Högskolan på Gotland: Idéhistoria
Miriam Bodian on the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam
The Portuguese conversos who made their way to Amsterdam in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries would not have been conspicuous upon arrival, despite their ignorance of Dutch and their Iberian dress. Foreign immigration to the United Provinces was at a peak in these years. In at least one quarter of the city, around the Bloemstraat, it was easier to make oneself understood in French or Flemish than in Dutch. Later in the seventeenth century the German poet Philipp von Zesen described the Amsterdam Exchange as a place where "almost the whole world trades" - one could find there "Poles, Hungarians, Walloons, Frenchmen, Spaniards, Muscovites, Persians, Turks, and even, occasionally, Hindus." Some of the foreigners were temporary residents, but by the late sixteenth century thousands of foreigners had already settled permanently in Amsterdam. Some had fled war, some religious persecution; others were drawn by economic opportunities in the bustling metropolis on the Amstel.
It was into this milieu that a few Portuguese converso merchants and their families introduced themselves in the last years of the sixteenth century. By 1603 one could speak of a tiny ex-converso community which had established Jewish worship with the aid of a rabbi from Emden. Not long thereafter, in 1609, the community entered a period of extremely rapid growth. In that year the Twelve Years Truce ended a Spanish embargo on Dutch commerce and shipping which had also blocked Dutch trade with Portugal, then under Spanish rule. The truce opened up rich possibilities in Amsterdam for "Portuguese" immigrants, who brought with them experience in Portuguese colonial trade.
What had begun as a small nucleus of merchant families had developed by 1639 into a relatively conspicuous community of well over a thousand persons. Portuguese Jews could be seen entering and leaving the public synagogue they had built, burying their dead at the cemetery they had established just outside the city, and negotiating on the Stock Exchange floor.
During its heyday in the 1670s, the community had a population of about 2,500; its wealth was given concrete expression in the form of an elegant and monumental new synagogue (still a landmark in Amsterdam); and with its Hebrew printing press, diaspora-wide welfare activity, and distinguished rabbis, its reputation in the Jewish world was firmly established. It would have taken a canny observer indeed to perceive that the community was in fact facing a precipitous decline. (pp. 1-2)
[The Sephardim] - generally, in the first half of the seventeenth century, they tended to specialize in Portuguese colonial wares such as sugar, tobacco, spices, and diamonds, trading almost exclusively with Lisbon, Porto, Madeira, and the Azores. Being engaged in this branch of commerce, it was highly advantageous for them to be located in Amsterdam, which was the main northern entrepôt for colonial commodities. But as a result they were also highly vulnerable to the vicissitudes of Dutch-Iberian relations. This situation changed, however, in the second half of the century (after the signing of the Treaty of Münster in 1648), when Spanish and Spanish-American ports were opened to Dutch "Portuguese" merchants. The focus of their activity shifted in this period to two new routes: trade between the Caribbean and Spanish America, and the wool trade between Spain and Amsterdam.
Once communal institutions had been firmly established, the city became a magnet for other Jews. Yiddish-speaking Ashkenzi Jews trickled in - then flooded in - from Germany and Poland, most of them poor and unlearned. They were not welcomed by the Portuguese Jews and lived, for all practical purposes, a separate collective existence. The "Portuguese" community grew almost entirely from converso immigration. (p. 4)
Settlement in Amsterdam was an act of liberation and an opportunity to repossess the past. From this point of view, the efforts of the Amsterdam "Portuguese" to reconstitute their Jewishness bear comparison to the efforts in modern times of once-colonialized or otherwise culturally dominated peoples to restore an "authentic" lost heritage. (p. 18)
Miriam Bodian: Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1997), pp. 1,2, 4 and 18.