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17th Century Conversos in Amsterdam

Frank Longoria

Once the Amsterdam ex-Converso community of the 17th century was established, it required that newly arrived Conversos from the Iberian Peninsula undergo, what Miriam Bodian called rejudaization, or what we call today conversion as a requirement for full participation in community life and benefits derived from being part of rabbinic Judaism.

In the last decade of the 16th century and first decades of the 17th century, Spanish and Portuguese Conversos left their homelands and came to Amsterdam to seek rejudaization. They were affluent, educated, and willing to learn rabbinic Judaism. There is evidence that Conversos sought to learn and to establish Jewish rituals and worship. For example, ex-Conversos sought religious aid from Uri Halevi, an Askenazi rabbi from Emden who established probably the first synagogue in Amsterdam in 1595 and circumcised Conversos. The Dutch authorities arrested Halevi who was charged with circumcising adults, presumably Conversos. However, Halevi was released and allowed to continue working with the Iberian ex-Conversos, who were able to establish their own rituals by 1603. One of the early Conversos who arrived in Holland was Isaac Pinto who was more than glad for having been given the opportunity to practice Judaism, the religion of his Iberian ancestors. Pinto learned Judaism, Hebrew and established a synagogue, which he financed in its entirety during his lifetime. Although few of the ex-Conversos had the financial means that Pinto had, they actively participated in the Jewish community life of Amsterdam.

However, as the 17th century started passing, a new type of Converso who viewed Judaism as a practical necessity started coming to Amsterdam. Often times, this group of Conversos wanted to participate in the life of the synagogue and receive the benefits derived from being part of the Jewish community, but they had no desire to even undergoing circumcision. There are examples of uncircumcised Conversos who died in Amsterdam and their families wanted to bury them in the Jewish cemetery of Ouderkerk. The Mahamad (see definition) ruled that the dead Conversos had to be circumcised before they could be buried in Ouderkerk.

“Denial of the right of burial [in the Jewish cemetery] was used by the Mahamad in Amsterdam, if not to encourage circumcision, to pressure a few of the émigrés to undergo formal conversion to Judaism. These were persons who unquestionably belonged to the ‘Nation' but, because of known female old Christian ancestors on their mother’s side, were not Jewish according to rabbinical law, which held that Jewishness was transmitted through the mother”.

The Amsterdam Jewish community was very careful not to upset Spain or Portugal by actively promoting Judaism or openly protecting crypto-Jews on Spanish or Portuguese soil. This was because Amsterdam’s ex-Conversos were heavily engaged in commerce as ship owners, diamond and spice traders, and many other activities related to commerce with the Spanish and Portuguese empires. Although the Amsterdam Jewish community probably did not openly help Crypto-Jews in Iberia, there is evidence that some of the many prayer books that were printed in Spanish and Portuguese in Amsterdam were sent from to Spain or Portugal or their overseas possessions (Bodian page 199). Also, there is evidence that Amsterdam ex-Conversos strongly encouraged their friends and relatives in the Iberian Peninsula to live before the Inquisition found them.

The following exerts from letters written by the ex-Converso Abraham Idaña (Gaspar Mendez del Arroyo) to Conversos in Iberia illustrate the feelings of Amsterdam Jews in 1686:

"The notion of serving God in one’s heart, it is not enough. The law of Moses was given in order to be observed. It was a particularly grave sin to remain uncircumcised. One must flee to lands of freedom and be circumcised without delay. Nor should one delude oneself that good deeds could compensate for failure to observe the Law".

The ex-Converso community in Amsterdam was always ready to help newly arrived Conversos who needed help to return to Judaism. If the community could not help the newly arrived Conversos in Amsterdam, the community would aid the new comers to find passage to the Ottoman empire, Italy, or even to the New World where more freedom could be found than in the Iberian Peninsula.

Once the ex-Converso community established rabbinic Judaism they began observing Jewish precepts and prohibitions, developed over many centuries, which regulated and restricted relations between Jews and Gentiles. Regardless of this, there is evidence that some ex-Conversos men took lower-class gentile women, often maidservants, as mistresses. From 1600-1623, notarial records reveal instances of sexual relations between Portuguese Jews and gentile women (most of them were Dutch or Scandinavian). Even though it was illegal to have sexual relations between Jews and gentiles under Jewish and Dutch law, few of the ex-Conversos or their mistresses were prosecuted.

Bodian tells us in general that to a degree the fathers of the illegitimate children provided for their support. Bodian also tells us that a group of fifteen Amsterdam Jewish merchants established a society called Dotar for the purpose of providing dowry to orphans and poor girls descendants of the Portuguese Nation or Castilian Conversos.

It is conceivable that many of the illegitimate daughters of ex-Conversos were eligible and obtained dowry to marry Jews. Eligibility to obtain a dowry was not only for Amsterdam’s girls, but it was extended to girls who lived in the Iberian Peninsula, or other parts of Europe, the Ottoman empire, and the New World. Candidates had to prove eligibility by demonstrating that they were descendants of Conversos through either their paternal or maternal line. In order to find suitable candidates for dowries, the Amsterdam ex-Converso community established an elaborated network in many countries. It is possible that the dowry network extended its activity beyond determining eligibility for dowry.

In conclusion, the Amsterdam ex-Converso community gained knowledge of rabbinic Judaism rapidly and by the 1630s they had produced their own rabbis and scholars, such as Menasseh ben Israel and Isaac Aboab da Fonseca. The community not only produced brilliant Jewish scholars but as a whole was very active in religious activity and its knowledge of Jewish traditions was adequate, if not brilliant (Bodian page 110). The ex-Converso community was able to achieve fantastic results because of its perseverance to achieve rejudaization.

Saludos and Shalom
Frank Longoria

Definitions

Book Cited
Bodian, Miriam. Hebrews of the Portuguese Nation: Conversos and Community in early modern Amsterdam. Indiana University Press, 1997. ----- Original Message-----

For those interested in the life of the Conversos who moved to Amsterdam in the 16th and 17th centuries, the book written by Miriam Bodian provides an excellent insight on the Conversos. The author analyzes the reasons as to why they left Portugal and Spain after they had converted to Christianity and difficulties encountered in the transition from Catholicism to Judaism. Also, she provides an excellent picture of the Conversos and Jewish communal life: synagogues, social classes, and the Sephardim cemeteries.

Miriam Bodian. Hebrews of the Portuguese Nations. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press, 1997.

Frank Longoria
http://www.star-telegram.com/homes/longoria/