400 Years After Portugal’s Inquisition, a Very Unusual Family Comes Together

The Da Costas' Amazing Sephardic Story

On Tour: The da Costas visited the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam, the far left building in this 18th century print.
Wikimedia Commons
On Tour: The da Costas visited the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam, the far left building in this 18th century print.

By Jessica Siegel

Published June 01, 2014, issue of June 06, 2014.
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The da Costa reunion began at the Jewish Historical Museum, where Joost da Costa spoke about two key figures in the da Costa family tree: Uriel da Costa and Isaac da Costa. Uriel, one of the four original brothers, convinced his siblings to return to Judaism, which galvanized the family to leave Portugal.

Once in Amsterdam, however, he began to question rabbinic authority and later the immortality of the soul, publishing his views in a book. He was excommunicated from the Sephardic synagogue and fled to Hamburg, Germany. He later returned, but was excommunicated again for questioning other Jewish teachings, such as the idea that Moses was given the 10 commandments directly from God.

He eventually recanted, but as punishment for his heretical views, he was forced to lie on the path leading into the synagogue as congregants walked over him. He later took his own life. Over the centuries, Uriel came to be seen as an early free thinker, and by the 19th century had become a central character in several Yiddish theater plays and an operetta. (Two weeks before the reunion, in New York City, Uriel was the subject of a wild, avant-garde production of a new play, “Uriel Acosta: I Want That Man!” with three actors — one a woman — portraying the central character. It also included puppets, projections, artificial smoke and music.)

Joost da Costa also spoke about Isaac da Costa, his great-great-grandfather, a romantic poet and writer, who eventually converted to the Protestant Dutch Reform Church. There were many 19th-century Jews who converted, such as the father of German composer Felix Mendelssohn.

“He followed the stream,” said Joost da Costa of his ancestor. “It was the flow of the time.”

Yet Joost da Costa and his family maintain an interest in their Jewish past. In the 1960s, his father, a minister, took the family to Portugal on two different occasions to visit the street where the da Costa house once stood. Joost da Costa himself has been researching the family genealogy since his retirement from medicine five years ago. He has also investigated the life of Joseph da Costa, one of the other original brothers, who lived for several years in New Amsterdam on the southern tip of Manhattan, battling the anti-Semitic Governor Peter Stuyvesant.

Da Costa, a merchant who was a shareholder in the Dutch West India Company, was involved in a number of petitions to the company to grant Jews rights, such as the ability to trade and purchase property. Joseph da Costa eventually returned to Amsterdam and is buried in a Jewish cemetery there.

At the Amsterdam reunion, the extended da Costa family toured the Portuguese Synagogue, also known as the Esnoga, the magnificent house of worship lit by over 1,000 candles in brass chandeliers. The synagogue, which opened in 1675, has a rosewood ark that rises over 26 feet high against one wall.

The floor is covered with sand; some say that this is a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt, while others say it is a throwback to the converso era, when secret Jewish worshippers wanted to muffle the sound of their feet. Since it was the day before Passover, the synagogue had been swept clean of sand.

The group then walked to the Kirchner Bookstore, owned by another da Costa descendant, Frederick Lobbrecht, for drinks and canapés. Overlooking a canal, the bookstore was a treasure trove of books on politics, philosophy, anthropology and religion that could only be found in a European capital like Amsterdam. A large poster for Baruch Spinoza’s “Ethics” featuring the philosopher’s portrait looked down from a wall. The store is around the corner from the Anne Frank House, where every day, rain or shine, a long line of people wait to get in.

For dinner, the group converged upstairs in at Haesje Claes, an old-style Dutch restaurant where the extended family got to know each other and ended the day. Mixed among the toasts were exclamations of “L’chaim” and “Mazel tov.”


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