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12 August 2012

Visit to the Portuguese Synagogue and the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Exterior view of the Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. All content is the property of EuroTravelogue™. Unauthorized use is prohibited.

One of the most educational and yet profound tours I have ever been on in my years of travel was our tour through the heart of Amsterdam's Jewish quarter—an immersion into the city's Jewish people, their traditions and customs. Our guide led us through the Portuguese Synagogue, the Jewish Historical Museum (JHM) and the JHM Children's Museum, where we gained valuable insight into the fascinating history of Jewish immigrants who fled Spain and Portugal in the late 15th and early 16th centuries to come to the city of Amsterdam. Skilled in international trade and language, these Jewish settlers established a vibrant community that flourished through the following centuries. While their history is indeed fascinating, the tour also served as a poignant reminder of the plight of the Amsterdam Jews and the religious persecution they suffered as a result of WWII. Join me on this cultural immersion into Amsterdam's Jewish quarter.


The Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam was completed in 1675 and today, remains perfectly preserved after more than 300 years and is still without electricity.

Our tour begins with a visit to the 17th-century Portuguese Synagogue completed in 1675 and today, remains perfectly preserved after more than 300 years. Designed and constructed by Christians because Jews were not permitted to be members of the guilds, the Portuguese Synagogue grew out of necessity for the growing number of Portuguese and Spanish immigrants who settled in Amsterdam. One of the most fascinating facts about this Synagogue is that although it was built more than three centuries ago, the inside appears exactly as it did in 1675, and to this day, is still not wired for electricity. The interior is illuminated under the glow of hundreds of candles in the magnificent chandeliers, wall sconces and candlesticks at the end of the pews.


Inscribed in gold-lettered Hebrew, the transom above the door reads "In the abundance of Thy lovingkindness will I come into Thy house."

Before you enter the building, take note of the inscription on the transom above the door. Inscribed in gold-lettered Hebrew, it reads "In the abundance of Thy lovingkindness will I come into Thy house" and is recited by all Jews before they enter a Synagogue. Upon entering, we were asked to don Yamakas out of respect for those who worship here and I was honored to oblige. Having been raised in a Roman Catholic family, the Jewish religion and traditions are pretty much foreign to me so I felt privileged to wear my very own Yamaka and become a member of the Jewish community for the day.

Fascinating facts and details


At the opposite end above the Hechal Ark—used to house the Torahs between services—the Ten Commandments emblazoned in gold lettering for all the congregation.

After you enter, you can't help notice the sandy wooden floors and I thought to myself why isn't this place kept immaculate? As it turns out, the tradition of sprinkling sand on the floors dates back to the 17th century and is intended to soften the sound of shoes as they make their way across the wooden planks. Just inside the entrance and in the center, stands the Teba, a raised platform on which the Rabbi stands to read the Torah. At the opposite end above the Hechal Ark, used to house the Torahs between services, the Ten Commandments emblazoned in gold lettering, contrasts with the deep wood tones of the surrounding décor. The entire building accommodates 1,640 worshipers with 1,200 on the ground floor and 440 on the mezzanine. Did you know, during the 17th century, it was customary for the men to occupy the ground floor while the women the upper floor; who by the way, had to enter the Synagogue from an exterior stairway.

Winter Synagogue and cellar museum


The 'Winter Synagogue,' originally served as a school for the Jewish congregation, dates back to 1675 as well.

Outside in the courtyard, we stepped inside the Winter Synagogue that originally served as a school for the Jewish congregation and actually dates back to 1675 as well. In 1956, it was converted into the Synagogue pictured here. The pews date back to the very first Jewish Synagogue circa 1639. Below, the Synagogue's cellar houses an extraordinary and extremely rare collection of 66 Torahs, some of which date back to the 14th century. Also, this trove is brimming with magnificent ceremonial objects fashioned from various precious metals; plus ornate textiles to protect the sacred Torah scrolls. The entire collection is so valuable that their estimated cost is nearly indeterminable. And with that, I surrender my Yamaka to our docent with fond memories of a tribute to these pioneers who escaped oppression for new beginnings.

Jewish Historical Museum


Aletta Jacobs—the first Jewish woman to complete a university degree and later become the first woman Jewish doctor.

