it was time to build a lasting monument to the community he served.
July 27, 2019. On this day, 363 years ago, Baruch Spinoza was kicked out of the Portuguese Sephardic community in Amsterdam. We know the words that were uttered as he was drummed out of the insular society, but there is so much more that we don’t know about that event.
When I imagine how Rabbi Saul Levi Morteira, the first intellectual powerhouse in Amsterdam’s Portuguese Sephardic community, must have felt about himself and his job, I imagine he compared himself to Moses.
The new Portuguese community quickly worked to set up Jewish institutions in their new home.. But these also required rabbis — men of advanced religious training — in order for the community to truly function.
Tourists from England, Germany and France were amazed to see Jews in Amsterdam living their lives freely and openly. These tourists 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.
Evidence from the Jewish cemetery of Oudekerk and in the local Sephardic records show people of African descent were part of the Portuguese Jewish community. Some were slaves, others as servants and some were free. All were Jews. But none were given the dignity they deserved.
Amsterdam may have been an incredibly open home to Jewish people in its time, but the welcome mat only stretched so far.