Between History and Ethnography (And More Breaking News from 18th-century Amsterdam)

This week, we begin positioning ourselves between history and ethnography. A somewhat awkward, albeit rewarding, spot, that requires both attention and a host of methodological considerations. We also go back to Amsterdam, which we briefly visited last week thanks to The Magnes Collection.

The inauguration of the Spanish-Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam (aka, esnoga), an 8-day affair, culminated on Friday, August 2, 1675 (corresponding to 10 Av 5435 in the Jewish calendar; date conversion tool available here). As we saw last week, the event is described in the first volume of Bernard & Picart’s Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World (1723-1743) with an engraving comprehensive of the architectural setting, the reading from the Torah/Hebrew Bible, the attire and demeanor of those in attendance, etc. This work is available online via the UCLA Library. The first volume can also be downloaded in its entirety via the Heidelberg University Library. The engraving is accompanied by instructive captions (in French), which you can view by enlarging the images online, including the following:

La dedicace de la Synagogue et l’éntré des livres de la Loy se celebra pendant 8 jours, le 10e du mois de Menahem 5435, qui se raporte au mois d’Aut, 1675; on en fait la commemoration tous les Ans.

But Picart’s image—a photograph of sorts, before photography was invented—is far from being the only resource we possess about this event. It is worth citing a few sources, ancient and modern, to understand how all of them concur to expand our understanding of this historical event.

The Spanish-Portuguese synagogue is still standing, and it is now a still-functioning religious institution, a well-known cultural heritage site at the heart of Amsterdam, and a venue for cultural and political events. Of course, the congregation has its own website. where it has the chance to tell its own history.

Google Maps grants a street view of the synagogue

The website synagogues360, which provides 360-degree photographic documentation of synagogues worldwide, presents us with the opportunity of “touring” this synagogue. We can “take in” both the similarities with Picart’s description, and the architectural changes that accommodate its more recent role as a tourist attraction, souvenir shop and security exits included.

We can also rely on YouTube to see this synagogue set to the original candle-lighting features:

See it being used for a paraliturgical event (the “installation” of a new Rabbi), with Hebrew prayers sung by a full male choir:

Or even used as the venue for political speeches (no links provided, but if you search online you’ll see what I am referring to).

There are many other sources, of course. Many of them are historical.

The Bibliotheca Rosenthaliana at the University of Amsterdam has posted online other visual sources about the synagogue and its inauguration (available here) as part of its Treasures of Jewish Booklore online series.

The Amsterdam City Archives hold the Records of the Portuguese Jewish Community (inventory available here), which also relate to the inauguration ceremony of 1675.

But the ceremony also had a specific musical component. The music manuscripts of the Portuguese community have been the object of extensive study, especially by Israel Adler (1925-2009). Adler devoted a section of his study of “art music” in the European Jewish communities during the 17th-18th centuries to Amsterdam (initially in his PhD Dissertation, published in French as La pratique musicale savante, The Hague, Mouton, 1966; later in an English version of the Dutch section,  Musical Life and Traditions of the Portuguese Jewish Community of Amsterdam in the XVIIIth Century, Jerusalem, Magnes Press, 1974). Adler’s study put the ceremony in the context of the musical activities of the community, and of the literary production of its cultural elite.

A Hebrew poem, Chisqi chizqi (“Strengthen my desire…), by Amsterdam Rabbi, Isaac Aboab da Fonseca (1605-1693), was set to music for this occasion by Abraham Caceres (18th cent.), a composer of music for various communal occasions revolving around the life of the Portuguese synagogue and its members. The music manuscript of this composition, which was set for a three-part choir and instrumental accompaniment, is included in a manuscript (Ms. 49 B 22 fol. 15b-16a) found in the Etz Chayim Library (part of the synagogue compound). The manuscript was originally part of the private collection of Amsterdam Rabbi, J. d’Ancona (1911-1945), murdered in Bergen Belsen, and donated to the community library by his widow.

In class, we listened to a contemporary recording of the composition, from the CD, Synagogal Music in the Baroque (which is also listed in our Syllabus). Aside from considering the main features of poetic text (a fine example of Hebrew poetry in the age of the Baroque, full of alliterations, scriptural quotations, and Kabbalistic allusions), as well as the (equally Baroque) style of the musical composition, we can revisit this example of synagogue music in light of the context, and of the other sources at hand.

In Picart’s visual account of the 1675 ceremony, we see  men and women mingling in the main floor of the synagogue building, a space that was (and still is) occupied only by male congregants during the liturgy. At those times, women would sit in the gallery, which is located above the main floor. Following the historical sources that described the ceremony (quoted by Adler), we learn that the event was attended by a wide-ranging public (the “audience” of the musical composition, of the reading of the Torah, and of course of the other parts of the ceremony), which included the city’s Burgomaster and other official and notables. The ceremony was a paraliturgical event that preceded the Sabbath, and that was also a public event, with clear political connotations. It included elements of the liturgy, but was also open to a different kind of participatory use of the architectural space of the synagogue than then one required at liturgical times. Of course, liturgical occasions can also be public events. But their “rules of engagement” are somewhat different.

The liturgical repertoires of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam have also been the object of study. The list of sound recordings included in the Syllabus features The Western Sephardi Liturgical Tradition, a CD that presents a selection of 39 melodies sung by Abraham Lopes Cardozo (Amsterdam, 1914-New York, 2006). Rev. Lopes Cardozo came from a long line of Portuguese Jews who settled in Amsterdam in the 17th century (his great-grandfather was a chief Rabbi of the community), and served three Spanish-Portuguese communities in his capacity as hazzan (synagogue cantor)—Amsterdam, Paramaribo (Suriname), and New York City. A liturgical repertoire, like the one recorded in the CD, is the result of ethnographic fieldwork and of studio “reconstructions,” according to a methodology we will be discussing in the coming weeks.

As we see through a host of concurring visual, archival, literary and musical sources, the space of the synagogue provides a space for both the normative/liturgical and the non-normative/paraliturgical. In exploring synagogue life, we will be focusing precisely on that intersection.

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