Amsterdam's Jewish Quarter

This is part 4 in Museum Hopping in Holland. Read Part 1 to find out how to save on museum entrance fees with the Museum Card.

There is a joke in Jewish circles…

A Jew has been stranded on a desert island for years. When rescuers eventually arrive they see the man has built two synagogues during his time on the island. When they ask why one man should need two synagogues, he replies, “That one is my synagogue. That other one, I would never go into.” (This joke kills with a group of Jews, I swear.)

Amsterdam’s old Jewish Quarter reminded me of this joke because two synagogues sat on either side of the canal. One was home to Amsterdam’s Sephardic Jews, the other it’s Ashkenazi Jews. Today The Old Portuguese Synagogue (the Sephardic synagogue) is still used, but open for self-led audio tours. The other (the Ashkenazi synagogue) has been turned into the Jewish History Museum. Together these two museums/synagogues provide a history of Amsterdam’s Jews from the 1600’s through World War II, thus also providing much needed context for experiencing the Anne Frank House.

Amsterdam Jewish Quarter historic view
Painting of Amsterdam’s historic Jewish Quarter with the Portuguese Synagogue on the right and the Ashkenazi Synagogue on the other side of the canal.

Portuguese Synagogue

Amsterdam's Portuguese Synagogue
Entrance to Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue

The Portuguese Synagogue opens first, so if you start early, you’ll have to start here. As I said, this is a Sephardic synagogue. (Sephardic means Jews of Spanish origin.) It is the oldest still-functioning synagogue in Europe. The building maintains its historic feel of the 1700’s because today there is still no heat or electricity. Evening services are only lit by candle light. The interior had a simple, austere kind of beauty. While I highly recommend a visit, November was not the best time to visit. My fingers froze around my audio guide and my nose wouldn’t stop running!

Amsterdam's Portuguese Synagogue
Amsterdam’s Portuguese Synagogue

From the audio guide, I learned that the ground floor benches are reserved for men. The women sit in the upstairs gallery which can only be accessed by a set of stairs outside and around the back of the synagogue! Not only that, but once seated upstairs, a tall fence mostly blocks the view of the lower floor!

Portuguese Synagogue Balcony
Portuguese Synagogue Women’s Balcony

Fascinatingly, The men’s bench seats used to lift to reveal cubbies. Each man who attended the synagogue could store his prayer books and shawls in these cabinets and lock theirs with a key. After World War II, many of these cabinets remained locked because their owners never returned. Out of respect, these were left locked until bugs began to attack the abandoned items. Then, in a conservation effort, the cabinets were opened in order to preserve the artifacts. Today the key holes are still visible on the benches.

Portuguese Synagogue Benches with Cubbies
Portuguese Synagogue Benches with Cubbies

    The large synagogue sits in the courtyard of a building that has been built to surround the courtyard like a brick wall. The rest of the tour includes the facilities in this surrounding building. One is the “winter synagogue,” a much smaller room, but this one is nicely heated. Another is the former mikvah (a ritual bath). This yellow-tiled room contained an empty bath with stairs down to a space just big enough for one woman to stand and about enough room beside the bath for the mikvah matron to observe traditions were followed correctly. This is the first real mikvah I’d ever seen. In Alaska, those brave enough to follow the mikvah tradition go dunk themselves in a glacial pond. Somehow, neither of these options seemed appealing, and I was glad the mikvah was not one of the traditions I observe.

Finally, below ground level, were “the treasure chambers.” Here were preserved items such as books that were the start of the synagogue’s library. Also, fancy Torah covers made from ladies dresses in the 1700’s. Apparently it used to be an honor to have your dress made into a Torah cover! All of these old and extremely fragile artifacts are living items, meaning they may still be used in religious services today. Unfortunately, this means that on occasion these items will get candle wax dripped on them in the synagogue. Talk about a preservationist’s nightmare!

Portuguese Synagogue Original Library
Portuguese Synagogue Original Library
Portuguese Synagogue Torah Covers
Portuguese Synagogue Torah Covers

Jewish History Museum

Amsterdam's Jewish History Museum
Amsterdam’s Jewish History Museum

Across the street (it is no longer a canal) from the Sephardic Temple sits the old Ashkenazi synagogue (Ashkenazi Jews come from Eastern European origin.) Today this synagogue is the Jewish History Museum. The exhibits trace the history of Amsterdam’s Jews starting in the 1700’s. The Jews who settled in the Netherlands in the 1700s were poor and were only able to live in one section of town, which is why it is known today as the Jewish Quarter.

In what used to be the synagogue’s sanctuary and balcony, books, paintings, and artifacts from the 1800’s to early 1900’s are on display. On the ground floor, where all the historical religious artifacts are grouped, I found old circumcision kits. Yikes!

The old Ashkenazi synagogue sanctuary has be repurposed as the museum.

In a newer addition to the building, the history of the 1900’s through the end of World War II has its own room. This section was difficult for me to get through. I stood staring at the first items for a long time. There was a sign saying “Jews Forbidden” (in Dutch, of course) and behind it a little pink dress with a yellow star sewed to it that read “Jood.” This is the first time I had come face to face with these things I had only heard or read about. There it was. The yellow ID star. The history of my grandparents was suddenly very, very real. The rest of the room was filled with items, similar to the dress, from people that never returned. There were board games, because Jewish families had been restricted from so much of public life that they spent their evenings at home playing games.

One story that haunted me was that of a council of Jews that formed to aid, comfort, and help Jews comply with government regulations in the hopes that it could save people from trouble with the government. Unfortunately in the end these men who meant to help were accused of helping the Germans in destroying countless Jews. I can only hope that we as a society are never so innocent again, but I could understand how it happened.

Taking all of this history in had made the hours slip away and too soon it was time to head across town to the Anne Frank House where we would be stepping inside this history, not just staring at it from outside a glass case.

Anne Frank House

…at this point, depending on what time your Anne Frank House tickets are for, and the weather, I’d suggest walking across town for the complete experience, because Jews were not allowed to take the tram cars in the time just before Anne went into hiding. If you’re pressed for time, however, or it’s November and it’s freezing and pouring rain, do take the tram.

Read more about the Anne Frank House in this previous post.

Rembrandt House Museum

…If you’ve had enough Jewish history for one day, or have Anne Frank House tickets for another day, you could instead visit the Rembrandt House Museum. He lived in the Jewish quarter too.

Let’s Talk

Have you visited historically religious sites during a vacation? Let’s discuss in the comments below!

Plan Your Visit

The Jewish Cultural Quarter
Save $$: 15€ will purchase entrance plus audio tours to the two synagogues plus three other places in the Jewish Quarter, but a museum card will serve as a free ticket voucher.

Anne Frank House (9, Make tickets online ahead of time!)
Save $$: Use museum card option for a free timed ticket. You will need to show both at the door.

Rembrandt House Museum (13)
Save $$: Free entrance with Museum Card

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