THE PORTUGUESE SYNAGOGUE

   
 

Concerts                                  Services                               Restoration

 
     
   

 
     
     
  In 1492 Spain expelled its Jewish population. Many who fled to Portugal were nevertheless forcibly baptized after 1496. More than 100 years later, their descendants - victims of the Inquisition who wished to live as Jews - began to arrive in Amsterdam. At that time the Dutch Republic was at war with Spain, so to avoid being identified with the Spanish enemy these refugees from the Iberian peninsula called themselves 'Portuguese' Jews.

During the 17th century large numbers of Ashkenazi Jews arrived from Central and Eastern Europe. They soon formed the largest Jewish community in Amsterdam and Holland.

There were originally three Sephardi communities: the first, Beth Jacob, already existed in 1610, and perhaps as early as 1602; Neve Shalom was founded between 1608 and 1612 by Jews of Spanish origin. The third community, Beth Israel, was established in 1618. These three communities began co-operating more closely in 1622. Eventually, in 1639, they merged to form Talmud Torah, the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam which still exists today.

 

 
 

HOLLAND

 
  Portuguese Jews played a significant part in the cultural and economic development of the Dutch Republic. Moreover, they enjoyed a freedom of religion unique in Jewish history. The community produced rabbis, scholars, philosophers, artists, bankers as well as founders and trustees of major international commercial companies.

 
 

THE OCCUPATION

 
  When Nazi Germany invaded Holland in 1940 there were around 140,000 Jews living here, some 120,000 of whom lived in Amsterdam; of these about 4,300 were Sephardi Jews. The synagogue was left undamaged. Why is still a mystery - it was certainly an exception in occupied Holland. After the war there were only some 20,000 Jews left in Holland, about 800 of whom were Sephardi. At present there are between 20,000 and 25,000 Jews in Holland, around 15,000 to 20,000 of whom in Amsterdam. The Portuguese Jewish community has about 600 contributing members who live, like most of the Ashkenazi community, outside the city centre.

The site of the present synagogue (the Esnoga or Snoge) was acquired on 12 December 1670. Construction work began on 6 Iyar 5431 (17 April 1671) under architect Elias Bouwman. Work came to a halt early in 1672, the so-called year of disaster, until 27 May 1674. Eventually, on 10 Menachem 5435 (2 August 1675) the Esnoga was solemnly inaugurated. Above the entrance the date 1672 is inscribed in gilt Hebrew lettering, this was the year the building was supposed to have been ready. The text is taken from Psalm 5, verse 8: 'In the abundance of Thy lovingkindness will I come into Thy house' (Bishenat va'ani berob chasdecha abo beetécha lif"k). According to Jewish tradition the appropriate letters are marked with a so-called perat katan, signifying the year. The last words of the verse also contain the name Aboab, that of the chief rabbi, or chacham, whose initiative it was to build the synagogue.

The building rests on wooden piles and the foundation vaults can be viewed by boat from the water underneath the synagogue. Around the main edifice a row of low buildings house the winter synagogue, offices and archives, homes of various officials, the rabbinate, a mortuary and the world-famous Ets Haim library. The courtyard enclosed by these buildings serves both as a safe playground for the children and a place for adults to walk and talk.

 

 
 

THE RESTAURATION

 
  Over the years minor alterations and renovations have taken place, but the building's character has never been lost. In 1773/74 the entrance to the women's gallery and one of the corridors at the back was radically changed; between 1852 and 1854 the small leaded lights were replaced by cast-iron windows and a vestibule with swing doors was added at the front. During the 1955-1959 renovation the former Ets Haim seminary auditorium was redesigned as a winter synagogue with central heating and electric lighting. The benches were taken from a synagogue originally built in 1639 and the Hechal dates from 1744. Services are held here from Shabbath Bereshit to Shabbath ha-Gadol.

 
 

THE INTERIOR

 
  In accordance with the Shulchan Aruch ruling (Yoreh De'ah 286;3) the synagogue does not have a mezuzah since it does not contain a residence. The layout is of the longitudinal Iberian-Sephardi type with the Hechal (Ark) and tebah (bimah) at opposite ends of the interior while the seating is divided into two equal halves facing one another and separated by an aisle. The deal floor is covered with fine sand, in the old Dutch fashion, to absorb dust, moisture and dirt from shoes and to muffle the noise.