Four hundred years of Dutch Jewry

Settlement of Jews in the Netherlands
inquisitie, Bernard Picart, 1722The first Jews to settle permanently in the Netherlands were descendents of Spanish and Portuguese Jews. Their arrival in the Netherlands was a result of dramatic changes on the Iberian peninsula, where Jews had lived for centuries in varied circumstances. In 1492, under the pressure of the Inquisition, the Jews of Spain were forced to chose between exile and conversion to Catholicism. Many Spanish Jews fled to Portugal where, in 1497, they were subjected to forced conversion en masse. Nevertheless, in Spain and Portugal alike, a number of Jewish converts remained secretly faithful to Judaism in the privacy of their homes even as they lived as Catholics in the eyes of the larger world.

Following the establishment of the Inquisition in Portugal in 1536, a close watch was kept on forcibly converted Jews. This led many to seek refuge elsewhere, in lands including Brazil and France. A half century later, a number of the these refugees and their descendents arrived in the Republic of the United Netherlands as merchants. They settled in Amsterdam from where they dealt in Brazilian sugar and tobacco and in Indian diamonds, spices, and cotton, often via commercial connections they still maintained with Lisbon. In Amsterdam, many Spanish and Portuguese converts and their descendents chose to revert to Judaism. Because of their Iberian origins, we refer to this group as Sephardic Jews (Sepharad being Hebrew for Iberia); and, because their vernacular language was Portuguese, we also refer to them as Portuguese Jews.

Jews from Central and Eastern Europe began to arrive in the Republic following 1630. These so-called Hoogduitse (High-German) and Ashkenazim (Ashkenazic Jews, Ashkenaz being the Hebrew word for the German lands) spoke Yiddish, a mixture of vernacular German with Hebrew and Slavic elements and written in Hebrew characters. Most of the Ashkenazim who arrived in Amsterdam were refugees from the carnage of the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) and from the depredations of Bogdan Chmielnitski during the Ukrainian uprising against Polish rule in 1648.

Many of the Ashkenazic immigrants arrived in Amsterdam in desperate straights. They were permitted to settle in Amsterdam in part because of the openness of the city and in part because of the financial support and guarantees forthcoming from their Sephardic co-religionists, this despite the differences between the two communities. Indeed, Portuguese and Ashkenazic Jews spoke different languages and came from quite different cultural and socio-economic backgrounds. Despite these differences both groups were viewed in the eyes of the outside world simply as Jews, a single religious community.

Portugese Synagoge in Amsterdam, tekening, 1724During the early years of the seventeenth century Jewish settlement in Amsterdam encountered few problems. Unofficially, Jews were permitted to practice their religion in the privacy of their homes. Officially, however, Jews were denied full rights. In about 1615, social and religious tension led to the consideration of legislation restricting Jews. Although such legislation was not adopted, in 1619 it was decided that each individual city and town in the Netherlands was free to decide whether they wanted to admit Jews and, if so, under what conditions. Dutch cities and towns were also free to legally restrict Jews to reside in separate 'ghettos,' although in practice this was never enforced.

The Rise of the 'Mediene'
Sinaasappelhandelaar in GroningenDuring the eighteenth century, Jews began to settle outside of Amsterdam. In addition to Jewish life in Mokum (from Hebrew 'Makom,' or 'place'), as Jews referred to Amsterdam, a vibrant Jewish life arose in the cities and towns of the provincial Netherlands or, as Jews called it, the Mediene (from the Hebrew word for 'state'). In cities such as The Hague, Rotterdam, and Middelburg Sephardic communities arose that looked to the mother community in Amsterdam for example.

The first Ashkenazic communities in the Netherlands, however, followed a different pattern. These settlers bypassed Amsterdam, moving from Germany directly into the Groningen, Gelderland, Overijssel, and other eastern provinces of the Netherlands. Askenazic communities were also formed in the semi-independent trading towns in west of the Netherlands and on the banks of the Zuiderzee. From a Jewish point of view, a new community or Kehilla (from the Hebrew word for 'congregation') only came into being when it counted among its members at least ten adult men aged thirteen or older. Indeed, a gathering of ten such adult men (in Hebrew Minyan) is the basis for Jewish religious services.

In the new communities of the Mediene, religious services were held in private homes or farm houses until a construction of synagogue was permitted or could be afforded. In addition to a synagogue, the infrastructure of each new community also included a Mikva (ritual bath), a study house for religious instruction, and a separate cemetery in which to bury the Jewish dead.

Leesplank, ca. 1925Each Jewish community in the Mediene was seen as autonomous. Synagogues, Mikvas, study houses, and cemeteries were financed through an internal structure of tax levies, donations, and fines. Elected elders (Hebrew: Parnassim) established such rules (Hebrew: Takkanot) and presented them to the local civil authorities for approval. The Parnassim were held responsible for the order and social and economic welfare and conduct of the portion of the so-called 'Jewish Nation' under their control.

Traditional Jewish occupations in the Mediene included commerce, shop keeping, and trade in, and slaughter of, cattle. Depending on its size and wealth, each Jewish community employed its own rabbi, cantor, teacher, and scribe. In accordance with Jewish dietary laws, the presence of a local ritual slaughterer and inspector was an absolute necessity. In smaller communities several or all of these functions were performed by a single individual. In every community, charitable organizations served both social and religious functios, ensuring care for the poor, the sick, the dying, and the dead, as well as support for brides without dowries, pregnant women, widows, orphans, needy students and teachers, etc.

Rise and Decline
Intocht Koning Lodewijk Napoleon, 1808Throughout the eighteenth century Amsterdam remained the fulcrum of Jewish life in the Netherlands. This began to change in 1796 with the granting of full civil rights to all inhabitants of the Netherlands, Jews included. As a result, Jews were permitted to settle wherever they desired. During the first half of the nineteenth century a great number of new Jewish communities were established across the Netherlands. In terms of communal administration, Jewish Netherlands was divided into twelve 'main synagogues' which were divided into 'ring synagogues' and 'subsidiary churches.' Originally this hierarchy was under strong central control, however, the institutionalization of the division between church and state in the Netherlands during the second half of the nineteenth century led to increased autonomy of local communities.

Jewish life in the Mediene reached its apogee in around 1885. Thereafter - except in those towns and cities with a marked industrial character - the number of Jewish communities in the Mediene declined. In the communities that remained, processes of emancipation and integration brought great changes to the character and organization of Jewish life. Alongside traditional religious and charitable organizations, new Jewish secular organizations arose, social, political, and Zionist.

During the first decades of the twentieth century, many of the country's smaller Jewish communities lost their independence or ceased to exist. As a result, Amsterdam reemerged more as the center of Jewish life in the Netherlands.

During the Second World War, the Netherlands was occupied by Nazi Germany. The Germans destroyed almost all Jewish life in the Mediene. What little that remained in the aftermath of Nazi terror declined steadily during the postwar years.

Today
In 2005, the jewish communities belonging to the Nederlands Israëlietisch Kerkgenootschap, the Netherlands' main Jewish organization, counted over 5,000 members. Its thirty-two communities are grouped into four districts: Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, and a provincial rabbinate.

The Kerkgenootschap Verbond van Liberaal-Religieuze Joden in Nederland (the Netherlands' central organization of Reformed Jews) today comprises nine local communities with a total membership of about 1100 families. The largest of its communities is that of Amsterdam, with a total of 1,650 members.

The Portugees Israëlietisch Kerkgenootschap, the descendants of Amsterdam's original Portuguese Jewish community, now totals 270 families.

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