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A Bright Light in the Jodenbuurt

Libi Astaire

Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue, the Esnoga, is one of the few still-standing reminders of that city’s pre-Holocaust Jewish community. It’s also a moving tribute in wood, stone, and candlelight to the “stiff necks” of its founders — descendants of Anusim who refused to give up their Jewish faith — as a recent visit to the 335-year-old Esnoga showed.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

“Where is it?”

“Over there.”



For a moment, I think the nice but exasperated young man would like to throw me into one of Amsterdam’s ubiquitous canals. Or maybe push me into the path of the dozens of bicycles whizzing by us — the bicycle being the preferred means of transportation for many Amsterdam residents, both young and old.

But I’m really not trying to tax his patience. It’s just that I’m totally jet-lagged after a sleepless plane ride from Detroit to Amsterdam, and I don’t see anything that looks like a synagogue in the direction where he is pointing.

“You mean that long row of short buildings? That’s the Portuguese Synagogue?” I ask, trying to mask my disappointment and dismay. After all, the main reason why I decided to do a thirteen-hour layover in Amsterdam was to see this synagogue, which is supposed to be one of the most beautiful in Europe.

“Yes,” the helpful citizen replies. “It’s being renovated. See?”

I look again. And then I see it: a massive square structure that is “gift-wrapped” in some sort of green construction material. The Portuguese Synagogue has been hiding from me all the time, which somehow seems appropriate for a synagogue that was founded by descendents of Anusim, crypto-Jews from Portugal and Spain who were forced to hide their loyalty to the Torah.   

I gingerly cross the street, careful to avoid both the bicycles and cars, and enter another world. Despite the sounds of construction going on outside, the interior of the Portuguese Synagogue immediately casts its spell; it is an oasis of sublime calm. Yet the inside calm is as misleading as the green wrapping material on the outside, because during its heyday, the synagogue was an active, noisy gathering place for a “Nation” of Jews who were at the center of Holland’s Golden Age. 


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