Amsterdam in 1655 was a boomtown: bustling, crowded, welcoming ships from around the world into is busy port. In other words, it was ripe for an outbreak of plague.
Right-wing alarmists complain that political correctness runs amok. Imagine their despair to learn the Amsterdam Museum banned the phrase “Golden Age.” The reason: the golden years weren’t golden for everyone. But terms like “Golden Age” make history more accessible, and god help us, we need to talk about our history more if we want to change our future.
In the 1590s, the newly independent Dutch Republic looked to flex its economic muscle, but stronger, more-established nations like Spain and Portugal stood in its way. Their ships blocked the way to wealthy trading ports in Asian nations. Besides, even without their interference, the trip to the Spice Islands (now known as Indonesia) took the better part of a year. What was desperately needed was a faster route to the wealth of Asia that bypassed the military threats of European rivals.
Enter Willem Barentsz.
During its Golden Age, the Dutch Republic became a hub of many things: the spice and sugar trade, diamond crafting, master artworks – and optics. Why the Netherlands?
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.
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.
To this day, Amsterdam remains an important city in the global diamond industry, even though its status has been greatly diminished from what it once was.
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.