Rembrandt's Jews


There is a popular and romantic myth about Rembrandt and the Jewish people. One of history's greatest artists, we are often told, had a special affinity for Judaism. With so many of Rembrandt's works devoted to stories of the Hebrew Bible, and with his apparent penchant for Jewish themes and the sympathetic portrayal of Jewish faces, it is no wonder that the myth has endured for centuries.

Rembrandt's Jews puts this myth to the test as it examines both the legend and the ...

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There is a popular and romantic myth about Rembrandt and the Jewish people. One of history's greatest artists, we are often told, had a special affinity for Judaism. With so many of Rembrandt's works devoted to stories of the Hebrew Bible, and with his apparent penchant for Jewish themes and the sympathetic portrayal of Jewish faces, it is no wonder that the myth has endured for centuries.

Rembrandt's Jews puts this myth to the test as it examines both the legend and the reality of Rembrandt's relationship to Jews and Judaism. In his elegantly written and engrossing tour of Jewish Amsterdam—which begins in 1653 as workers are repairing Rembrandt's Portuguese-Jewish neighbor's house and completely disrupting the artist's life and livelihood—Steven Nadler tells us the stories of the artist's portraits of Jewish sitters, of his mundane and often contentious dealings with his neighbors in the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam, and of the tolerant setting that city provided for Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews fleeing persecution in other parts of Europe. As Nadler shows, Rembrandt was only one of a number of prominent seventeenth-century Dutch painters and draftsmen who found inspiration in Jewish subjects. Looking at other artists, such as the landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael and Emmanuel de Witte, a celebrated painter of architectural interiors, Nadler is able to build a deep and complex account of the remarkable relationship between Dutch and Jewish cultures in the period, evidenced in the dispassionate, even ordinary ways in which Jews and their religion are represented—far from the demonization and grotesque caricatures, the iconography of the outsider, so often found in depictions of Jews during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

Through his close look at paintings, etchings, and drawings; in his discussion of intellectual and social life during the Dutch Golden Age; and even through his own travels in pursuit of his subject, Nadler takes the reader through Jewish Amsterdam then and now—a trip that, under ever-threatening Dutch skies, is full of colorful and eccentric personalities, fiery debates, and magnificent art.

Finalist for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226567372
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 9/1/2004
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 250
  • Sales rank: 1,279,820
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.79 (d)

Meet the Author

Steven Nadler is a professor of philosophy and director of the George L. Mosse/Laurence A. Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is the author, most recently, of Spinoza: A Life, which won the 2000 Koret Jewish Book Award for biography, and Spinoza's Heresy: Immortality and the Jewish Mind.
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Read an Excerpt

Rembrandt's Jews

By Steven Nadler

University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2003

University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-226-56736-2

Chapter One

On the Breestraat

Today, as you approach Amsterdam from the northeast-traveling, of course,
on a bicycle, perhaps riding down the polders on the Ijmeer after a visit
to Alkmaar and Edam to tour the cheese markets-you pass through the newer
parts of the city. Surrounded by modern office buildings and high-rise
apartment complexes, you wonder (if this is your first trip) what could
have happened to the quaint old city shown in tourist brochures. Small
streams and drawbridges, some surrounded by lush growth, are on either
side as you move briskly along the fietspaden, or bike paths, that are
everywhere in Holland. It is a charming ride, but where are the tall,
thin, steep-gabled houses and neo-Gothic churches? Where are the red,
white, and blue bannered barges moored in canals along improbably narrow

And then you come to the River IJ. The small harbor is the road's
dead-end. There, across the water, is what you were looking for. Brick,
not poured concrete; cobblestone, not asphalt; spires, not antennae.
Dozens of other bicyclists-in business suits with their briefcases
strapped across the center bar, with boyfriends or girlfriendssitting
sideways on rear carrier racks, or with small children all but hidden in
the wicker body-baskets on the racks-are waiting on the quay for the short
ferry ride that will carry them across the river and into the old city.
After they load and the boat pulls away, everyone stands on the open deck,
holding either a book, a bicycle, or a broodje, the small sandwich roll
that counts as Dutch fast food.

