In Dutch, the city of Amsterdam is often called Mokum. It was given this name by Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe who sought refuge there, starting in the 17th century.
Had Rembrandt moved into any other neighborhood of the city, he would have been surrounded by neighbors with such names as de Witt, Graaf, Van den Berg, and Janszoon. As it was, the occupants of the houses around No. 4 Breestraat had names that were, to the Dutch ear, of a somewhat more exotic timbre: Rodrigues, da Costa, Bueno, Nunes, Osario.
- Rembrandt’s block was the home of Manuel Lopes de Leon, Henrico d’Azevedo, and David Abendana.
- Daniel Pinto was right next door.
- On the other side of Rembrandt, at No. 6, lived Salvatore Rodrigues, also a merchant.
- Across the street lived Salvatore’s brother, Bartolemeo Rodrigues, in No. 3.
In Breestraat No. 1, on the corner and opposite Pinto, in the house once occupied by the painter Pieter Isaacszoon, was Isaac Montalto, the son of the late Elias Montalto, who had served as court physician to Maria de Medici, Queen Mother of France.
- The wealthy Isaac de Pinto owned a large house on the block, taking up Nos. 7 and 9. He lived there until 1651, when he bought an even bigger home, also on Breestraat but on the other side of the lock.
- Next to Pinto was Abraham Aboab. In No. 23, in a house owned by their father Abraham, resided the brothers Samuel and Jacob Pereira, the same merchants who were renting part of Rembrandt’s basement.
- At the end of the block was yet another merchant, Bento (or Baruch) Osorio. With over fifty thousand guilders to his account at the Bank of Amsterdam, he was one of Vlooienburg’s richest residents.
- Across from Osorio, on Rembrandt’s side of the street, was Antonio da Costa Cortissor. In 1639, Cortissor generously (but, no doubt, profitably) sold a piece of his garden so that a synagogue could be built in the neighborhood.
- Saul Levi Mortera, a learned rabbi and formerly a secretary to Isaac Montalto’s father, lived just across the Sint-Anthonisluis from Daniel Pinto’s house.
- Menasseh ben Israel, also a rabbi and possibly the most famous Jew in Europe, lived on Nieuwe Houtmarkt, on the Vlooienburg island.
- Between them, on the Houtgracht itself and one block from Rembrandt’s house, lived Miguel d’Espinoza (or de Spinoza). His son, Baruch Spinoza, would become one of the most radical and vilified philosophers of all time, but only after being permanently expelled—with great prejudice—from the Amsterdam Jewish community for his “abominable heresies” and “monstrous deeds.”
All these people, with the exception of Rabbi Mortera, were Sephardim: Jews of Iberian extraction. The Spanish and Portuguese names were, to their gentile neighbors, a dead giveaway. The men may have dressed like the Dutch, trimmed their hair and beards like the Dutch, and assumed Dutch aliases for business purposes outside of Holland—thus, Josef de los Rios (Joseph “of the River”) became Michel van der Riveren, while Luis de Mercado (Louis “of the Market”) was known to some of his associates as Louis van der Markt—to protect them from harassment.
Though their houses were done up in the Dutch style, and they prided themselves on their ability to pass as typical burghers in their new homeland, there was no mistaking the distinctly foreign cultural flavor Jews brought to Breestraat. Vlooienburg was, then, not only the center of Amsterdam’s art market and lumber trade. It was also the heart of Amsterdam’s Jewish world. And Rembrandt settled right at its center.
Every house immediately contiguous with or facing Rembrant's was owned or occupied by a Jew. And an overwhelming majority of the households on his block, on both sides of the street, were Jewish. From his front stoop he could see into Rabbi Mortera’s windows; from his top floor he had a view of the community’s synagogue. He could not help but hear the sons of Jewish families chattering in Portuguese on their way to school in the morning. On Friday afternoon, he could smell the slow-cooking Iberian foods they prepared for the Sabbath. Much of what we think about Rembrandt and his art stems, ultimately, from his decision to live there.
At the end of the 15th century and throughout the 16th century, in search for religious freedom, Amsterdam became one of the most favored destinations for Sephardic Jews in the Netherlands; and because many of the refugees were traders, Amsterdam benefited greatly from their arrival.
However, the reason to settle in Amsterdam was not merely voluntary; many crypto-Jews, or Marranos, had been refused admission in trading centers like Middelburg and Haarlem, and because of that ended up in Amsterdam.
Besides merchants, a great number of physicians were among the Spanish and Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam: Samuel Abravanel, David Nieto, Elijah Montalto, and the Bueno family; Joseph Bueno was consulted in the illness of Maurice of Nassau, Prince of Orange (April, 1623).
Jews were admitted as students at the university, where they studied medicine as the only branch of science which was of practical use to them, for they were not permitted to practice law, and the oath they would be compelled to take excluded them from the professorships.
