Friday, January 22, 2010

Amsterdam, a haven for Jewish converts

Following on from my last post about how Brits who wanted to convert to Judaism mid-19th century had to do so in Holland, On the Main Line has very kindly sent me an essay by scholar Elisheva Carlibach about the role Amsterdam played for converts even earlier, in the 17th and 18th centuries. Specifically, she writes that Amsterdam, with its relative religious freedom, became a haven for Jews across Europe (but particularly German Jews) who had converted to Christianity - and wished to convert back:

As the number of converts out of Judaism rose with more Jews seeking to disencumber themselves from the burdens of their Jewishness, the number of conversions back to Judaism rose quietly alongside them.

According to reports of both the converts and their missionaries, a significant number of the converts made their way to Amsterdam to return to Judaism. One Jew told [missionary] Heinrich Callenberg that he was wasting his time dealing with converts from Judaism “as there are currently in Amsterdam some two hundred Jews who had been baptised, and have returned to Judaism there."

Caspar Joseph Friedenheim, a former Jew who converted c. 1760, complained that the great freedom to practice their religion that some Christian princes bestowed as a misguided sign of piety constituted one of main obstacles to the mass conversion of Jews. He cited as a special example the freedom granted to Jews by the “Holländern,” the Dutch.

“Yes, they even boast that it is permitted to circumcize Christians there and to educate them to become Jews."

On a completely separate note, her essay brings up an interesting point about the social dynamics in the Amsterdam Jewish community:

The Sephardic community disdained the much poorer Ashkenazim, particularly after their numbers grew in the wake of the persecutions of 1648 in Poland. The socio-economic rift between the two communities was very wide. Ashkenazim served as menial servants in the homes of wealthy Sephardim, and expected and received generous amounts of charity from them. They were regarded as such an unpleasant burden that in some cases the Sephardic community paid for the deportation of Ashkenazim.

Ashkenazim were not permitted to pray in the Sephardic synagogues; their children could not study in the same schools. In the words of historian Yosef Kaplan: “The Spanish and Portuguese community of Amsterdam had formed a stereotype of the tudescos [German Jews] and Polacos [Polish Jews]. That image identified them with poverty and beggary, moral corruption and degradation, and even deviation from the ways of Judaism and the observance of the Torah."

Regarding German Jews as even lowlier than Polish Jews, the Sephardic community would not devote significant resources to the redemption of fallen German Jews.

Bizarrely, this actually came up on the BBC recently, in an episode of Who Do You Think You Are featuring none other than Nigella Lawson. One of her ancestors came from Amsterdam and, travelling there to find out more about them, she found herself telling the nation she was hoping for a rich Sephardi forefather rather than a lowly Ashkenazi peasant.

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