Please forgive the missing dispatch last week! I had the privilege of spending a chunk of my half-term with six of our lovely young people in Amsterdam. Together with Yoni Stone and Georgie Friend from Noam, I and a half-dozen of those having their b’nei mitzvah this year explored the Anne Frank House, the Resistance Museum, the Portuguese Synagogue, and the lovely city of Amsterdam.
I feel particularly bad that they all had to deal with me majorly nerding-out over the Portuguese Synagogue (never travel with a rabbi!). The affectionately labeled esnoga is indeed absolutely legendary. It is the centre of the small but significant Spanish-Portuguese Sefaradi community (including being the ‘mother’ synagogue to Bevis Marks, Lauderdale Road, etc), and also an important component of Jewish and world history. A few photos from our time there last week are below.
It is a brilliant place– and its uncomfortable wooden pews have hosted many interesting people: Rembrandt (who had many friends and colleagues there), Barukh Spinoza (who was put under ẖerem (ban) there at age 23), and Menasheh ben Yisra’el (who helped get the Jews readmitted to England by petitioning Cromwell), among others.
It is also a tragic place– filled with such ancient history and gravitas, the pews are sadly empty. In 2012, the esnoga refused to remove the ban on Spinoza, despite community pressure to do so. In 2015, a group of young, active members left to form a new community following the same Portuguese rite. Today it is visited primarily by tourists, and while it does maintain a Shabbat community, there is an air of faded glory all around.
What struck me about visiting with our brilliant Amudim students was how taken aback they were by some of the features of community life: the wealthiest and most important people sit closest to the Torah, the mahamad (trustees) sit in a special, elevated box, the Torah is gated off and inaccessible unless the parnas (Gabbai) gives you the honour of opening it. Women, of course, are seated upstairs – which I’m glad to see most of our young people find atrociously backwards.
It was a mixed feeling- to enjoy so much being in this beautiful, historic, interesting synagogue while also sharing the concerns and objections of the students. At the end of the day, I have to agree with our brilliant young people: pretty buildings are nice, but it is a community which is egalitarian, equal, and accessible which will survive. A synagogue, whether SAMS or the esnoga, is not the building but the people in it, the culture they create, and the community which is formed by their being together.