The ramp is slowly lowered as the ferry reaches the far bank, more of a
sloped loading bay than a true dock. The bikers take the right-of-way,
rolling as a group off the boat and straight on through the monumental
Centraal Station, the rear of which looms ahead. Built in 1889, it is the
central node of a city that, unlike most other European capitals, has not
completely surrendered to the automobile. Passenger trains to destinations
throughout Europe share the rails with freight cars under the enormous
steel roof. The station remains genteel in an Old World way. Its cafes,
waiting areas, and book and newspaper kiosks invite even native
Amsterdammers to linger before making their way out into the city. In
addition to a clock on the front of its magnificent brick facade, there is
also a gilded weather vane, a throwback, perhaps, to the days when the
city depended on the sailing ships that floated into the wharfs just
behind the station. On the front side of the railroad terminal is a huge
plaza, with trolley lines, buses, and, above all, bicycles. Thousands of
them, many squeezed in together on a three-level parking ramp. This is
commuter parking, Dutch style. Some of the fietsen are secured with heavy
chains, others with only standard-issue flip-locks. They all have
handlebar chimes. In the morning and evening, the ringing of bells and the
clicking whirl of bicycle gears drowns out even the motorized traffic.

The city of Amsterdam radiates outward, fanlike, from this plaza. Straight
ahead, past the herring sellers and the newspaper stands, lies the Beurs,
built in 1903 for the stock exchange but now used mainly for concerts. A
left turn out of the station mall off the Damrak and then a right onto the
Warmoestraat takes you along a canal. The red-light district begins here.
Part tourist attraction, part lure for British toughs from across the
North Sea, the neighborhood's seediness has been relieved somewhat in
recent years by the city's attempts to clean up its image. There are still
many sex shops along these narrow streets. The bright and hip-looking
Condomerie caters to the needs of the district's visitors. Even to a
well-traveled American, the sight of a lingerie-clad woman standing in a
street-level window is still something of a shock.

A left turn ahead leads to the Oudezijds Voorburgwal. On the right is the
imposing Oude Kerk, built in 1306 but already too small for its growing
congregation by that century's end. Its High Gothic nave-brick, not
stone-lines up just behind the spire that contains a forty-seven-bell
carillon. The basilica is surrounded by chapels, annex buildings, and even
houses added over the centuries. Rembrandt's Saskia is buried here.

Another left turn just past the church takes you over a bridge to the
Oudezijds Achterburgwal. The Cannabis Museum is just a block away, a
stone's throw from the old headquarters of the Dutch East Indies Company,
now a part of the University of Amsterdam. As you continue along on
Zeedijk, once a part of the city's original fortifications, you pass
through Amsterdam's small Chinatown and enter the Nieuwmarkt. The market
plaza is dominated by the castle-like, fifteenth-century Waag
(weigh-house). When the weather is decent, the yard in front of the Waag
is filled with fishmongers, cheese sellers, vegetable stands, flower
stalls, even bakers. This was the scene of fierce rioting in 1975, when
the city started demolishing old homes in the neighborhood-including parts
of the Jewish Quarter-to make way for a new subway. In the face of such
protest, the municipal authorities wisely revised their plans and began
serious renovation efforts. Photographs of the demonstrations are on
display in the Nieuwmarkt metro station.

The avenue splinters into smaller streets here, and it is easy to get lost
as you leave the plaza. If you continue straight through the Nieuwmarkt
and out the opposite side, however, you arrive, finally, on
Sint-Anthonisbreestraat. In fewer than one hundred meters, the name of the
street changes. Beyond the well-preserved Italianate home that belonged to
Isaac de Pinto on the left and the simple but stately Zuiderkerk on the
right, over the small bridge where the Sint-Anthonisluis still controls
the water level of the canal, Saint Anthony's Broad Street becomes Jews'
Broad Street, Jodenbreestraat. At a steady pedal, the trip since
debarkation at Centraal Station takes no more than ten minutes.

