Jewish Cultural Quarter
A tour of the Jewish Cultural Quarter is awe inspiring because of the history that it serves to preserve. The Jewish Cultural Quarter is located in the heart of the city of Amsterdam in less than one half square mile which makes it easy to walk to see everything.
The Jewish Cultural Quarter is anchored by five major venues:
Jewish Historical Museum
The Jewish Historical Museum consists of four restored Ashkenazi (Jews who were German or Eastern European) Synagogues. What can be seen here? Quoting directly from their website:
“The Jewish Historical Museum is a beautiful, high-profile museum that occupies four monumental synagogue buildings in the middle of the Jewish Cultural Quarter. It provides a unique picture of past and present Dutch Jewish life in all its facets. The museum has an extensive collection of items ranging from paintings to films, and from utensils to 3D presentations. At any one time there are also two temporary exhibitions on display.”
JHM Children’s Museum
The JHM Children’s Museum is located in a wing of the Jewish Historical Museum. Here younger visitors have an opportunity to learn about life in a Jewish family. The museum is set up in six rooms where kids can bake in a kosher kitchen, play games to learn about Jewish culture, learn Hebrew and play music. This is a very interactive, hands on museum and it’s available for birthday parties and special events.
The Portuguese Synagogue is magnificent house of worship that is an active Synagogue today. Even though it is an active synagogue, visitors are welcomed.
The Portuguese Synagogue was built by three Sephardic congregations, Beth Jacob, Neve Shalom and Beth Israel, that came together to create one congregation: Talmud Torah. Later the name changed to the Portuguese Jewish Congregation.
But Why Portuguese?
As I began to refresh my memory on what I had learned about the Portuguese Synagogue, I began to wonder: Why was it Portuguese? That led to a deeper search for answers that I must share with you. For those who know much better than I, forgive me if you find I have missed something. A brief history lesson:
Most of the Jews in Amsterdam came from Spain and Portugal and known now as Sephardic Jews. These people came from the Iberian Peninsula in the late 15th century. What happened at that time to cause the Sephardic Jews to leave the Spanish Kingdom? It was a not so little thing called the Spanish Inquisition.
In 1492, the same year that Columbus sailed the ocean blue, the Alhambra Decree, or the Edict of Expulsion, was signed that said all Jews had to leave the Spanish kingdom or convert. Read the edict here for more detail. Having great wealth didn’t matter, convert or leave was the edict. Many left Spain and fled to Portugal, those who stayed in Spain submitted to a forced mass baptism, continued their Judaism secretly in their homes but lived as Catholics in public.
Then the Inquisition came to Portugal forcing many to flee to Brazil, France and eventually to Amsterdam as merchants. Amsterdam was welcoming of Jews, and did not have ghettos so the Jews were able to establish their own community. Therefore, they left to escape religious persecution and found a home Amsterdam.
The Portuguese Synagogue Restored
The Portuguese Synagogue was restored to its 17th century Sephardic origins between 2011 and 2012. Those items that were not associated with the 17th century historical value were removed, This also means that as a 17th century building, there is no heating, no electrical lighting, pine wood planks still cover the floor and fine sand is still used on the floor to absorb noise, moisture, dust and dirt. Instead of electrical lights, lighting comes from 1,000 candles in candle stands and chandeliers.
Three low buildings make up the Portuguese Synagogue complex which create a courtyard. Within these building can be found treasure chambers that display beautiful ceremonial objects made of gold, silver, silk and brocade.
The oldest functioning library in the world is also located here: The Ets Haim Livraria Montezinos. It has received recognition on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.
National Holocaust Museum
The National Holocaust Museum was the teacher training school across the street from the Hollandsche Schouwburg that was instrumental in rescuing children whose parents were waiting to be deported. And they were going to be deported also, if those who helped hadn’t saved them. There is a plaque on the wall nearby where the Crèche had been memorializing it.
Plaque at the Crèche
A plaque with the text “To all who helped during the German occupation to protect Jewish children from deportation. 1940-1945. ‘, On the Exterior facade of the current NHM.
But now, the National Historical Museum has changing exhibits and events to tell the story. To get the full picture of the deportation of Jews and rescue of their children see both the National Holocaust Museum and the National Holocaust Memorial.
National Holocaust Memorial
The National Holocaust Memorial was covered in a previous article. If you missed it, here’s a link to the full article.
Tickets Available to All Five Museums
A ticket can be purchased at any of the museums that will give admission to all of the venues for one month’s time. If you are going to be in Amsterdam for a while, this would be a good option.
If you are going to be in Amsterdam for a short time, the I Amsterdam card also includes admission to the museums of the Jewish Cultural Quarter.
Looking for some good kosher food in the Jewish Cultural Quarter? The Jewish Historical Museum has a kosher cafe and it doesn’t require a ticket to enter.