O Lord, Thank You for Amsterdam

‘Rembrandt’s Jews’ Presents a Vivid Portrait of the Dutch Jewish Community

By Toby Appleton Perl

Published January 30, 2004, issue of January 30, 2004.
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Rembrandt’s Jews

By Steven Nadler

The University of Chicago Press, 250 pages, $25.

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Jewish life in pre-Enlightenment Christian Europe is generally recalled as a long, sad catalogue of grievances — familiar and depressing tales of banishment and persecution allayed only by sustained Jewish resilience. But at a time when Jews were either reviled or expelled, Dutch Jews in the 17th century managed to achieve freedom and toleration to a degree virtually unparalleled in the history of Christian-Jewish relations. One member of the community was even moved to compose a benediction that reads like a geographic Shehekheyanu, and is testimony to the Dutch Jews’ unbounded wonder at their providential circumstance: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, who has shown us your wonderful mercy in the city of Amsterdam, the praiseworthy.”

In his new book, “Rembrandt’s Jews,” Steven Nadler, author of the acclaimed “Spinoza: A Life” and professor of philosophy and director of Jewish studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presents a vivid and engaging portrait of this remarkable community, and of the circumstances that allowed it to flourish. While the author chronicles the dizzying rise and fall of Rembrandt van Rijn’s fortunes, and theorizes about the artist’s relationship to his Jewish neighbors and subjects, he uses the iconic status of this Baroque genius to tell a much larger story. In fact, the book would be more aptly titled, “The Jews of Rembrandt’s Time,” as it is a far-ranging analysis not only of the community itself, but of the complex theological attitude of Dutch Christians toward the Jews living in their midst, as viewed through the lens of the country’s native artists.

The book is rich in detail, beginning with an itemized account of Rembrandt’s Jewish neighbors and of the many legends surrounding the artist and his Hebrew subjects. Cautioning against an overly romanticized reading of this relationship, Nadler leavens the lofty mythology with lively accounts of the rather prosaic quarrels and lawsuits initiated by some of Rembrandt’s Jewish patrons. Through a competent, if inconclusive, analysis of the master’s life and work, Nadler tries to arrive at a more realistic, balanced understanding of this rapport. What begins to emerge — although it is never fully fleshed out — is a portrait of a very complicated, human interaction between the artist and his Jewish friends and subjects.

Occasionally, Nadler’s speculations fall short of the mark. He puts much stock, for example, in the fact that Rembrandt lived in the Vlooienburg, Amsterdam’s prosperous Jewish quarter, and maintains that it is crucial to our current understanding of the artist. But given the porous physical and social borders between Jews and Christians in this small city, as well as Rembrandt’s interest in a sensitive and naturalistic rendering of Old Testament scenes, it is likely that he would have sought out these Jews even if they had not literally lived next door. Rembrandt’s sympathetic portrayal of black Africans who arrived as a result of trade activity by the newly formed Dutch West Indies Company suggests that his approach to exotic subject matter was always guided by this overriding humanistic impulse, and not chiefly by proximity.

But, to the extent that the emphasis in “Rembrandt’s Jews” is less on Rembrandt than on the Jews, Nadler provides us with a thoroughly compelling and well-researched story. Unlike many of their European counterparts, Dutch Jews were permitted to live wherever they chose, to dress like their contemporaries and to practice their religion openly. Freed of crippling and humiliating restrictions, within a few decades they had developed a vigorous civic, cultural and economic exchange with their gentile neighbors that proved to be mutually enriching. Indeed, Jews not only benefited from Holland’s Golden Age, they played midwife to it, and it is the interplay between Christian and Jewish historical events that spurred this flowering that is so well-charted in Nadler’s new work.

Calvinist Holland, which had only recently thrown off the yoke of Spanish Catholic rule, was naturally sympathetic to the Jews, who began to trickle in at the close of the 16th century — mostly conversos or crypto-Jews fleeing the long arm of the Inquisition. The entrepreneurial Dutch were quick to recognize that the newly arrived Sephardim were adroit merchants with established access to important trade routes. Then, too, Calvinism always had a doctrinal soft spot for the monotheistic, idol-smashing Jews, and believed that engaging them in a dialogue would ease their conversion and hasten the Second Coming. Despite grumbling from some quarters, the prevailing inclination was to tolerate these refugees, and even to grant them liberal, though circumscribed, rights.