* * *

Had Rembrandt moved into any other neighborhood of the city, he would have
been surrounded by neighbors with such names as de Witt, Graaf, Van den
Berg, and Janszoon. As it was, the occupants of the houses around No. 4
Breestraat had names that were, to the Dutch ear, of a somewhat more
exotic timbre: Rodrigues, da Costa, Bueno, Nunes, Osario. Rembrandt's
block was the home of Manuel Lopes de Leon, Henrico d'Azevedo, and David
Abendana. Daniel Pinto was right next door. On the other side of
Rembrandt, at No. 6, lived Salvatore Rodrigues, also a merchant. Across
the street lived Salvatore's brother, Bartolemeo Rodrigues, in No. 3. In
Breestraat No. 1, on the corner and opposite Pinto, in the house once
occupied by the painter Pieter Isaacszoon, was Isaac Montalto, the son of
the late Elias Montalto, who had served as court physician to Maria de
Medici, Queen Mother of France. The wealthy Isaac de Pinto owned a large
house on the block, taking up Nos. 7 and 9. He lived there until 1651,
when he bought an even bigger home, also on Breestraat but on the other
side of the lock. Next to him was Abraham Aboab. In No. 23, in a house
owned by their father Abraham, resided the brothers Samuel and Jacob
Pereira, the same merchants who were renting part of Rembrandt's basement.
At the end of the block was yet another merchant, Bento (or Baruch)
Osorio. With over fifty thousand guilders to his account at the Bank of
Amsterdam, he was one of Vlooienburg's richest residents. Across from
Osorio, on Rembrandt's side of the street, was Antonio da Costa Cortissor.
In 1639, Cortissor generously (but, no doubt, profitably) sold a piece of
his garden so that a synagogue could be built in the neighborhood.

Saul Levi Mortera, a learned rabbi and formerly a secretary to Isaac
Montalto's father, lived just across the Sint-Anthonisluis from Daniel
Pinto's house. Menasseh ben Israel, also a rabbi and possibly the most
famous Jew in Europe, lived on Nieuwe Houtmarkt, on the Vlooienburg
island. Between them, on the Houtgracht itself and one block from
Rembrandt's house, lived Miguel d'Espinoza (or de Spinoza). His son,
Baruch, would become one of the most radical and vilified philosophers of
all time, but only after being permanently expelled-with great
prejudice-from the Amsterdam Jewish community for his "abominable
heresies" and "monstrous deeds."

All these people, with the exception of Rabbi Mortera, were Sephardim:
Jews of Iberian extraction. The Spanish and Portuguese names were, to
their gentile neighbors, a dead giveaway. The men may have dressed like
the Dutch, trimmed their hair and beards like the Dutch, and assumed Dutch
aliases for business purposes outside of Holland-thus, Josef de los Rios
(Joseph "of the River") became Michel van der Riveren, while Luis de
Mercado (Louis "of the Market") was known to some of his associates as
Louis van der Markt-to protect them from harassment. Their houses were
done up in the Dutch style, and they prided themselves on their ability to
pass as typical burghers in their new homeland. But there was no mistaking
the distinctly foreign cultural flavor they brought to Breestraat.

Vlooienburg was, then, not only the center of Amsterdam's art market and
lumber trade. It was also the heart of Amsterdam's Jewish world. And
Rembrandt settled right at its center. Every house immediately contiguous
with or facing his own was owned or occupied by a Jew. And an overwhelming
majority of the households on his block, on both sides of the street, were
Jewish. From his front stoop he could see into Rabbi Mortera's windows;
from his top floor he had a view of the community's synagogue. He could
not help but hear the sons of Jewish families chattering in Portuguese on
their way to school in the morning. On Friday afternoon, he could smell
the slow-cooking Iberian foods they prepared for the Sabbath.

Before the Lower East Side of New York, before the Marais district in
Paris, even before London's Park Lane, there was Vlooienburg. And much of
what we think about Rembrandt and his art stems, ultimately, from his
decision to live there.

