Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early Modern Amsterdam.
Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in Early
Modern Amsterdam. Miriam Bodian. Bloomington: Indiana University Press,
1998.240 pp. $35.00.
In this skillful and well-argued book Miriam Bodian explores the communal history of
the Portuguese Jews (the “Portuguese” or “the Nation”) who settled in Amsterdam in the
seventeenth century.The book is much more than an account of the role of the community’s key personalities and the development of its institutions, however. Throughout, Bodian attempts to reveal the tensions and complex questions of identity facing the community’s early settlers. In response to their unique historical context, Bodian argues that the early settlers in Amsterdam, the majority of whom were ex-converses, created a distinct conception of “the Nation.” The community of “the Nation” incorporated both ethnic and religious components. On the one hand, Portuguese Jews brought with them an esteem for lineage, an appreciation for numerous Iberian values and customs (including language), an emphasis on external signs of wealth and prestige, and a shared memory of oppressions that served as a catalyst for self-consciousness and self-identity (this topic is taken up extensively in chapter 4, “Iberian Memory and Its Perpetuation”). On the other hand, Portuguese Jews settling in Amsterdam in the early seventeenth century brought with them a diverse familiarity with Jewish belief and practice, as well as varied expectations about and intentions for creating and living in a collective Jewish environment.These early settlers understood that in order to be accepted and legitimized in the larger Jewish world they would need to embrace rabbinic Judaism and accept rabbinic norms.The community developed communal institutions,
and by the 1630s was able to produce its own rabbis of note (chapter 5,”Rejudaization of
‘the Nation,”‘ offers a number of details about institutional unification and the makeup and
authority of the Mahamad, communal council).Throughout this fine book, Bodian’s emphasis is on how the tensions between ethnic self-understanding and integration into a larger rabbinic Jewish culture worked together and against each other in the formation of the “Portuguese” community in Amsterdam.
The book is divided into six chapters, and includes a helpful index and description of
personalities discussed in the book, as well as comprehensive notes, bibliography, and index. In the introduction, Bodian traces the development of the community from 1603, when a small group of ex-conversos established Jewish worship with the aid of a rabbi from Emden, to the 1670s when the bustling community boasted a population of 2500. Bodian discusses the thriving early commercial activities as well as the later changing composition of the community, which developed a growing “underclass.”The introduction also explores more generally crypto-Jewish life and thought since 1391 in an effort to understand the “culture” that the Portuguese Jews carried with them. In chapter 2, Bodian offers more detail and illustrative examples about the variety of religious attitudes and impulses among the early settlers as well as the formation of some of the central communal institutions: a synagogue in 1612; a cemetery just outside the city in 1614; educational and welfare institutions before 1615; and the Dotar, a society for dowering poor brides, in 1615. For Bodian, one can find two basic affiliations for Portuguese Jews in Amsterdam: the Jewish people, i.e. a religious definition, and “the Nation,” i.e. an ethnic identity. Symbolically, the Dotar (discussed at greater length in chapter 6), with its ethnic-not religious-criteria, reflected the double aspect of affiliation evident in the community: “thus, although the Dotar was a body within a rabbinically orthodox community, it gave institutional expression to its members’ afiliation to that most unorthodox entity, ‘the Nation.”‘
In chapter 3,”The Dutch Context,” Bodian investigates the relationship between Portu-
guese Jews and their non-Jewish Dutch neighbors. She argues that although Netherlanders
distrusted foreigners, the “Portuguese” were not conspicuous among other foreigners. In
general, Jews were allowed a great latitude in public expressions of religious observance
(attaining public worship two centuries before Catholics), and, particularly in the large
towns which had economic motives for toleration, the Jews faced only mild restrictions and
minimal governmental regulation. Magistrates were somewhat responsive to guild pressure to curb Jewish competition; but, as long as Jews did not speak or write disparagingly about Christianity, avoided proselytizing and forbidden sexual relations with Christians, and kept a low religious profile outside the synagogue, even efforts by the Reformed clergy against the Jews were held at bay by the magistrates. In the end, Jews felt somewhat at ease in Protestant Amsterdam, with all of its anti-Catholic rhetoric. Jews did not feel pressured to belong to the majority society, and might even identify with their Dutch neighbors. Daniel Levy de Barrios, for example, suggested a profound spiritual tie and a religious-historical bond between the “Portuguese” and the Dutch.
Chapter 5 outlines communal institutions and reveals the surfacing tensions as the Ash-
kenazic population within the city grew. In the 1620s and 1630s, an increasing number of
foreign Ashkenazic Jews, who were often uneducated and poor, streamed into Amsterdam
and forced the Portuguese to define themselves more narrowly and perpetuate a self-image of superiority. Although the Portuguese community cooperated with, and often even
offered substantial assistance to, distant Ashkenazic communities, it had no interest in
encouraging the settlement ofAshkenazim in Amsterdam. Indeed, the communal leadership sought to maintain as great a distance as possible between the members of “the Nation” and the Jews of other ethnic backgrounds. Chapter 6, “Maintaining ‘the Nation’ in Exile,” expands this discussion by examining the narrowing geographical and ethnic functioning of the Dotar. Bodian ends the book by following briefly the fate of the Portuguese Jewish community in Amsterdam after the seventeenth century. After the 1670s, Dutch trade entered permanent decline, and the Portuguese community was especially hard hit. In the end, even as Portuguese was replaced by Dutch as the communal language of the Portuguese Jews, it became evident that the enthusiasm for rejudaization in the seventeenth century could not be maintained.
Bodian’s work is methodologically sound, tracing an interesting and significant concept,
that is, the relation between religion and ethnicity in the formation of Diaspora communi-
ties, and well developed, incorporating a rich variety of archival sources and contextual data. If forced to criticize the book, this reader would note the repetition throughout the book. It might also have been worthwhile to trace the communal developments further into the eighteenth century, though that may be asking for more than can be accomplished in a single book. Overall, Bodian’s book is very engaging and an extremely useful contribution to the history of early modern Jewry.