Portuguese Synagogue, Amsterdam

Portuguese Synagogue

The building of the Portuguese Syna­gogue, between Meester Visser­plein and Jonas Daniël Meijer­plein, in the middle of Amsterdam’s former Jewish Quarter, was designed by architect Elias Bouwman and built between 1671 and 1675 by Portuguese Sephardic Jews (Sefardim comes from the Hebrew word Sefaràd, which means Spain). This was at the time the largest syna­gogue in the world. The Portuguese-Israelite Community, founded in 1639, still holds services there. It is also known as Esnoga, or Snoge, the word for syna­gogue in Ladino, the traditional Judaeo-Spanish language of the Sephardic Jews.

Inner courtyard of the Portguese Synagogue, Amsterdam

Inner courtyard of the Portguese Syna­gogue, seen towards the street entrance on Meester Visser­plein (August 2021).

The Amsterdam Sephardic community was one of the largest and richest Jewish communities in Europe during the Dutch Golden Age (1588-1672) and their very large syna­gogue reflected this. The syna­gogue remains an active place of worship and is also a popular tourist attraction, its interior completely preserved from when it opened, including the wooden benches and brass candelabras. Inside the complex there are smaller rooms with a collection of ceremonial objects, as well as the oldest functioning Jewish library, the Ets Haim Livraria Montezinos (on UNESCO’s World Heritage List).

Portuguese Synagogue, Amsterdam, in 1765, engraving by Herman Schouten

The Portuguese Synagogue in 1765, engraving by Herman Schouten (1747-1822).

The Snoge is part of a large complex of syna­gogues, but it is the only syna­gogue in the area which still has the original function. The four other syna­gogues, Grote Sjoel (Big Shul, 1671), Obbene Sjoel (Upper Shul, 1685), Dritt Sjoel (Third Shul, 1700) and the Neie Sjoel (New Shul, 1750-1752) together now form the Jewish Histo­rical Museum.

View of Portuguese and High German Synagogue, Amsterdam, between 1659 and 1731

View of the Portuguese Syna­gogue (left) and the High German Syna­gogue (right), between 1659 and 1731.

Exiled from Spain and Portugal

In 1492 Spain issued the Alhambra Decree, whereby the Sephardim (Hebrew for “Jews of Spain”) were given the choice of either exile from Spain, conversion to Catholicism, or execution. Half of Spain’s 200,000 Jews converted, many by coercion. Others  chose to exile, some to North Africa, others to Portugal. A similar Portuguese decree against the Jews followed in 1496. The next centuries saw the Inqui­sition in Spain and Portugal regularly harrassing the conversos and their descendants, lasting well into the 1800s.

Spanish Jews pleading with Isabelle of Castile, painting by Solomon A. Hart

A group of Spanish Jews pleading with Isabelle of Castile, Ferdinand of Aragon and grand inquisitor Tomás de Torquemada in order to secure their residence in Spain, painting from 1870 by Solomon A. Hart (1806-1881).

Trials, persecutions and torture were often a pretext for confis­cation of Jewish property. Between the 1600s and 1800s many Jews migrated from the Iberian peninsula to Amsterdam, which offered at least a relative freedom of religion. Since the Dutch Republic was at war with Spain (the Eighty-Years war), these Jews from Spain and Portugal identified themselves as Portuguese Jews or Western Sephardim. They were the first modern Jews, distinguishing between religious and secular spheres of their lives. With their extensive trading networks, they used a Jewish name in their home life and a Portuguese name in their dealings abroad.

The Portuguese Synagogue

In 1671 the Sephardic Jewish community of Amsterdam began construction of the syna­gogue, designed by architect Elias Bouman, based on plans for King Solomon’s temple. The building was finished in 1675. The inscription above the entrance is from Psalm 5:8: “In the abundance of Thy loving kindness will I come into Thy house”.

Entrance of the Portuguese Synagogue main building, Amsterdam

Entrance of the Portuguese Syna­gogue main building (August 2021).

The synagogue, like all other buildings in Amsterdam, rests on wooden piles. The entrance leads to a small court­yard with buildings for the winter syna­gogue, offices, archives, homes of officials and the Etz Hayim library. The interior is a high rectangular space, the floor covered with fine sand to absorb dust, moisture and dirt. Just like in the 17th century, there is no heating or electric light, the synagogue is illu­minated with a thousand candles. During World War II the syna­gogue concealed Jewish ritual items from deported Jews in the sanctuary ceiling and attic floor. During the 1955–1959 renovation, the former Etz Hayim seminary was redesigned as a winter synagogue.

Portuguese Synagogue Photo Gallery (August 2021)

Ets Hayim (Tree of Life) Library

Founded in 1616, the Portuguese Syna­gogue Jewish library is one of the oldest in the world, containing a valuable collection of rare texts. It has been preserved within the complex since 1675. The library was shipped to Germany in 1940, but returned to the Nether­lands after the war. In 1979 the books were sent to Israel in order to preserve them — they returned to Amsterdam in 2000. In 2014 the majority of the manuscripts were digitized with the help of the National Library of Israel, making the catalogue available online.

Website Portuguese Synagogue: https://www.esnoga.com/en/

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