History

Ets Haim is the oldest functioning Jewish library in the world. It was founded in 1616 and has been housed in the beautiful complex of the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam since 1675.

The formation of the core collection

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The library's holdings consist of some 560 manuscripts and 30.000 printed works. It owns a large and rich collection on the subject of 17th and 18th century Judaism and has for over nearly 400 years been an integral part of the cultural heritage of Amsterdam.

The library provided services for teachers and students the 'Academia y Yesiba Ets Haim' or 'The Tree of Life Academy and Theological school'. The collection is characterised by the wide ranging interest of a 17th and 18th century scholarly academy, yet its religious background is reflected in the composition of its holdings.

The library's current name 'Portuguese-Jewish Seminary Ets Haim' was imposed on the institute by legal decree in the 19th century. Unfortunately, this name tends to create the impression that the library is solely involved in religious education.

Ets Haim during the Golden Age

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The Sefardim that settled in Amsterdam were aware of their Jewish descent, but as conversos (converts to christianity) they were far removed from their Jewish heritage and tradition. With their own schools, cemetery, charities and facilities for kosher food, these Sefardim created a strong sense of self and indentity. Nonetheless, these Sefardim managed to integrate into the surrouding cultures of Holland and Amsterdam to an extreme degree.

The literary fall-out of the Sefardi way of life - it's history, ideals and its school - is collected in the Ets Haim Library. The manuscript holdings contain much hitherto unpublished material, which often was copied or written down by professors, students and alumni of Ets Haim. These notes contain bible commentaries, essays, sermons, poetry, historical literature, liturgy and music. The printed volumes show that Amsterdam was the centre of free printing, a freedom Jews all over the world profited from.

It's interesting to note how this community dealt with this freedom of press and expression: many of the volumes printed in those days were not widely circulated. An important genre for example was the material meant to support 'the strengthening of the Jewish faith'. In order to make sure that these volumes would not be seen as inflammatory anti-christian rhetoric, they were hand-copied and hand-distributed in an attempt to show respect for the opinions of others and thereby hopefully generating some measure of respect in return.

Ets Haim during and after the Second World War

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The Second World war cruelly disrupted the transmission of knowledge and tradition in the Portuguese-Jewish community. The library's holdings of books and manuscripts were transported to Germany by the Nazi's, but they were returned in unharmed condition in 1946.

In the period following the Second World war the Ets Haim did not have the financial reserves to provide adequate care for its holdings and the library building. By the 1970's the chronic lack of funding had given rise to a situation whereby the library was such bad condition, that the library was becoming a danger to its priceless collection.

To ensure that the most precious works in the library's holdings would not perish the core collection of the library, consisting of its 560 manuscripts and some 2700 old and rare printings, was given on long-term temporary loan to the Jewish National Library in Jerusalem.

Conservation and reunification of the library

In mid '90 Ets Haim drew up a detailed plan together with the Dutch Service for the protection of historic monuments, to restore the Ets Haim to its former glory.

An important part of this plan consisted of providing students, teachers and researchers with improved access to the library.

The holdings of the library were added to the List of  Dutch Cultural Heritage of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science in July 1998. Between 1998 and 2000 is Ets Haim, with support from the Dutch government and several foundations, adapted to meet the challenges and demands of the modern age. The library building has been re-insulated and a new cellar floor has been laid. The bookcases have been restored to their former condition and extensive climate control machinery was installed to ensure optimal storage conditions for the libraries precious treasures.

In the autumn of the year 2000 all manuscripts and printed works that had been on temporary loan in Israel and Amsterdam were returned to the library. Ets Haim is now well placed to reclaim its educational role by placing its magnificent collections at the disposal of the Jewish community in Holland and the broader public. The cultural heritage from which the Ets Haim emerged will be highlighted through exhibitions, tours and lectures. Ets Haim hopes to play a role in scientific research again, by providing researchers with access to the unique material preserved in its collections.

New ambitions: cataloguing and digitization

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In December 2011 the library and the synagogue reopened for visitors and are now part of the Jewish Cultural Quarter together with the Jewish Historical Museum, JHM Children's Museum and the Hollandsche Schouwburg. 

In 2012 an ambitious undertaking took off: the cataloguing of the printed books and the digitization of the manuscripts.  

Cataloguing the complete collection of printed books, about 30.000 titles, will take a couple of years. The books are, their Hebrew title included, registered in the national catalogue GGC. The international audience will get access to the catalogue through WorldCat, a global catalog of library collections.

Ets Haim's 560 manuscripts are beiing digitized cover-to-cover, a project that will be finished within a couple of years. The manuscripts can be accessed online, on a special website, where the pages can be studied in the greatest detail.

Cataloguing and digitization are generously supported by the Gieskes-Strijbis Fonds, the SNS Reaal Fonds and the BankGiro Loterij.

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