Beth Haim, the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel
Kerkstraat 10, 1191 JB Ouderkerk aan de Amstel
There is something profound and soothing in the ancient Jewish practice of using the euphemism beit chaim, “house of life,” to refer to a cemetery. It is as if the rabbis did not even want to coin the phrase beit mavet, “house of death,” for fear of inviting the evil eye.
Walking on a cold and rainy day through the Portuguese-Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk, about five-and-a-half miles south of Amsterdam, it was impossible not to appreciate the euphemism on a completely different level. Somehow, the cemetery Beit Haim, which dates back to 1614, is still very much alive.
Most of the 6,000 marble memorials in the oldest part of the cemetery (the full cemetery contains more than 27,500 tombs) have sunk into the ground. Walking through the cemetery and later over tea in a house on the burial grounds, Dennis Moshe Ouderdorp, caretaker of the cemetery, and Jewish tour guide Vera Querido agreed that the 17th century Sephardic Jews who introduced the marble stones must have known they would sink. Perhaps the transience of the heavy stones embedded into the unstable ground even appealed to them, Querido suggested.
What is clear is that the cemetery is home to an impressive group of Dutch Jews, from Menasseh Ben Israel, a diplomat who petitioned Oliver Cromwell to permit Jews to return to England and who was a close friend of Rembrandt’s, to Baruch Spinoza’s parents (Spinoza himself is buried in a church in the Hague) to Eliahu Montalto, French queen Maria de Medici’s doctor.
It is common knowledge that several artists, most famously Jacob van Ruisdael (1628-1682), painted the Jewish cemetery at Ouderkerk. Two pieces by Ruisdael, which are partially imaginative (ruins of a castle in the background are completely manufactured), even include Montalto’s tombstone. In an interview about five years ago, Ruisdael scholar Seymour Slive, Gleason professor of fine arts emeritus at Harvard University, called Ruisdael’s imagination one of his strengths, adding that his “genius is that he is not an ape of nature.”
Slive, who claimed that Ruisdael did not paint the cemetery for Jewish patrons (both Ouderdorp and Querido agreed with that assessment), called the painting an allusion to the “transience of all life, and the ultimate futility of humankind’s endeavors.”
Despite puddles of water obscuring the faces of the tombstones, it was easy to see transience everywhere. Several stones contained skeletons (one full skeleton swings a sickle) and hourglasses, often with wings – all symbols borrowed from non-Jewish artistic traditions and adapted to Jewish memorials. The double tombstone of Rebecca Ximenes (died 5453 or 5454) and her daughter Esther features similar iconography.
Rebecca’s stone shows her namesake, the biblical Rebecca drawing water for Eliezer’s camels (Genesis 24), while the stone for Esther, who died a mere 27 days after her mother, shows a pair of arms emerging from the clouds using an axe to chop down a tree. The symbol suggests that just like the tree, Esther’s life has been cut short. Two putti weep at the bottom of Rebecca’s stone; a winged hourglass resting on a skull and cross bones appears at the top of Esther’s stone.
Biblical figures and episodes appear in several other stones. A double stone for Mordechai Franco Mendes (died 5448/1687) and his wife Sara Abendana (died 5456/1696) contains four biblical narratives: the binding of Isaac, David playing the harp, Jacob’s dream and Abraham forging a peace treaty with Abimelech’s general Phicol.
Four crying putti figure into the double stone of Rachel (died 5455/1695) and Hana Vega (died 5461/1701). Rachel’s stone contains an illustration of the meeting of the biblical Jacob and Rachel, as Rachel tends her father Laban’s sheep. Hana’s stone includes a depiction of the biblical Chana, mother of the prophet Samuel.
King David playing his harp appears prominently atop a stone for David Da Rocha (died 5469/1708), and an inscription identifies the deceased as not only someone who shared the biblical king’s given name, but also a fellow musician. The gravestone of Moses de Mordechai Senior (died 5490/1730) might be the most ambitious in its depiction of 11 biblical scenes: Moses with the Ten Commandments, Haman leading Mordechai, David playing the harp, Abraham looking heavenward, Jacob’s dream, King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, Sara, Rebecca, Rachel, Judah and Benjamin.
Despite all the biblical characters, it was hard not to compare many of the tombstone illustrations with a work displayed at Museum het Rembrandthuis, Rembrandt’s house-turned-museum. Jan Ewoutsz’s 1537 woodblock print, “Allegory of Human Transience,” shows a skeleton with his hand on a man’s shoulder. The man holds an hourglass in one hand, and his other arm is wrapped around a very muscular looking baby. The skeleton points to an inscription: “Nascendo Morimur,” “As we are born, we die.”
With minimal rearrangement and massaging, Ewoutsz’s work could look exactly like the tombstones of the cemetery at Ouderkerk some 100 years later. On the one hand, this means that there is nothing unique in the artistic program of the tombstones. Like the old Jewish cemetery in Prague, there are even nudes depicted on the stones, which suggests an open-minded approach to the sacred burial process.
But it would also be a mistake to focus exclusively on the derivative nature of the stones. Whether or not their designs and motifs were innovative, the Portuguese Jews of 17th century Holland saw importance in decorating their tombstones lavishly. It should not surprise us that such a burial ground attracted the attention of artists like Ruisdael and Romeyn de Hooghe. And if Querido is right that the use of imported marble might have been some kind of postmodern (or pre-postmodern) attempt to arrange for even the stones themselves to decay and sink into the water, that would be a very interesting artistic approach to their burial program indeed.
I am indebted to L.A. Vega’s Het Beth Haim van Ouderkerk: The Beth Haim of Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, which provided much of the background on the cemetery. This article is the first in a series on Jewish Amsterdam and The Hague, which is based on a trip sponsored by the Netherlands Board of Tourism & Conventions.