Jewish History Amsterdam - Guided tours in Jewish Amsterdam by Jeanette Loeb
Jewish History Amsterdam - Guided tours in Jewish Amsterdam by Jeanette Loeb

The Jewish history of Amsterdam

Once upon a time…………..Amsterdam was a centre of Jewish life. We can still hear it in the nickname of the city “Mokum”. Most people do not realize that this is the jiddish name the Jews gave to the city of Amsterdam because they felt safe and at home in Amsterdam. (Mokum is the jiddish word for the Hebrew “makom” which means town). About half of the Jewish population of The Netherlands has lived in Amsterdam at some point in time. Jewish life has had a considerable influence on the city. Still today we notice this influence, for example through the many Jewish/Jiddish words in use in the Amsterdam slang.

From 1492 onwards, Spain and Portugal were under Catholic regime. The Roman Catholic Church prohibited every other religion, which meant persecution until death at the stake for both Jews and Muslims. Some tried to escape by converting to the Roman Catholic Church but it did not help them. The “autodafé’s” burned them in the same way as the non-convertedThe first group of Jews which came to Amsterdam were Portuguese traders who were refugees, also known as Sefardiem. They were flying from the Roman Catholic Inquisition. In Amsterdam they found a save haven. The city government was very much interested in this group of traders. They increasingly brought to Amsterdam merchanidise from the Portuguese Colonies in South Amerca and Asia.

The Dutch were fighting Spain between 1568-1648. At this time, Spain was trying to dominate the whole of Holland through its regime. The “de Republiek der Zeven Verenigde Nederlanden” (the provinces in the North of The Netherlands) declared themselves independent from Spain in 1572 The independence was declared in the “Unie van Utrecht” (1579), in which the personal freedom of religion for every resident was stated. This was the first time in Europe that a law had been declared declaring freedom of religion. It was this legal arrangement which gave the persecuted Portuguese Jews a safe haven, encouraging them to return to their roots; the Jewish religion and culture. In 1603 we find the first official proof of Jewish divine service. Rabbi Uri Ha Levi, who came from Emden (Germany) to bring Jewish knowledge to this first group of Portuguese refugees, was arrested on suspicion of fencing. He denied but declared that he “zijn religie op Joodsche manier alhier ter stede geëxerceerd te hebben” (was exercising his religion in a Jewish way). He was set free. The first public synagogue was consecrated in 1639


A small number of German Jews settled down in Amsterdam around 1600. During the first half of the 17th century the Jews in East Europe were exposed to very severe persecution and injustice. In 1648 Bogdan Chmielnicki who was leading a group of Cossacks, slaughtered the Jewish population. Within eight years about 500,000 Jews were killed in Poland and in the West of the Russian Empire. The immigration of Eastern European Jews (Ashkenazim) increased. By the end of the 17th century their community Amsterdam was bigger than the Portuguese Jewish community.

Before World War II, 10% of the Amsterdam population was Jewish. (On the whole Amsterdam had around 800,000 inhabitants). The Shoah or Holocaust, which was the persecution of the Jews during World War II, decimated the Jewish community, only 20 % of the Amsterdam Jews having survived the Shoah. The big void is tangible in the city. The memories of the Jewish past do not make up for this enormous void. But in the meantime the second and third generation Jews born after World War II have gathered up the threads and now enjoy a lively Jewish live in Amsterdam. There are several Jewish religious communities from orthodox to modern progressive; NIHS, PIG, LJG, Beth HaChidush and some small independent synagogues. The Jewish community has its own schools, heath service and social services. The Joods Historisch Museum ( Jewish Historical Museum) is the center point of Jewish culture with such annual cultural festivals including the Joods Film Festival (Jewish Film Festival) and the Joods Muziekfestival (Jewish Music Festival).
Several choirs are specialized in liturgical and/or other Jewish music. The NIW, the Jewish weekly, publishes not only national but also international news. The Joods Journaal is the monthly glossy.
There is also Jewish broadcasting on radio and television, in addition to internet sites such as and a glossy monthly magazine “Joods Journaal”. Both universities UvA and VU are providing “Jewish studies”. Amsterdam has two important Jewish libraries : Ets Haim – Livraria Montezinos established in the buildings of the Esnoga, the Portugees Israelietische Gemeente and Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana which is connected to the Universiteit van Amsterdam. In the centre of the city we find two kosher restaurants; Pinto and King Salomon. In the district of Amsterdam South, there are several Jewish shops and restaurants. Roland Vos Catering & Events offers not only traditional Jewish cuisine but als modern international dishes. We also discover several Jewish youth, student and womens’ organisations.

The combination of modern Jewish life and the memory of the pre-war Jewish community make Amsterdam an interesting place to visit. Whether or not you come for a short or long-term visit, Jeanette Loeb offers you the possibility to tailor your own individual program, in addition to offering a number of standard tours. These tours vary in content and time.