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.
I finally did it: bit the bullet and got the PBS Passport membership so I could watch “The Miniaturist.” Suffice it to say, I loved it. But it also got me thinking, how good was it, historically speaking?
These days, Amsterdam is known as haven for human rights and open-minded people. The Netherlands was the first country to allow same-sex marriage, in 2001, and it had been known as a city of come-as-you-are inclusiveness for decades before that. As you might imagine, it wasn’t always that way.
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.
In 1596, 100 Africans arrived in Middleburg, Zeeland – the first black people known to set foot in the Netherlands. The city fathers declared them free, but the ship captain who wanted to sell them as slaves objected. Within months, they were on their way to the Caribbean to be sold as slaves. Why is this story relevant today?
The thing about Mennonites is there is no such thing as THE Mennonite church. It’s really the Mennonite churches, with no central authority. Some of the churches are much more liberal and some more traditional. And some of it depends on where in the world they are located.
The Netherlands was a place where great forces were battling to see their view of the world hold sway. The Dutch Reformed Church with its predicant preachers, strict and orthodox, wanted to have the final world over the standards — both legal and social — being set in the new nation. They were opposed by the Remonstrants, their more liberal-minded rivals who were required to meet in private homes instead of public churches. And perhaps most powerful of all was the merchant class, whose vast wealth kept the heart of Amsterdam beating throughout the Dutch Golden Age.