The Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam

The beautiful Dutch synagogue is also known by its Ladino name, Esnoga, and is one of the Dutch Jewish community's most important structures. Its history and that of Amsterdam's Jewish community reflects the history of the entire Jewish community of the Netherlands.

During the 16th and 17th centuries, descendants of the exiled Jews immigrated to the Netherlands from Spain and Portugal. Throughout this period, many refugees arrived in Amsterdam because of religious tolerance in the city; religious wars and persecution of different faiths by the Catholic Church were common throughout Europe. Among the refugees were wealthy Spanish and Portuguese Jews and Huguenot merchants who fled from Antwerp and France.

After their exile from Spain in 1492, some of the Jews first escaped to Portugal. However, there they continued to suffer from the Inquisition and some were forced to convert. A century later, the descendants of the Anusim (those who were forced to convert) in Spain and Portugal arrived in Amsterdam. During that period, Holland was at war with Spain, and therefore, the Iberian Jews preferred to call themselves the "Portuguese community" rather than "Spanish." The religious tolerance that the Jews were granted in the Dutch republic was unprecedented in comparison to other European countries.

Upon arriving in Amsterdam, many of those known as Portuguese Jews settled in a neighborhood later known as the Jewish Quarter. By the early 17th century, there were three Jewish communities living in Amsterdam: Beit Shalom (founded around 1602); Neve Shalom (1608-1612); and Beit Yisrael (1618). In 1639, the three communities merged and formed the still functioning Talmud Torah, also known as the Jewish Community of Amsterdam. They impacted the economic and cultural developments of the Dutch state as well as Jewish culture and history. Among the Jewish leaders were rabbis, artists, bankers, academics, intellectuals, and founders and managers of international trade organizations.

Eastern and central European Jews began arriving in Holland in the 17th century and quickly founded an Ashkenazi community that became the largest Jewish community in Amsterdam and in all of the Netherlands. By the eve of the Holocaust, the various Jewish communities made up 10% of Amsterdam's population. Today there are around 52,000 Jews living in Holland, 20,000-25,000 of them in Amsterdam. The Portuguese community has 600 members, most of them—like most of the members of the Ashkenazi community—living in the outskirts of the city.


The Synagogue's History

In 1665, the Sephardic community decided to build a beautiful new synagogue. It was intended to be the largest synagogue in the world at the time. Architects Elias Bouwman and Daniël Stalpaert were hired to build it. Construction began in 1671, and should have been completed in 1672. However, because of wars and local strife, the building was completed in 1675. Evidence of the original intended date can be found in the inscription above the synagogue entrance that quotes Psalm 5:8 in Hebrew: “"In the abundance of Thy loving kindness will I come into Thy house.” In addition to the obvious reference that this verse makes to the building of the synagogue itself, the first part of the verse contains the name of the Rabbi Aboab, the chief rabbi who initiated the construction of the synagogue. The words “will I come into thy house” in Hebrew are Avoh Beitcha, which, when contracted, becomes Aboab. Furthermore, the numerical value in Gematria (Hebrew numerology) of the Hebrew word “your house” is 432, pointing to the Hebrew year of 5432, the Hebrew year in which the synagogue was supposed to be completed.

The project's final cost was 186,000 florins, quite a high sum for that period. The synagogue has been renovated a few times since then. Most notably, between the years 1852-1854, the windows were replaced and a wooden, double-entrance door was built, and between 1955-59, the “Etz Haim” study room was converted into the winter synagogue. These renovations did not harm the character of the structure and it currently stands almost exactly as it has for the past 340 years; it even avoided serious damage during the Nazi invasion.

The Synagogue's Architecture and its Interior

The synagogue's architecture is a testament to the community's confidence and wealth during that period. In addition to being the largest synagogue of that era, it has remained one of the largest buildings in Holland.

The synagogue was modeled after Solomon's temple and is constructed from large red bricks built upon wooden beams. Its foundation protrudes from the water that is underneath the synagogue. Half way up the massive building there are large windows with decorated glass panels. At the top level of the building the windows are square. The roof is made from a white casting with a railing made from wood and circular bricks. Within the synagogue's compound stand other red bricked buildings that encompass the synagogue, which have similar roofs and wooden window frames. A short black metal fence surrounds the entire complex.

The building's spacious sanctuary is decorated in a typical Sephardic-Iberian style, the wooden ark and bimah located at the side of the building farthest from the entrance. The whiteness of the walls is emphasized by large decorated windows or squared window panels that help create, along with the ceiling, a light and airy feeling in the room.

The ceiling is made up of dark wooden beams. Tall stone pillars are situated throughout the sanctuary. Like the bimah and ark, the floors and benches are made out of dark wood, and provide the room with an atmosphere of gravity and puritanism. The ark is large with delicate engravings. At its top and center are two tablets with the Ten Commandments engraved in Hebrew letters coated with gold. The bimah stands on the other side of the room, on a raised stage. On it is a large wooden chest placed on a Turkish carpet. A tin chandelier hangs over the chest, an additional one over the ark, and two more in the center of the room.

Together, four chandeliers hold 1,000 candles; all of the candles are lit during every service. The benches were taken from a synagogue that was built in 1639 and are organized in two equal rows that face each other from both sides of the center isle. A thin layer of sand covers the floor that is supposed to absorb moisture from congregants' shoes and to dim noise. The women's section is located on a balcony one story higher and surrounds the walls of the synagogue. Twelve stone pillars that represent the twelve tribes of Israel hold up this balcony. The main building is surrounded by offices, an archive, sleeping quarters, a mikve, and the Etz Haim library, which holds rare and valuable collections of Sephardic manuscripts.

