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An Odyssey From Amsterdam to Philadelphia

by: leebarzel

Wed Oct 12, 2011 at 11:30:34 AM EDT


By Hannah Lee

As a companion program to the Rembrandt and the Faces of Jesus exhibit now at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) hosted a lecture on the journey taken by Sephardic Jewry from the Old World to the new one.  William Pencak, Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University, gave the standing-room-only audience (many at the NMAJH for the first time!) a historical tour that featured the role of the Dutch in Amsterdam and in Philadelphia.

More after the jump.

Painting of Mikveh Israel, 1775-1783, Synagogue of the American Revolution.

leebarzel :: An Odyssey From Amsterdam to Philadelphia
Rembrandt's Jews in the Synagogue, The Jewish Museum

First, Professor Pencak wanted to rebute "The Jewish Rembrandt" exhibit held in Amsterdam a few years ago that attempted to deny a Jewish influence on Rembrandt's works.  In Rembrandt's "Jews in the Synagogue" of  1648, the people depicted in the painting are garbed in robes and hats as did the Ashkenazic Jewish refugees to Amsterdam, not like the cosmopolitan Sephardic Jews who sought to blend into upper class Dutch society, as in the "Portrait of Jan Six" of 1654.  In "Balthazar's Feast" of 1635, there is Hebrew inscription on the upper right corner, but the words are written erroneously in a vertical instead of horizontal direction.  In "Moses Smashing the Tables of the Law" of 1659, the two tablets are depicted according to Jewish tradition, not the Christian imagery of the time.

Next, Professor Pencak gave a brief overview of the Jewish expulsion from their homes in Spain, Portugal, and England.  Of the Dutch nation of the Netherlands, then comprising of Holland and Belgium, Amsterdam in Holland became the center for Jewish life.  The Ashkenazic Jews started arriving about 30-40 years after the Sephardic Jews, and by the 1670's  there were separate synagogues for Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry.  

The Jewish community was tight-knit, with the Sephardic synagogue documented exacting a tax of ½ of 1% of a family's income.  Of some 3,000 Jews who lived in Amsterdam by the end of the 17th century, over half of them received relief from the community.  The Netherlands was not uniformly tolerant of Jews, with the rural states less so than the urban centers, including Antwerp in the Belgian half.

The Jews thrived in Amsterdam, with the first synagogue established in 1618.  The first Jewish play and the first book of poetry were written there.  The heretical philosopher Spinoza was excommunicated along with 766 other Jews in the 17th century for immoral behavior, which later included intermarriage with the Ashkenazic Jews.

The Dutch's main economic interests were in the New World colonies of Brazil, Curaçao, and Surinam (formerly the Dutch Guyana) that focused on sugar plantations, which brought Jews into involvement with the African slave trade.  Enjoying equal rights, Jews comprised up to a third of the population in Brazil at the time.  In 1654, Jews were chased out of Brazil and many went back to Amsterdam, but one ship of 23 Jews got diverted and landed in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam (later renamed New York).  

Director-General Pieter Stuyvesant was a Calvinist (Dutch Reform Protestant) and a former soldier who banded with the Dutch clergyman to protest the arrival of the Jews.  However, their appeal to the Dutch West Indies Company was denied and the Company insisted that the Jewish refugees stay, in part because they were Dutchmen and in part because Jewish investors had influence in the company, and the Company even offered to support the new arrivals if they proved unable to support themselves, according to Jewish communal values.  

New Amsterdam became the colony of the Duke of York (the brother of the British King Charles II) in 1664 and being a Catholic, he extended religious freedom to all, including the Jews.  When Asher Levy asked for burgher rights as a freeman, it was a right enjoyed by Jews in the Netherlands, and when freemen got the right to vote in 1664, so did the Jews.

In the 1730's, the Jews started coming to Philadelphia, with the German Jews —  the Levys and the Franks — being prominent.  Nathan Levy built the first cemetery at Mikveh Israel on 8th and Spruce Streets, although they found that in colonial America, they had to build walls for their cemeteries in an attempt to preserve the headstones.  These German (Ashkenazic) Jews adopted Sephardic rites of worship.  When Mikveh Israel built its first synagogue (after the cemetery, because Nathan Levy's young child had died) in 1782, its location was moved because of protest that its proposed site next to a church would offend the Dutch Reform Protestant congregants.  Prominent Philadelphians such as Benjamin Franklin and Robert Morris contributed to its building fund.  

Whereas the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island, experienced split loyalties during the American Revolution, there were no Jewish Loyalists (loyal to the British crown) in Philadelphia and Jews served prominently in financing and otherwise supporting the revolutionaries.  Haym Solomon was especially appreciated for his skill in converting foreign currencies into a form usable by the colonists, but he did not stand up in his synagogue on Yom Kippur to raise funds for the Revolution.  This myth was raised by an audience member and refuted by both the Professor and Rabbi Albert Gabbai, the current spiritual leader of Mikveh Israel, the oldest continuously functioning synagogue in this nation.

An audience member asked about the role of the Mennonites, who are known to be a very tolerant group, but the Professor pointed out that the Mennonites were never in a position of political power.  Jews, in fact, were never in a position of political power, so they were so often slandered as scapegoats for the ills of society.

The President and CEO, Michael Rosenzweig, then invited the members of the audience to tour the new museum, which highlights the journey of Jews who'd fled from turmoil and travail in the Old World to earn stability and prominence in this New World of ours.

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