Jews in Amsterdam

Amsterdam became a haven for Jewish refugees from the Inquisition.

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In fact, the culture of the Portuguese Jewish émigrés bore so few traces of the traditional Hebrew spirit that most of its members knew no Hebrew at all when they arrived in Amsterdam. They had to be laboriously schooled as adults by the community’s tutors and rabbis. As surviving lists of private book collections show, they continued their interest in Iberian literature, which was a main source of their shared community pride. They created something of a miniature Lisbon or Madrid on the banks of the Amstel, on Jodenbreestraat, populated by poets and dramatists writing in Spanish and Portuguese as well as men resembling Jewish hidalgos (Spanish noblemen of a lower rank), who preserved the manners of the nobility and retained their solidarity with other Iberian Jews.

For all of their sophistication and pride in their secular heritage, however, most continued to harbor well-founded fears of the Inquisition. Even in Amsterdam, Sephardic Jews used aliases in business, if only to protect relatives and business associates who had remained behind in Iberia.

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Jane S. Gerber

Jane S. Gerber is a Professor of History at City University of New York. Her book, The Jews of Spain: A History of the Sephardic Experience, won the 1993 National Jewish Book Award for Sephardic Studies.