For a New Year – Something from the Past

Happy New Year everybody! Let’s start the new year with a little history.

In 1492, the Jews of Spain were given a choice between apostasy or exile. Many escaped to neighboring Portugal, where they fared little better; in 1496, the Jews of Portugal were given the same choice.

Nobody knows how many Jews lived in the Iberian Peninsula prior to the expulsions, but it was at least in the hundreds of thousands. We have documentation of a Jewish community in Spain since late Roman, or early Medieval, times. Over the course of centuries, the Jewish community had grown wealthy and influential. It also produced many literary works, which included various topics aside from religion.

These expulsions gave birth to the Sephardic (Hebrew for “Spanish”) diaspora, which continued to speak Spanish until our own time, though speakers of Judeo-Spanish (“Ladino”) are few these days, and mostly old. It’s a dying language.

Many of the Jews who had fled to Portugal ended up in Amsterdam, where there was a thriving Sephardic community until recently. From Wikipedia:

Permanent Jewish life in Amsterdam began with the arrival of pockets of Marrano and Sephardic Jews at the end of the 16th, and beginning of the 17th century; their first Chief Rabbi was Rabbi Uri Levi. Many Sephardi (Jews from the Iberian Peninsula) had been expelled from Spain in 1492 after the fall of Muslim Granada. Those that moved to Portugal were forced to leave in 1497, where they were given the choice between conversion to Catholicism or death penalty on the grounds of heresy.

From 1497, others remained in the Iberian peninsula, practising Judaism secretly in their homes. The newly independent Dutch provinces provided an ideal opportunity for these crypto-Jews to re-establish themselves and practise their religion openly, and they migrated, most notably to Amsterdam. Collectively, they brought economic growth and influence to the city as they established an international trading hub in Amsterdam during the 17th century, the so-called Dutch Golden Age. Perhaps the most notable example of Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam are the Curiel family, namely Jeromino Nunes da Costa (alias Moses Curiel),[4] son of Jacob Curiel.[5] Curiel was the single largest financial contributor to the building of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam.[6]

In 1593, Marrano Jews arrived in Amsterdam after having been refused admission to Middelburg and Haarlem. These Jews of Converso descent were important merchants, and persons of great ability. Their expertise, it can be stated, contributed materially to the prosperity of the Netherlands. They became strenuous supporters of the contender House of Orange, and were in return protected by the Stadholder. At this time, commerce in Holland was increasing; a period of development had arrived, particularly for Amsterdam, to which Jews had carried their goods and from which they maintained their relations with foreign lands. Quite new for the Netherlands, they also held connections with the Levant, Morocco and the Caribbean Antilles.

The formal independence from Spain of the Republic of the Seven United Provinces (1581), theoretically opened the door to public practice of Judaism. Yet only in 1603 did a gathering take place that was licensed by the city. The three original congregations formed in the first two decades of the 17th century merged in 1639 to form a united Sephardic congregation.

When visiting Amsterdam, I dropped by the Portuguese synagogue:

It was built in 1672.

Amsterdam was a major Hebrew printing hub, and I own several old tomes from its heyday. One of them is from 1722, and it includes a short treatise on the Hebrew calendar. Although Ladino was written in Hebrew characters in much of the Mediterranean region, it seems that the Roman alphabet was used in the Netherlands. Even though some of Amsterdam’s Jews spoke Portuguese, Spanish was the language of prestige, and this is why it was used here.

Now, for probably the first time ever, you can see this treatise online. Those of y’all who know Spanish should be able to understand most of it. The book is in poor condition overall, and the calendar tables, which follow the treatise, are ragged, but I’m including several pages of those anyway:

You might notice the Hebrew date 5424 and 5423 in the text. Those are 1664 and 1663 in the Gregorian calendar.

Spanish speakers, please share your thoughts on this text in comments.

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3 Responses to For a New Year – Something from the Past

  1. 370H55V says:

    I underftand Fpanifh and can read and fpeak it fairly well, but this is flow going due to archaic ftyles.

  2. AsheDina says:

    This is where my family is from!
    They escaped to the Azores.

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