Netherlands: Beth Haim, a 17th century Portuguese-Jewish cemetery near Amsterdam

What? 
A Portugese-Jewish cemetery at cycling distance from Amsterdam

Why visit? 
Beth Haim is the oldest Jewish cemetery in the Netherlands, dating back to 1614. 

Marvel at the beautiful old marble tombstones while catching up on the fascinating history of the Portuguese-Jewish community in Amsterdam.

Where? 
Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, cycling distance from central Amsterdam. And getting there is part of the attraction: this Minor Sights article tells you how to get there the Dutch way: by bicycle. 

IT ALL SOUNDS rather mixed-up: a 400 year old Jewish cemetery, with gravestones in Portuguese, in a sleepy provincial Dutch village. How on earth did that happen?
Ouderkerk aan de Amstel: cute but sleepy. 
As Monty Python said: Nobody expects the Spanish inquisition!

But it was the Spanish Inquisition that drove Sephardic Jews out after the reconquest of the Iberian Peninsula in the early 16th century. Looking for safer and more hospitable lands, a number of Portuguese-Jewish families settled in Amsterdam. Many of these families ended up playing a significant role in the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, as their extended family networks facilitated trade with the Mediterranean and South America.

The most famous of these Portuguese Jews is probably the 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza, but the community continued to play a prominent role in Amsterdam city life. Whether you are cycling through the Sarphatistraat, on the Da Costakade or swimming in the De Miranda swimming pool, you will see their names everywhere.

So what about this cemetery in the village of Ouderkerk? Although the famous Dutch tolerance allowed the Jews to settle in Amsterdam after having been chased out of Portugal, that tolerance did not stretch very far- initially the Jews were not allowed to bury their dead anywhere near Amsterdam.

Finally, in 1614, exactly 400 years ago this year, the community secretly bought a plot in Ouderkerk, about 9 km from Amsterdam. Protests erupted- the good people of Ouderkerk didn't fancy any Jews buried in their village! Eventually though, the plot was approved, but several restrictions put in place, one of them being that the dead could only be transferred by barge. Beth Haim ('House of Life' in Hebrew) is located on the river Amstel and still has a landing space for boats.
Beth Haim is located right in the middle of Ouderkerk.
If you're an art buff, you may have seen the cemetery before: in 1655, the Dutch painter Jacob van Ruysdael made two paintings inspired by Beth Haim (although he sexed them up a bit by adding some romantic ruins).

Visiting Beth Haim is not just for those with slightly morbid interests. Apart from the interesting history, the tombstones in the oldest part of Beth Haim are a fascinating sight. Elaborate marble slabs, decorated in the Baroque style popular in the 17th century, with inscriptions in Portuguese, Hebrew and Dutch, they are interesting works of art. Many of them contain human figures, which is unusual.
The hand of God reaches down from the clouds (talk about Monty Pythonesque imagery) and chops down a tree, symbol of a life cut short. 
They fit perfectly with the Baroque style popular in this age. There are few, if any, obvious Jewish symbols, like stars of David or menorahs, but plenty of imagery that fits straight into mainstream art of the period: cherubs, gloomy Old Testament scenes, skulls, etc.
What's in a name? On the left, Mr Abraham de Benjamin's tomb shows an image of Abraham about to sacrifice his son.
On the right, Mr Mozes de Mordechai Sr sports an image of Moses carrying the 10 commandments. 

The 18th century Rodeamentos House, which is used for pre-burial rituals. 
The cemetery is still in use- in the back you will find later graves including those from the 19th century (with the tomb of Samuel Sarphati, well-known to Amsterdammers thanks to the park and street that still bear his name) as well more recent graves. They're a little less elaborate than those from the 17 and 18th century but very moving with their references to family members who perished in the Shoa.
A touching Jewish tradition- small stones to commemorate the dead. 
Getting there: 
The best way is to get your own two wheels, and cycle there, taking in the beautiful countryside. I explain how to do that here. Otherwise, bus 300 or 171 will whisk you to Ouderkerk from Amsterdam ArenA train station.

Useful links:
Official website (in Dutch).
Beth Haim on Dutchjewry,com
Beth Haim on the website of the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam

4 comments:

  1. I just came upon your blog about Beth Haim in Ouderkerk while putting together a presentation outlining my research there about my Dutch Jewish ancestors. You have a lovely article about Beth Haim and the charming bike ride on the Amstel to get there. My husband and I did take that bike route and I am so happy you took more pictures of it than I did! My ancestors were so poor that many of them did not have stones in Beth Haim, but I did find three stones out of the seven I searched for. Some of the others were under a swamp or too much flora to even check if there's a stone. I do want to add that my research in Beth Haim was made so much better because I emailed ahead a couple weeks. Someone there put me in contact with a local volunteer, Jan Straver, who took us around the cemetery on a two hour tour. Not only that, but he also found all the graves I wrote him about, dug around them so I could see them, and gave us a wonderful history of the cemetery. He even thought to acquire a bucket of sand to spread on one of my ancestors' stones so we could read it in better contrast. I would like to place the URL of this entry on my family presentation, may I? I may place it on Facebook too, so my friends can see what I was doing in the Netherlands. Peace!

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    Replies
    1. Hello, we're very glad you found this useful and this is great additional information. Sounds like you had a fascinating time there at Beth Haim!

      Of course we'd be delighted if you want to share this article further. Please go ahead! All the best!

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  2. Thank you so much for this precious bit of Jewish History and especially of the Sephardic Jews´ presence in the Netherlands!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Jo Alex, thanks! we're glad you found it interesting. Did you visit Beth Haim?

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Have you been here? Or are you planning to go? Either way, we would love to hear about it.

 

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