One of the most famous Dutch Jews of this time was Baruch Spinoza, whose intellectual contributions were very important in his time and continues to influence thinkers to this day. Neither were Jews taken into the trade-guilds: a resolution passed by the city of Amsterdam in 1632 excluded them.
Exceptions, however, were made in the case of trades which stood in peculiar relations to their religion: printing, bookselling, the selling of meat, poultry, groceries, and drugs.
In 1655 a Jew was, exceptionally, permitted to establish a sugar-refinery. In 1675, the Esnoga (Sephardic synagogue) in Amsterdam was inaugurated. The synagogue is still in use today.
The Sephardic cemetery Beth Haim in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, a village on the outskirts of Amsterdam, has been in use since 1614 and is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands. Another reminder of the Sephardic community in Amsterdam is the Huis De Pinto, a residence for the wealthy Sephardic family de Pinto, constructed in 1680.
By 1610, two hundred Portuguese lived in Amsterdam, slightly more than one quarter of one percent of the city’s total population of seventy thousand.
By the time Rembrandt moved into his own house on Breestraat in 1639, the Portuguese numbered over a thousand. And now they were—openly and proudly—Jews.
Toleration, through a kind of willful and self-serving ignorance, came fairly quickly after the initial settlement of Portuguese and Spanish conversos in Holland. A somewhat more grudging formal acceptance took a bit longer; and full emancipation required almost two more centuries.
The regents of the city of Amsterdam knew, as early as 1606, that they had practicing Jews in their midst. That was the year that an organized Jewish community first asked the municipality for permission to purchase a burial ground within the city limits. The request was denied. Apparently Jews were permitted to live in Amsterdam but had to leave when they died.
By 1614, there were two well-attended congregations in Amsterdam, Beth Jacob (House of Jacob) and Neve Shalom (Dwelling of Peace), as well as a number of smaller communities elsewhere.
While not having yet enjoyed legal protection and official acceptance, Jews were allowed to go about their business unmolested, and even to hold services “in private,” with a considerable wink from the authorities.
Rabbi Isaac Uziel, for one, felt that things were free enough in the city. Impressed by the level of toleration he finds there, he writes in 1616
that “people live peaceably in Amsterdam. The inhabitants of this city, mindful of the increase in population, make laws and ordinances whereby the freedom of religions may be upheld.…Each may follow his own belief, but may not openly show that he is a different faith from the inhabitants of the city.”
Worship your God in your own way; just do not flaunt it.
The city council never formally declared in writing that the Jews of Amsterdam were free to live openly as Jews and to practice their religion in a public manner. Its approach was more ad hoc and laissez-faire, as private services were allowed to slip into public worship without too much trouble.
There were also strict rules governing social relationships with Christians. Mixed marriages and sexual liaisons between Jews and gentiles were forbidden. The Jews could not employ Christians as domestic servants, and their children were not permitted to attend the city’s schools. Naturally, Jews were also refused many of the political prerogatives of Dutch citizens—they could not hold public office, for example—although they enjoyed some of the protections granted to all “subjects and residents” of the republic. They were allowed to purchase burgher or citizen rights (poorterschapen), but in their case these were of limited scope and could not be passed on to their children.
The city council also demanded that the Jews keep to a strict observance of their own orthodoxy. They were ordered to adhere scrupulously to the Law of Moses and never to tolerate deviations from the belief that, there is
“an omnipotent God the creator…[and] that Moses and the prophets revealed the truth under divine inspiration, and that there is another life after death in which good people will receive their recompense and wicked people their punishment.”
Even with the various restrictions and warnings, the Jews found in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities more freedom, peace, and security than they were granted in any other society of the time. This did not go unremarked by Jacques Basnage. In his 1716 Histoire des Juifs depuis Jesus-Christ jusqu’à présent, he notes that
“of all the states of Europe, there is not one where the Jews live more peacefully than in Holland. They get rich there through commerce and, because of the gentle attitude of the government, they are secure in their possessions.”
The Jews of Amsterdam enjoyed the protection of the law and religious, social, and economic autonomy—provided they adhered to Dutch standards.
Of course, not everyone agreed with the official policy—or, in some cases, with the authorities’ refusal to institute an official policy. A few cities and towns in the republic continued to forbid Jews to settle within their domains; some even refused to allow them to lodge in local inns or to visit for business purposes.
Haarlem would not allow a public synagogue until 1765, despite having tried in 1605 to entice the Jews away from Amsterdam by offering them a burial ground and even stipulating that “Jews may go about dressed as they wish and need not wear any external mark distinguishing them from Christians.”
It was, on the whole, a good situation, pleasant enough for Rabbi Uziel to proclaim that life for the Jews in Amsterdam was “tranquil and secure.”
Many years later, one of the city’s Jews was moved to compose a brief berachah, or blessing, for the refuge that they had found on the banks of the Amstel:
“Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, who has shown us your wonderful mercy in the city of Amsterdam, the praiseworthy.”
- Rembrandt's Jews adapted version