The Spanish Inquisition of 1492 seriously impacted Spanish Jews, many of whom underwent forced conversion to Christianity to avoid expulsion ( or worse ). Following the Alteration of 1578, many of these " conversos " fled to Amsterdam and its relatively tolerant approach to religion, known as Sephardics ( root word Iberian ). These immigrants were educated and wealthy, sophisticated in business and therefore welcome during the Golden Years of Amsterdam as financial center of the world. They were also astute politically, strong backers of the ruling family and stadtholders, and prospered. Almost all were Spanish, but chose to characterize themselves as Portuguese during the era of the 80 year war and hostilities with Spain ( many also left by ship from Portugal ), hence the naming of the main synagogue. It is also known as the Esnoga, the Ladino ( Spanish-Jewish colloquial language ) word for synagogue.
After a century as faux Catholics, much of the Jewish religion and tradition had faded from memory and active practise. As imported teachers and rabbis re-educated these reborn Jews, interest in their ancient history and culture led inexorably to the building of a massive synagogue patterned directly after the great Temple of Solomon as imagined by the Dutch architect Elias Bouwman. Its size and opulence reflects the success of the Kahal Kadosh Talmud Torah Congregation, with seating for 1200 men and 400 women.
The large brick building housing the sanctuary is at the center of a courtyard surrounded by lowlying buildings which housed schools, offices, and homes for the rabbi and cantor. Currently housed is one of the oldest Jewish libraries in the world. It is supported by wooden beams sunk into the swampy land on which it was built. The Esnoga is the only synagogue in Amsterdam to survive the Nazi occupation intact and represents a remarkable historical site.
A recurring motif in the exteriors and non-religious interior rooms is the phoenix, the legendary long lived bird that takes life from the ashes of its ancestors. An appropriate symbol for the Jews, these were placed after WWII but their concept extends back to the original founding of the community. There have been multiple renovations and restorations, but none has materially changed the appearance of the building since the 17th C save for a few buttresses at the back not usually seen by visitors. The synagogue is in limited active use today, for important holdays and the occasional visity by a dignitary.
Some images are marred by raindrops on the camera lens, my apologies.
The sanctuary is classic and beautiful, layed out in the traditional Sephardic plan with the platform for the rabbi and cantor separated from the ark containing the Torah sacred scrolls. Rows of parallel benches face north and south with the ark facing east toward Jerusalem. The women's section is a balcony supported by twelve Corinthian columns for the twelve tribes of Israel.
The synagogue somehow survived the Nazi era, and much of the interior decor is stated to be original. Most of the relatively austere interior is in dark wood. The large ark is made of Brazilian jacaranda wood and lined inside with gold leather. The bench at the side is also stated to be original. The benches for the congregants are similarly the originals - sort of eerie to throw down one's jacket haphazardly while gazing. There is no heating or electricity in the building ( see winter synagogue ) and during evening services or events candles are lit in large brass chandeliers and along the railings and walls - must be spectacular. During the day lighting is from large arched windows on the second level and square windows on the third.
To this day the floor is covered with a coating of sand to absorb mud and water from the seemingly endless Amsterdam rainy season. According to the internet there are only five synagogues in the world with sand on the floor, the other four in the Caribbean.
The exterior of the compound houses multiple rooms of variable interest.
The winter synagogue was constructed from a former seminary in the 1950's with heat and electricity, since the main sanctuary has no heating or lighting ( which would be prohibitively expensive anyway ). The pews are from the first synagogue in Amsterdam and date to 1635. The Ets Haim library is one of the oldest Jewish libraries in the world - its ancient manuscripts were taken to Germany during WWII but remarkably returned intact after the war - this room is closed to the casual visitor.
An executive board type room also is modern in decoration with a rich red rug featuring the ubiquitous phoenix in the center ( also on one of the walls ). It was in a room not unlike this one where the religious philosopher Spinoza was expelled from the Jewish community for his writings, proving if nothing else that resistance to change is not religion-specific.
The treasury is a highlight of the Portuguese synagogue, filled with 600 ancient objects of inestimable value. Over 60 old torah scrolls date to 1300's. There are beautiful cloth torah covers, with lots of gold and silver torah outer covers, ceremonial plates and candlesticks, as well as many ancient books.
The Portuguese-Israeli Synagogue was built in the period 1670-75 by Elias Bouman and is inspired on the architecture of the Temple of Salomo in Jerusalem. The synagogue is located on the Mr. Visserplein. This area used to be the heart of the Jewish Quarter.
The building rests on wooden piles and the foundation vaults can be viewed by boat from the water underneath the synagogue.
This impressive building was founded in 1670 by the Sephardic Jewish community which had previously established themselves in Amsterdam after the original expulsions from Spain and Portugal. Though there were some minor alterations in the following 2 centuries, it remains largely as it was in the late 17th Century, a beautiful example of Secular Architecture of the period.
A rich merchant Jan Jansz. Karel built here in 1605 a house. After that it was bought in 1651 by a rich Portuguese merchant, Isaac de Pinto, for an exorbitant amount of 30.000 guilders. He has renovated it in Italian Renaissance-style to a genuine urban palace. Six towering Italianate pilasters break up the impressive facade, remodelled by Elias Bouwman in the 1670s.
Today it houses public library, which is open daily, except on Sunday, so one can admire its lush and historic interior -- in particular its cherub-encrusted ceiling painting by Jacob de Wit.
On Mr. Vissersplein, in the centre of the square, acrose the Jewish Musiem is the splendid Portugees Israelitische Synagoge (Portuguese synagogue). Built in 1675, it survived WWII and was then restored in the 1950’s. Its interior, with a lofty barrel-vaulted roof, was intended by its architect, Elias Bouman, to echo that of the Tempe of Solomon. The huge space is lit by scores of arched windows and original 17th century brass chandeliers. Nothing has changed since centuries. Notice the monumental “hechal” (nook where the Torah is stored), An exemplary of “Saint History” by Manassé ben Israel, illustrated by Rembrandt who was his friend.
In 1492 Jews had to flee inquisition from Spain. They thought they would be secure in Portugal, but, bad luck, they were compelled to convert. Hundred years later, some of their descendants, wanting to live as Jews, looked for shelter in Amsterdam, known for its tolerance. The Netherlands were at war with Spain. So the Jews preferred to say they were from Portuguese origin.
The synagogue also includes small Judaica store where you can purchase Jewish artifacts (menorahs , kipas, missusas and ets) from Israel, US or Netherlands for reasonable price.
You also can view the movie about Portuguese Jewish Community in Amsterdam.( from 17th century up ‘til now)
Tickets is 6 euro ($8) per person .
If you like Jewish History don’t miss this hidden Jewel of Amsterdam
A sign of Amsterdam's unusual and early spirit of tolerance in its Golden Age, the Portuguese Synagogue survived the Nazi occupation and remains today a link to a vital period of Jewish and Dutch history.
When this temple was opened in 1675, it was said to be the largest synagogue in western Europe. Both inside and out, classical, refined architectural details suggest a melding of faith and reason: this building is a product both of the continuity of Judaism and the flourishing of a rational spirit in the 17th century. Definitely a must-see for all those interested in Judaica and/or architectural history.
(Note that this is a still a functioning religious center, so it is closed on Saturdays and holy days.)