After the tour through the Portuguese Synagogue concluded, it was on the Jewish Historical Museum and the adjacent JHM Children's Museum, albeit the latter I did not enter due to time constraints. The museum itself is housed in four former Synagogues and offers visitors a fascinating tour through the history of Amsterdam Jews beginning in 1600. There are more than 30,000 ceremonial religious and occasion objects, works of art, photographs, accounts of the Holocaust—among others of which only a fraction are on display at any given time. I took only a few pictures of some of the items on display including a portrait of the first Jewish woman to complete a university degree and later become the first woman Jewish doctor—Aletta Jacobs; an oil burning menorah; three aerial views of the Jewish quarter dating from 1625, 1934 and 2004, and finally a Mikveh—a ritual bath for purification similar to Christian Baptism—dating back to the period between the late 17th and early 19th centuries; and only recently discovered in 1987 during the museum's renovations.


Aerial view of the Jewish quarter dates back to 1625. While it appears upside down, it's intended for comparison to the images of the same views of the city taken in later years below.

The same aerial view of the Jewish quarter taken in 1934.

Final aerial view shows the Jewish quarter in 2004.

The Mikveh—a ritual bath for purification—dates to the period between the late 17th and early 19th centuries. It was only recently discovered in 1987 during the museum's renovations.

I have barely scratched the surface of these places not to mention the remaining Jewish sights throughout Amsterdam including the Anne Frank House. Personally, this tour has affected me like no other and instilled in my psyche forever, an indelible impression of their humble beginnings, growth and prosperity, decline and suffering, and a rebirth of these most resilient people. Let us all never forget. There is much here to offer the curious visitor, whether you're Jewish or not. Both of these sights can easily be seen in half a day so be sure to include a stop at the Portuguese Synagogue and the Jewish Historical Museum on your next visit to Amsterdam. Shalom.


One piece I found extremely interesting was this oil burning menorah.

Did you know?


Quintessentially Dutch architecture lines Nieuwe Amstel Straat Centrum on our way to the Jewish Historical Museum.

  • Before WWII, there were more than 140,000 Jews living in The Netherlands of which 120,000 in Amsterdam alone. After the war, only 30,000 remained in all of Holland.
  • During the end of the war, the abandoned Jewish homes were dismantled for firewood resulting in their eventual collapse and therefore, very little of the those homes remain today.
  • Because there was a housing shortage at the end of WWII, the people of Amsterdam resorted to building houseboats on the canals.
  • I am sure you've heard of Anne Frank and her accounts during the time she and her family remained in hiding for more than two years only to be captured in the remaining months of the war. While I didn't have the opportunity to tour the Anne Frank House, we did see it from our canal-boat tour earlier that morning.

12 comments:

  1. This is so interesting Jeff! I too have enjoyed tours of Jewish sites and they are humbling and affected me in a similar fashion. I will definitely visit these when I'm in Amsterdam.

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    1. Oh Debbie you really must visit these places. I am so disappointed at I missed Anne Frank's house. But that only means I must get back there soon! Thx so much for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!!

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  2. Excellent pictures as usual, Jeff. It's rather interesting to take a peek into the Jewish sites. I still have to get into the big Synagogue in Paris. Thanks for these lovely shots.

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    1. Hi there Marlys and thank you so very much for your compliments! You really should go into the Synagogue in Paris... I know I will on my next visit, that's for sure!! Thx for stopping by!!

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  3. I really enjoy visiting synagogues. They often have such beautiful architecture and volume. I've been to several throughout Central and Eastern Europe. I wish I'd known about this one when I was in Amsterdam a couple years ago.

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    1. Hi Margaret and thank you so much for stopping by to share your thoughts. My visit was profoundly moving and thought provoking as well. I would love to tour as many as you have. Too bad about not seeing this one however, now, you have a reason to go back my friend. Thank you again for stopping by!

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  4. evocative article
    thank you ~ middengem

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    1. Thank you for your kind words and for stopping by. I am glad you enjoyed the post.

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  5. Great post, Jeff. I've been to the JHM in Amsterdam and it's outstanding. They have some amazing historical film footage, showing the Jewish quarter of Amsterdam as it used to be.

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    1. Hi there Lesley and thank you once again for stopping by to share your experiences! And, I couldn't agree with you more about the JHM! What a fascinating morning that day brought!

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  6. Just a note about the separation of men and women.
    It's not just the 17th century... The first evidence is from the 12th century and before that it's unclear if there was no separation or if women were not allowed to enter synagogues at all.
    It's also not a thing of the past. It's still the case in almost all orthodox synagogues (women sit upstairs and men on the ground floor) and I'm quite convinced that most synagogues are orthodox.
    BTW, this is why Jewish women are used to look down at their men... grin...

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    1. Hi there my Anonymous friend and thank you so much for stopping by and sharing more details about the Synagogue. And I laughed out loud at your final comment too! Very funny.

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Thank you for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!