The Portuguese Synagogue in the former Jewish Quarter (Joods Kwartier) was our destination, once we had stored our luggage at our hotel. Sephardic Jews expelled from Iberia in the Sixteenth Century had found refuge and an unusual degree of religious toleration in Amsterdam. They soon were integrated into the city’s commercial life. Ashkenazi Jews joined them over time, as Eastern Europe became increasingly hostile to them.
The Sephardic community was richer and more established at first, but the Great Synagogue of the Ashkenazis came to rival the grand Portuguese Synagogue in due course. The latter still has an active congregation. To this day, the main synagogue building has neither artificial heat nor electric lights. Hundreds of candles in numerous brass chandeliers provide illumination for holiday services, as they had during the Golden Age. The Great Synagogue, no longer consecrated, has become a museum. It is also a memorial to the Jewish victims of the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. In addition to restorations of the original furnishings, the Great Synagogue complex contains a treasury of art and ritual objects.
As we walked back to the hotel, I thought about Spinoza and the generations of Jews who had played their parts in Amsterdam's story. The intellectually insatiable Spinoza may be the most famous Portuguese Jew associated with the city. During his lifetime, Spinoza was lauded for his precocious scholarship, and later reviled for his unorthodox ideas. Now he is revered as one of the most influential Western philosophers. Spinoza's ghost accompanied me as I trod through the columned interior of the Portuguese Synagogue. Whether they were refugees from the Inquisition or Dutch citizens born into merchant dynasties, all the Jews of Amsterdam, living and dead, seemed to be there with us.
The Jewish Quarter Museum sanctuary, with Torah scrolls on display.
There is a scattering of sand on the ground floor of the Portuguese Synagogue, to symbolize the desert of the Promised Land and to muffle footsteps.
Model of the Portuguese Synagogue
The women’s gallery in the Portuguese Synagogue