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Amsterdam, the Sephardic Printing Capital

The revolted Netherlands and especially the city of Amsterdam, were sort of evil incarnate for a Spaniard during the Golden Age. However, in the Jewish world from the 17th century, the Dutch metropolisbecame one of the most important centersof the Diaspora. Jewish converts (Spaniards and Portuguese of Jewish origins) who settled there, when escaping the Inquisition, compared themselves to the People of Israel. In their eyes, Amsterdam became a New Jerusalem.

The importance of Amsterdam as the main center of the Sephardic Diaspora in Europe, resides in the exceptional climate of freedom that the Jews could enjoy there. They were accepted and endured fewer restrictions than in any other place. The city presented a statute in 1616 in which the presence of Jews was made official for the first time in history. Although the Jews could still not hold the citizenship – they gained this right after the French Revolution-, and therefore could still not enter many professions, their dedication to the trade allowed them to fully develop.

Thanks to the economic expansion Sephardic merchants achieved, and to a well organised congregation, they could endowtheir Judaic life with solid structures such as a marvelous synagogue (1675) –still present in the city–, schools and rabbinical academies and a network of charitable institutions. The community was administered by a board of governors known as the Mahamad.

The freedom of press that existed in the Republic of the Seven United Provinces, together with the excellent health this industry enjoyed, contributed to the prominence of Sephardim in the Jewish world of the time. Since 1628, the year in which the rabbi Menasseh ben Israel (1604-1657) established his printing house, Amsterdam became the capital of the Hebrew book, which would be exported to every corner of the globe.

Before publishing in Hebrew, Sephardim had already published several books in Spanish and Portuguese. These languages were actually the most important ones for the members of the community. Unlike the Iberian descendants of the Expulsion of 1492 who lived in North Africa and the Ottoman Empire, the Jews from Amsterdam came from Portugal and Spain, where they had been part of the Jewish minority of the so-called conversos. These Jewish converts had left the Iberian Peninsula because of economic (trade) and religious reasons, escaping the pressure and the persecutions of the Inquisition. Once they settled in Amsterdam, they decided to return to the faith of their forebears, but as their knowledge of Judaism was rudimentary, they had to resort to an extensive instruction process in the principles of their religion. This task was commended to rabbis brought from traditional communities.

Given the importance of the Torah and the liturgy in the Jewish religion, both at the synagogue and at home, as well as the converso’s ignorance of the Hebrew language, it became necessary to make Jewish literature accessible in Romance languages.Despite the fact that most of the new Jews were Portuguese, the language that imposed itself fortranslations was Spanish, due to the existence of translations in that language previously published in Ferrara. The first Jewish texts that were published in the Netherlands were liturgical books in Spanish. In 1584, before the existence of a Jewish community in Amsterdam, two prayer books previously published in Ferrara were reprinted in Dordrecht, one of the focal points of the Dutch resistance. The well-known Biblia española traducida verbo por verbo de la verdad hebraica, also known as Biblia de Ferrara (1553), was reprinted in Amsterdam in 1611. During the 17th and the 18th centuries, Amsterdam became the most important center of Judaic liturgy in the Spanish language, with numerous editions of the Torah, prayer books, liturgical calendars, prayers for special occasions... With the help of these texts in Spanish, the “second holy language”, the new Jews who came from Spain or Portugal could restore the link to the lost tradition. When they assisted at the reading of the Torah or prayed, they could read and whisper sentences in their own language.

Together with the Bibles and liturgies, books with an enumerationof the multiple practical aspects of the Law of Moses were also published. While some rabbis insisted on justifying the rabbinical tradition and on strengthening Judaism through polemical works against Christianity, others searched for texts in Jewish literature that would underline the intrinsic values of the faith of Moses. An example of this was Obligación de los corazones (1610), written by the Sephardi Bahya ibn Paquda (11th century), who insisted on the inner duties of the Jewish religion over the “duties of the body” and their practical aspects, appealing thus to the religiosity of the converts, marked by its Catholic past.

These translations favored the creation of a Judaic library in Spanish and Portuguese languages that still nowadays provides the Hispanic reader with the wealth of the Jewish heritage. This Judaic library houses works by classic Sephardim such as Maimonides, Ibn Gabirol, Bahya ibn Paquda, Jonah Gerondi and many others. The Spanish edition of Juda Halevi’s Cuzary, containing the dialogues between a Jew, a Christian and a Muslim, printed in Amsterdam in 1663 is a beautiful example of this literature.

Some relevant Jewish personalities appeared amongst the Sephardim from Amsterdam.Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel is the example of a Jew that assumes the mission of defending and explaining his religion not only to former conversos, but also to Christians who were interested in the people of Israel. The climate of openness and debate that ruled in the Netherlands during the 17th century favored all kinds of encounters between Jews and Christians: from controversial defiance or attempts of proselytism, to the real approach of similar spirits, going beyond religious barriers. Jewish converts possessed the same cultural background than their Christian interlocutors and there were scholars and people of refined taste amongst them. Even the most conservative rabbis used to read classic Greek and Roman literature and had a thorough knowledge of the New Testament and the Christian authors’ works; they wanted at least to be able to refute their arguments...

In his four volumes of El Conciliador, the rabbi Menasseh ben Israel offered to Jews and curious Christians the wealth of the rabbinical interpretations on “apparently contradictory” passages of the Scriptures. Esperanza de Israel (1650) deals with the supposed Hebrew origin of natives from the American continent – this issue was loaded with messianic implications. Menasseh’s works –around ten titles-, had numerous editions and were translated into the main languages.

The secular dimension of the Sephardic culture, i.e. its Iberian continuity, was something remarkable that has always caught scholars’ attention. For some Sephardim, the Jewish double identity was a constant tension. The return to Judaism and especially to tradition could cause trouble to the most independent spirits. Christian Iberian heritage could be a source of confusion and conflict, provoking the rebelliousness in such spirits as Uriel da Costa (1585-1640) or resulting in the skepticism of Spinoza. Most of these Spaniards and Portuguese however managed to adapt to the new existence and introduced the novelty in the Jewish world of separating the religious sphere from the public one. They tried their best to adapt to the traditional Jewish life;the public sphere was regarded as something different. Contrary to what happened in traditional communities, the Sephardim from Amsterdam couldorganise their businesses without religious interferences, exclusively ruled by autonomous principles.

As for the behavior towards the majority society, Sephardim avoided being identified as Jews because they did not want their life to be limited due to social prejudices again. Their Iberian origin would provide them with a public identity. Apart from their synagogue names, most of Sephardim continued to use their baptismal names and, except for cases of illegal trade, they did not make an effort to hide their identities. Isaac Orobio de Castro (1620-1687), one of the defenders of Judaism against “atheists” (Spinoza) and Christians, prided himself on being called Dr Baltasar Orobio de Castro; the writer Daniel Levi de Barrios (1635-1701), was known as “CapitánDon Miguel de Barrios” amongst the Spanish nobles that he knew at the Spanish Court in Brussels.

This culture has aroused admiration ever since. Sephardim gathered in literary academies to cultivate Baroque Spanish and Portuguese, imitating thus the academies from Madrid and Lisbon. They used to stage Spanish comedies until the end of the 18th century and created a whole world of secular literature in which echoes of Lope, Góngora or even Quevedo can be seen. A number of texts from this secular literature are still preserved nowadays, both printed and handwritten.

The literature written by Spanish and Portuguese authors who possessed a different culture and faith hasenjoyed an increasing interest, and for a reason: their way of rethinking and experiencing the great Iberian culture from the Golden Age differently deserves to be known.

Harm den Boer Professor of Spanish Literature. University of Basel.