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Portuguese Synagogue

Portuguese Synagogue (18)

Unfortunately, little is now left of Amsterdam’s Jewish quarter. Because of the devastation caused in the Second World War and the significant presence of new, modern buildings, only a few vestiges of the old Jewish quarter remain. 

One of these, perhaps the most remarkable, is the Portuguese Synagogue, the largest and most majestic of the three to be found in the square of Jonas Daniel Meijer, the first Jewish lawyer in the Netherlands. 

You may wonder how a giant redbrick cube of such characteristics managed to be hidden and escape destruction in the worst moments of persecution. 

The building was designed and constructed by Elias Bouman, who, after four years of construction work, succeeded in having the synagogue consecrated in 1675. 

It was built in the seventeenth century, even though many Portuguese Sephardic Jews had arrived in the Netherlands during the sixteenth century. At that time they had sought refuge in a country said to be tolerant, after escaping from the persecution of the Inquisition in Portugal. 

Although they did not initially profess their religion in public, they gradually lost the fear of doing so. Furthermore, given that this group of people contributed greatly to the country’s commercial enrichment, they were soon allowed to build synagogues in important places, while Catholics were forced to keep their churches secret. 

In the seventeenth century, however, although many of the synagogues built were visible from the street, their entrances were not very striking. Some of the doors are therefore difficult to make out and are surrounded by branches that give the synagogues the mysterious appearance of the unknown. 

The public is welcome at the classical-style Portuguese Synagogue. The centre is also still active and currently has some six hundred members. Although the surrounding area was abandoned, fell into ruin and disappeared during the Second World War, this marvel remains intact. 

The aesthetics of the synagogue building are directly influenced by the temple of Solomon. The redbrick facade, which faces south-east towards Jerusalem, has seventy-two windows. The division of the facades with pilasters and the high semicircular windows at the top are the mark of Elias Bouman’s work. 

The interior features a Baroque corridor with three wooden arches. If you do visit, you will be impressed by the thousand-candle copper candelabras, the majestic hechal, and ark, made from Jacaranda wood, where the Torah is kept. 

Ets Haim, the synagogue library, which was founded in 1616, is considered to be one of the world’s most important. It is located in the small houses that surround the synagogue. 

The striking silhouette of this stately jewel, which has remained intact, seems to yearn for the heyday of this punished district. In this zone of contrasts, where picturesque houses coincide with centres of avant-garde art and the streets bear testimony to the old Jewish quarter, a visit to this synagogue is therefore a must.

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