- Heide Warncke
Ets Haim – Livraria Montezinos – Where “Paper Children” Line the Walls
To visit Ets Haim – Livraria Montezinos in Amsterdam is to be taken back to the 17th century city: you forget altogether that you are at the heart of a 21st century metropolis. Nowhere are you closer to the history of the first Jews who, fleeing the Inquisition on the Iberian Peninsular, landed – among other places – in Amsterdam.
Ets Haim (Tree of Life) is the world’s oldest active Jewish library. The first Iberian Jews, converted under duress to Catholic Christianity, arrived in the Netherlands in the early 17th century. Here they could resume their traditional Jewish life. But having lived for generations as Catholics, they had largely lost touch with their roots. They needed instruction before they could rediscover their religious and cultural traditions and regain a genuinely Jewish identity.
Already in the first quarter of the 17th century the immigrants established a school in the Portuguese community and gave its library the name Ets Haim. Even then, people were aware that the school curriculum had some special features: its prime objective was learning the Torah, after which came study of the Talmud; non-religious subjects were also taught. When the Polish cabbalist Shabtai Horowitz visited Amsterdam in 1642, the quality of the school, with its library and teaching program, moved him to tears. He would have liked to see instruction of this quality throughout the whole Jewish world.
In time, the school grew into a rabbinical seminary, which was active until the Second World War. Today the library is part of the city’s Joods Cultureel Kwartier (Jewish cultural quarter). It is open by appointment to scholars from across the world who come to research the history of Sephardic Jews. Interested tourists can book a guided tour.
Left: David Montezinos and his assistant Jacob da Silva Rosa, ca 1910; right: Curator and researcher
Ets Haim: an international library
The core collection derives from the old Portuguese community school, with printed works and manuscripts in Hebrew, Spanish and Portuguese, each one of which in its own way tells the story of the community’s origins. One learns the new immigrants’ concerns, what they talked about, what they needed to learn. The collection contains, for example, many polemical works on the relations between Judaism and Catholic Christianity, as well as prayer books and textbooks in Spanish and Portuguese, as the members of the community could not yet read Hebrew. That Spanish long remained the literary language of their culture is evident in the number of works reflecting the Iberian tradition of art and poetry.
Amsterdam’s Sephardic Jewry: Iberian and Jewish identity
Until the early 19th century the everyday language of the community remained Portuguese – this, too, is evident from the library’s holdings. The overall impression is of a community that was eager to develop a Jewish identity without losing its Iberian one. That it was open and receptive to its non-Jewish environment is evident from the words of welcome spoken by Rabbi Menasseh Ben Israel to the Dutch king on his visit to the community in 1642: “We no longer look upon Castile and Portugal as our fatherland, but Holland” – words that have gone down in history. While that sentiment was undoubtedly true, the library testifies to the strength of the links – which still endure – between the community and the Iberian Peninsular.
Menasseh Ben Israel, Rabbin of the Portuguese community in Amsterdam
copper engraving by Salmon Italia, 1642
As well as being the community rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel played a major role in the development and dissemination of Hebrew typography. His fonts became known across the globe as otiyot Amsterdam (Amsterdam letters). He was the first to print books in Hebrew in Amsterdam.
Amsterdam as a center of Hebrew printing
The first fruits of his press appeared in 1627. Before this, the Portuguese community and school had had to rely on Hebrew books from sources like Venice or Thessaloniki; but after 1627 this changed radically, and Amsterdam became the global center for Hebrew book-printing. Ets Haim holds many of Menasseh ben Israel’s works.
In 1889 Ets Haim’s holdings were extended with the donation by David Montezinos, who for 50 years had been librarian there, of his entire private collection. His commitment to Jewish writing had made him a passionate collector since his youth and – his marriage having remained childless – he would refer to his books as his beloved “paper children.” These brought a new dimension to a collection that had until then only represented the development of the Portuguese community and its school, and since 1889 the library has borne the double name Ets Haim – Livraria Montezinos.
David Montezinos, ca 1910
Today the collection comprises 25,000 printed works and 600 manuscripts, including the oldest Hebrew manuscript in the Netherlands (dated 1282): Moses Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, a compendium of Jewish law. One of the volumes of this work bears signs of 16th century Catholic censorship, where Maimonides’ observation that Jesus was not the Messiah of the Jews has been blacked out.
Another treasure is an early Spanish translation of the Dutch humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam’s Moriae encomium (In Praise of Folly). The background to this translation is puzzling, since the work was on the Index of the Spanish Inquisition.
The Amsterdam Haggadah
A different kind of highlight is the famous Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695, the first book printed in Hebrew with copperplate engravings. The plates used by the engraver, Abraham Bar Jacob, had been made by Matthäus Merian the Elder – father of the famous naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian – for his illustrated Bible Icones biblicae. Bar Jacob sought to adapt these plates to the Jewish context of the Haggadah, an undertaking whose occasional shortcomings are compensated by the sheer beauty of the images. The Haggadah also contains a map of the Holy Land.
The so called Amsterdam Haggadah of 1695
Pervaded by a sense of living history and the odor of ancient books, Ets Haim – Livraria Montezinos is a uniquely atmospheric library. For every bibliophile, a visit is unforgettable.
Heide Warncke is Curator of Ets Haim – Livraria Montezinos.
Title image: © Ets Haim