JEWISH AMSTERDAM
    
ARTICLE by Willard Manus

"Amsterdam, that city of the saints, the home of the true faith, of the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God," is how the writer Israel Zangwill described it in 1898.

Throughout history Amsterdam has been a haven for all kinds of people fleeing political and religious persecution. As far back as 1639 the city had a sizable Jewish population which consisted of descendants of Iberians and Marranos. In the 1700s the Dutch government was particularly liberal and allowed Marranos who wanted to return to Judaism a comfortable place to do so. Many Sephardic Jews from Portugal arrived during this period and became successful traders and diamond-merchants.

During the Golden Age of Dutch painting, Rembrandt lived in the middle of Amsterdam's Jewish quarter (at Jodenbreestraat 4) and painted some of his best portraits and Old Testament studies. His house is now a museum, open daily to the public, and of course Amsterdam's panoplied "Rijksmuseum" holds many of his masterpieces as well.

I've always been fond of Amsterdam, finding that it not only combines the best of Paris and Venice (and a smidgin of the Cote d'Azur) but offers something personal and distinctive too. It may be one of Europe's northernmost cities, but its lifestyle is purely Mediterranean. Amsterdammers love to come out after dark and meet their friends in communal fashion, preferably in one of the city's numerous "brown cafes" (bruine kroegen in Dutch). Roughly the equivalent of a French bistro, brown cafes are the very heart and soul of the city.

Cards, chess and billiards are played in some cafes, but mostly the Amsterdammers just drink and talk the night away, shmoozing, arguing politics and cracking jokes in the cynical, wise-guy fashion of the city.

I also appreciate the way the Amsterdammers have fought to preserve the Old Town, which serves to create a romantic refuge of pastoral quiet in the center of an otherwise hurly-burly metropolis. Such a place as the Prinseneiland (Prince's Island), seen on a summer evening by the light of the moon and the street lamps, has a beautiful and melancholic air. The small bridge over the canal, the old houses, some of them sagging, and the proud historical warehouses exude the kind of mellow atmosphere and subdued tints found in Rembrandt's work.

A good place to start investigating the Jewish side of Amsterdam is the Anne Frank house, which is now a museum. So much has been written about the house and its history that anything I could say would only be redundant. After visiting it, though, I always make it a point to have lunch at the nearby De Silveren Spieghel, where, much like the Anne Frank story, a family of Jews (including an infant) was successfully hidden throughout the German occupation.

Amsterdam's synagogues have an even more remarkable history. The stateliest synagogue in all Europe -- the Great Ashkenazic Synagogue--is located here, as well as a Sephardic synagogue designed in the late 1600s by Elias Bouman, a Protestant builder who worked on the competing Ashkenazic Synagogue as well. The history books tell us that the Sephardic temple was erected on the far edge of Amsterdam, on the demolished site of a pesthouse.

Numerous other synagogues were built throughout the Old Town, some of which are still standing, even if used only for exhibition purposes. The synagogues built between 1928-38 are of equal interest, however, in that they reflect the International Style: plain stone boxes broken up by rows of windows. As one architectural critic said, "The Jews evidently thought they were suggesting universal values in these buildings, or values held in common with their fellow Amsterdammers.

"They were correct in assessing their place in society. Amsterdam dockworkers later struck in response to Nazi persecution of the Jews; they did so, it has been said, not because the dockworkers loved Jews in general but because foreigners were attacking residents of Amsterdam. Dutch Christians who protected Jews during WWII confirmed the Jews' faith in their countrymen and in the universal values of brotherhood."