A Tale of Four Synagogues: Amsterdam’s Jewish Historical Museum

Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam

Nieuwe Amstelstraat 1, Amsterdam



Even a poor, unfortunate Jew stranded on an otherwise deserted island, the joke goes, builds two synagogues – one that he attends semi-regularly and the other he wouldn’t set foot in if you tried to make him.


The notion of four coterminous Ashkenazi synagogues seems like the beginning of another joke, but the Great Synagogue (Grote Sjoel, built 1671), Upstairs Synagogue (Obbene Sjoel, built 1685), Third Synagogue (Dritt Sjoel, built 1700 and renovated in 1778) and New Synagogue (Neie Sjoel, built 1752), in Amsterdam’s old Jewish quarter serve as the location of the Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam (Joods Historisch Museum).


Although the multiplicity of synagogues had to do with practical rather than hostile factors (like in the joke), it is impossible to forget the tragic and sobering circumstances that allowed these buildings to become a museum rather than to continue to serve as houses of prayer.


Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam. Photo Lisette Kamping.

Images courtesy of Jewish Historical Museum, Amsterdam.



According to an 18th century register, the Great Synagogue, created by Elias Bouman, who also constructed the Portuguese Synagogue, also called Esnoga (Sephardi, built in 1675) and situated across the street from the other synagogues, sat 399 men and 368 women.


When the community outgrew that space, it constructed the second building, which was named the Upstairs Synagogue for its location on the upper floor of the building above a meat market. The synagogue seated 390 and its congregation tended to be less affluent than that of the Great Synagogue. Further growth of the community required even more space, so the community created the Third Synagogue (seated 164) and the New Synagogue (seated 596 men, 376 women).


Synagogue use screeched to an immediate halt during World War II, when the windows beside the ark of the New Synagogue were covered with bricks; the Third Synagogue was stripped of its furnishings; the Upstairs Synagogue’s ark and galleries were looted; and the wooden galleries of the Great Synagogue were stripped and used for fuel during a shortage.


Surely the restorations of the synagogues by J. Schipper in 1966 and Premsela Vonk and Partners and Roy Gelders from 1976-1987 are to be applauded, and their reemergence as a museum is a great story of creation emerging from within the ashes of terrible devastation, but it is also difficult to forget what the buildings once were and what they can never be again.


The museum complex today houses more than 13,000 works of art and historical objects, including paintings by Isaac Israels, Jozef Israels and Isidor Kaufmann, and lavishly decorated circumcision tools, Omer counters, Ketubbot, illuminated manuscripts and Torah crowns.



Eppo Doeve. “Max Tailleur.” 1958. Loan Netherlands Theatre Institute.



Of particular interest is Eppo (Joseph Ferdinand) Doeve’s 1958 painting of Jewish comedian Max (Moses) Tailleur. Doeve, a friend of Tailleur’s, sets the comedian amidst a backdrop that shows the destruction of Jewish Amsterdam during World War II. Ominous smoke fills the horizon, which is punctured by leafless trees. Over Tailleur’s left shoulder, a man with a hat and satchel in an open market points at a candelabrum that appears to be a menorah. It might not be a stretch either to say that the ritual object is being hawked right outside the Portuguese Synagogue (there may be a Hebrew inscription over the door).


Martin Monnickendam’s 1935 painting depicts a much happier scene: services in the Great Synagogue celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Ashkenazi community of Amsterdam. The painting conveys not only the poise and sophistication of the congregants, but also the lavish light and bold colors of the synagogue.


Monnickendam includes the inscriptions on the ark: “Crown of the Torah,” “Know before whom you stand” and “God is King; God has ruled; God will reign forever” (though a guide published by the museum incorrectly states that the inscription from Psalms 16:8, “I have set God before me perpetually,” which appears in the actual synagogue, is also visible in the painting).



Martin Monnickendam. “Synagogue Service, 300th anniversary of the NIHS, Amsterdam.” 1935. Watercolor, pastel and gouache.



The museum does a great job of balancing the older holdings of its collections with contemporary Judaica, but its historic works are probably its best treasures. A circa 1250 machzor from Cologne was perhaps brought to Amsterdam by Uri Halevi, a rabbi born in 1544 who built synagogues in Amsterdam and circumcised 2,500 Maranos, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia. According to the museum guide, Halevi may have been using the machzor on Yom Kippur in 1603 when Amsterdam police raided his home, suspecting it held an illegal Catholic service.


The most interesting piece in the collection might be a 17th century basin by Abraham Warnberger II, used by the Levites to wash the hands of the Kohanim during services.


The basin depicts a scene that is atypical for a synagogue, though: the Greek mythological (and one might add highly provocative) tale of the judgment of Paris. The Trojan Paris is shown beside Aphrodite, who holds an apple in her hand, a prize identifying her as more beautiful than her peers Hera and Athena (both of whom stand behind her, Athena with a helmet and armor). Hermes (winged helmet) stands off on the right beside a dog, perhaps a symbol of loyalty.



Detail of basin. Gilded silver.  Abraham Warnberger II, Augsburg, 1670.



So what are all these Greek gods and goddesses doing on the platter used to prepare for the priestly blessing of the Kohanim? According to the museum guide, the platter was made for use in non-religious contexts, and was then introduced to the synagogue – clearly for its aesthetic beauty, rather than being particularly on message religiously.



Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.


This article is the third in a series on Jewish Amsterdam and The Hague, which is based on a trip sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.