* * *

Just a few decades earlier, Rembrandt could not have moved into a Jewish
neighborhood in Amsterdam. Not because of any residency restrictions, but
simply because there were no Jews in Amsterdam at the turn of the
century-at least, not officially. Jews had been forbidden in all the Low
Countries by the mid-sixteenth century by proclamation of its lord and
owner, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. Some of the residents of Vlooienburg
circa 1600 had the Mediterranean complexions-so strikingly different from
the pale, blond Dutch-of the Sephardim. They spoke to one another in
Portuguese and read classic works of Spanish literature to their children.
They might also have known some Hebrew. But these were, according to
official documents, "Portuguese merchants," and, at least in the eyes of
the municipal authorities, Christians. Or so everyone pretended.

Many of the Portuguese in Amsterdam at the turn of the century had moved
north from Antwerp, when the city held out much brighter economic
prospects than its decimated Catholic cousin. Some, however, had fled
directly from Spain and Portugal to escape the Inquisition in those
countries. The Church's officers of the faith were ever-vigilant against
insincere "New Christians": erstwhile Jews or individuals of Jewish
descent who were suspected, despite generations of forced conversions, of
continuing to practice Judaism in secret. By 1610, two hundred Portuguese
lived in Amsterdam, slightly more than one quarter of one percent of the
city's total population of seventy thousand. By the time Rembrandt moved
into his own house on Breestraat in 1639, the Portuguese numbered over a
thousand. And now they were-openly and proudly-Jews.

Toleration, through a kind of willful and self-serving ignorance, came
fairly quickly after the initial settlement of Portuguese and Spanish
conversos in Holland. A somewhat more grudging formal acceptance took a
bit longer; and full emancipation required almost two more centuries.

The regents of the city of Amsterdam knew, as early as 1606, that they had
practicing Jews in their midst. That was the year that an organized Jewish
community first asked the municipality for permission to purchase a burial
ground within the city limits. The request was denied. Apparently Jews
were permitted to live in Amsterdam but had to leave when they died.

By 1614, there were two well-attended congregations in Amsterdam, Beth
Jacob (House of Jacob) and Neve Shalom (Dwelling of Peace), as well as a
number of smaller communities elsewhere. The question of their legal
status could be ignored no longer. The following year, the States General
of the United Provinces of the Netherlands, the republic's central
governing body, took the first initiative and removed all barriers to Jews
practicing their religion openly. It was a magnanimous gesture, but of
questionable efficacy. The Netherlands was a highly decentralized
federation of provinces, ministates that were themselves decentralized
federations of cities and towns. Local regents tended to resent any
attempts to usurp their authority, and their laws-both at the municipal
and provincial levels-usually trumped decisions from above. Despite the
States General's ruling, Amsterdam (at least for the public record) was
adamantly opposed to Jews openly practicing their religion. Obviously, the
city's authorities could do nothing about what went on behind closed doors
in private homes. But, at least on the books, the regents continued to
forbid Jews living within its limits to worship publicly.

Not that things were particularly unpleasant for the Amsterdam-based
members of the "Portuguese Nation," or La Nacao, as they liked to call
themselves. While they may not have yet enjoyed legal protection and
official acceptance, they were allowed to go about their business
unmolested, and even to hold services "in private," with a considerable
wink from the authorities. Rabbi Isaac Uziel, for one, felt that things
were free enough in the city. Impressed by the level of toleration he
finds there, he writes in 1616 that "people live peaceably in Amsterdam.
The inhabitants of this city, mindful of the increase in population, make
laws and ordinances whereby the freedom of religions may be upheld....
Each may follow his own belief, but may not openly show that he is a
different faith from the inhabitants of the city." Worship your God in
your own way; just do not flaunt it.

Amsterdam's policy of "don't ask, don't tell" may have been a fine
compromise for the time being, but everyone realized that eventually the
issue would have to be confronted, especially because many of the more
conservative and intolerant leaders of the Dutch Reformed Church were
widening the scope of their concern beyond the ever-despised Catholics and
starting to look menacingly at the Jews.


Excerpted from Rembrandt's Jews
by Steven Nadler
Copyright © 2003
by University of Chicago.
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
1. On the Breestraat
2. Graven Images
3. The Unhappy Rabbi
4. Esnoga
5. The World to Come
Selected General Bibliography
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