The Portuguese Synagogue and the Jewish Historical Museum

It's Kaia and Madeline here again to tell you all about how we adventured to both the Portuguese synagogue and the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam.

Throughout our trip we have had the opportunity to tour many different synagogues. Compared to the others that we have seen, the Portuguese synagogue was very unique. This synagogue is one of the largest in Europe, second only to a synagogue in Budapest. We found it interesting that many synagogues, including this one, are modeled after the destroyed synagogue in Jerusalem. Also, this one was modeled after Noah's ark by having barrel vaulted ceilings. Also, due to Portuguese tradition, the pine floors were coated with a thin layer of sand to muffle loud noises. Another way in which the Portuguese synagogue honored tradition was by leaving one part of the synagogue unfinished. It is to remain unfinished until the Messiah returns.

In addition to the synagogue, this gathering place for Sephardic Jews contained many different rooms for carrying out religious traditions. One room that sparked our interest was the winter synagogue. Before the war, this room was used for both the education of seminary students and for the services during the cold winter months due to there being no electricity in the synagogue. Unfortunately after his liberation, the community of Sephardic Jews was greatly diminished and they stopped educating young Jews about Judaism in this synagogue. It wasn't until later that the community expanded and reverted back to using this room for the education of young Jews. Overall, we enjoyed seeing this synagogue which was so different from others we have seen.

Our second stop of the day was the Jewish History Museum. This museum exhibited information about Jewish lives before and after the war until present day. We also learned about some of the differences between Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews. Sephardic Jews came to Holland during the 1600s from Spain, Portugal, and the Middle East. These Jews dealt with the international trading of tobacco, spices, wool, silk, and currents. This sort of trade resulted in much wealth for the Sephardic Jews. On the other hand, the Ashkenazic Jews hailed from Germany and participated in street trading which resulted in a much poorer community. These two Jewish traditions did not get along due to differences in religion and in class.

This museum also contained a lot of post war information on Jewish life. We learned that after the war many Jews turned away from Judaism. It was at this time that the Enlightenment caused many Jews to relax their religious ties and take interest in practices such as liberalism, zionism and socialism. It wasn't until later in the 1900s that many in the Jewish community took interest in reestablishing Jewish social and religious life. Today, in Holland, there is a thriving Jewish community accounting for about 10 percent of the population. Compared to Poland, the Czech Republic, and Germany, this percentage is as much as 9 percent larger. Throughout our trip we have not had many opportunities to learn about Judaism after the war and it was very interesting to learn more about Jewish life in the present day.

Kaia and Madeline

The Winter Synagogue at the Portuguese Synagogue.
An exhibit in the Jewish History Museum.