The Synagogue's Praying Style (Nusah)

The synagogue conducts prayers according to the Western European Sephardic tradition, with minimal, late kabbalistic elements included. For example, the prayer books that were printed in Amsterdam, for the use of the local congregation, do not include “Modeh Ani,” which was a later addition to the service. However, the congregation does recite the Kabbalat Shabbat service on Friday nights. The prayers are chanted in a Dutch accent, in which the letter “gimel” is not accented and sounds more like a “khaf,” and the letter “'ayin” sounds like a guttural “nun.”

The unique prayer style of this synagogue is the result of a mixture of Western and Eastern elements. A similar fusion is found in the Portuguese synagogue in London, although there, the medieval Sephardic influence is more prominent. It is impossible to be sure which parts of the Amsterdam synagogue’s prayers come from the original Sephardic-Portuguese style and which were influenced later by contact with the neighboring non-Jewish and Ashkenazi communities.

In a 1972 article published in Douchan, David Ricardo notes that the Portuguese liturgy is not unified, and is subject to varying influences. According to Ricardo, the community's founders were the “Marranos and Anusim, who brought music with them from the Catholic church.”[1] He offers the melody for “Emet VeEmuna” and the verses that are said before the Shofar is blown as examples.

However, Ricardo continues by writing that, “this is not to claim that all of our rituals are influenced by the church. On the contrary, the Amsterdam liturgy remains Sephardic just like that of the Sephardim here in Israel or any other place. The Marranos, who knew nothing of the religious rites, invited rabbis and cantors from abroad in order to teach and counsel them. The most important of them was Rabbi Issac Uziel from the Moroccan city of Fez (who began serving in 1610). In addition to being a rabbi he was also a professional musician, like Salomone de Rossi, which could explain why he was so influential. During his short tenure there (he died in 1622), he was able to counsel the congregants and educate a generation of well learned men, including his successor, Menashe Ben-Yisrael and Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, the current synagogue's founder.

In his book, Music of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in Nineteenth Century Reform Sources from Hamburg: Ancient Tradition at the Dawn of Modernity, Edwin Seroussi notes, in regards to the music, that the use of notation became one of the defining aspects of the Sephardic synagogues.[2] The liturgy began to be notated during the final two decades of the 19th century. Selected works from the Sephardic liturgy were documented and transcribed by Jewish and non-Jewish western Europeans who classified them as exotic examples of non-Western music.

Attempts at musical notation occurred in a number of Sephardic communities across the crumbling Ottoman Empire, where the Jews felt the modern influences of liberal Jewish communities in France, Italy, and central Europe. These attempts, however, did not last long and the surviving scores did not always reliably document the chanted melody.

Until the 20th century, the oral transfer of melodies was still the primary technique of transmitting melodic formulas of the Sephardic synagogues. Notated manuscripts from the Portuguese synagogue were an exception; the centers of the Portuguese community in London and Amsterdam passed down a large corpus of notated liturgy.

The Anusim, who had recently returned to their Jewish roots, were integrated into the local culture of western European cities. Their culture is a unique and complex fusion of the grand Sephardic tradition with local, contemporary, non-Jewish cultures. It combines elements from the Iberian royalty, recollections and acceptance of their position as "new Christians," and the attempt to live a Jewish life in accordance to the Halakha, all within the context of a scientifically inclined, secularizing Europe.

The quick transformation from "new Christians" to Jews caused varying reactions among the members of the Anusi community. Whereas some studied with rabbis and learned the Hebrew alphabet, others became skeptical or atheist, and even fervently opposed Judaism.

Most of the Portuguese community's documented music from the 18th and 19th centuries includes original compositions for solo singer or choir, with or without musical accompaniment.  These compositions reflect influences from the late baroque and gallant periods. Many of them were composed by professional composers, some of whom were Jewish, and some of whom were not. The Jewish community used these compositions for holidays and celebratory occasions, such as the commemoration of the founding of the Amsterdam synagogue in 1675. Cantors trained in the European artistic tradition as well. 

Israel Adler, the musicologist and researcher, found that within the Amsterdam corpus, 133 of the melodies’ sources are known, whereas the rest are "descendants" of 18th century art music that were adapted to the liturgical style of monophonic singing.[3] Because of changes in musical texture on account of this type of adaptation, many of the sources were unknown to the cantors. It was only after Adler analyzed the original manuscripts that the sources of the Amsterdam synagogue's traditional music were realized.[4] It should be noted, in regards to his findings, that traditional pieces were also found among the manuscripts.[5]

There were not many notated scores of anonymous pieces that had been passed down orally from the late 18th and early 19th century Spanish tradition. The most reliable document appeared in 1857 in Cantor David de Aaron de Sola’s and London composer, Emanuel Aguilar's collection. Despite being published in England, the collection reflects in no small way the musical tradition of the Amsterdam synagogue and is the primary source of the Spanish-Portuguese community's musical tradition in Western Europe and in the United States.[6]

[1] David Ricardo, 1972, "The Liturgy of the Portuguese Community in Amsterdam,” Douchan 9.

[2] Edwin Seroussi, 1996, Music of the Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in Nineteenth Century Reform Sources from Hamburg: Ancient Tradition at the Dawn of Modernity, Magnes Press, The Hebrew University, Jerusalem, p.21.

[3] Adler Israel, 1984, “Creation and Tradition in the Chant of the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam,” Pe'amim 19, 25.

[4] Seroussi, 1996, 23.

[5] Edwin Serousi, 1992, “The Ancient Melodies: On the Antiquity of Music in the Sephardic Liturgy,” Pe'amim 50, 99-131.

[6] Ibid.


Sound Examples: 
Kadish for the First Night of Rosh Hashana

CD 5010 David Rucardo Performer, 1974, NSA