By the mid-17th century, the city’s growing Jewish community — which by then included Ashkenazic Jews escaping pogroms in Germany and Eastern Europe — was relatively secure within Dutch society. What was so extraordinary about their condition, Nadler maintains, is that they were simply allowed to be ordinary. Nowhere is this more evident than in the visual record of the period, and it is an ample one. It seems the iconoclastic Dutch Reformed Protestants had a passion for the graven image, and the adornment they denied themselves in their churches they generously indulged on the walls of their homes, guildhalls and civic institutions. Liberated from ecclesiastical commissions and patronized by an increasingly wealthy mercantile class, a virtual cottage industry of Dutch artists sprang up. Many of them profited handsomely from the growing appetite of the bourgeois for paintings depicting biblical scenes and chronicling everyday life, and a handful achieved world-class status.

One of the book’s most insightful chapters traces the tangled history of Christian and Jewish attitudes toward the Second Commandment — the prohibition against creating a “graven image or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, on the earth below, or in the water under the earth.” Nadler contradicts the common perception of a wholesale Jewish rejection of the visual arts, and believes that Jews always adopted a fluid approach, depending on “changing historical, intellectual and material circumstances.” Certainly for the expatriate Dutch converso community, long deprived of Jewish texts and influenced by Catholic notions of art and religion, a much more liberal interpretation of the prohibition prevailed, and they became prominent patrons of both religious and secular art.

A notable mark of their cultural assimilation was the manner in which contemporary Dutch artists depicted Jews in religious works. Although Old Testament scenes were a common feature of Christian iconography during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, Jews were customarily portrayed as grotesque, malformed creatures — physical incarnations of their benighted state. The Baroque period marked a shift from an idealized or theologically driven typology to more realistic representations based on a close observation of nature. This new combination of naturalism and humanism found

transcendent expression in the work of Rembrandt, but it was a sensibility shared by many of his cohorts.

Although Nadler is not an art historian, he examines an extensive array of period paintings, drawings and etchings with a perceptive and keen eye, and relies as well on a close and careful scrutiny of the historical record. His fine analysis of the work of the premiere Dutch landscape painter Jacob van Ruisdael, and of the architectural portraitists Emanuel de Witte and Pieter Saenredam and their rendering of Jewish landmarks and institutions, is feelingly written and evocative. Of Ruisdael’s work, Nadler writes, “The Haarlem painters demonstrate that a realistic Dutch landscape can be as dramatic as a history painting, as emotionally expressive as a portrait, and as religiously charged as an icon.” It is a resonant description of the kind of sublimated religious feeling frequently associated with other artwork, from 19th-century American landscape painting to the 20th-century abstractions of Mark Rothko.

In his energetic and colorful depiction of 17th-century Dutch Jewish life, Nadler skillfully recreates some of the quotidian aggravations of its most illustrious rabbis, the splendor of its synagogues and even the intricacies of its burial rites. The intra-communal tensions, rifts and power plays that raged in the Amsterdam kehilla are recounted with a contemporary flavor (leading to the incontrovertible conclusion that the more things change, the more they stay the same.) The author also expertly conveys the strained interdependence and mutual disdain that characterized relations between the Ashkenazic and Sephardic congregations. The impoverished German, Polish and Lithuanian Jewish refugees were dependent on the largesse of the Portuguese Jews for economic survival, and the newly observant Sephardim — many of whom had lived as Catholics for generations — were spiritually reliant on Ashkenazic sages for guidance in matters of Jewish law and learning.

Despite the inherent tensions of this hybrid community, Jewish life in Holland not only took root successfully, but even thrived. It is instructive to note that among the restrictions placed on Jews by the Protestant civic authorities (and one that was embraced and strictly enforced by the Jewish congregations) was a rigid adherence to Mosaic law. Perhaps this helped inoculate the community against religious assimilation — an eternal temptation for Jews living in tolerant, affluent societies. If so, it also helped usher in one of the most luminous periods in European Jewish history, one that proved to be a brief but incandescent interlude between the ancient and modern tragedies that played out on that continental stage.

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