Poverty and Welfare Among the Portuguese Jews in Early Modern Amsterdam

BookPoverty and Welfare Among the Portuguese Jews in Early Modern Amsterdam

Poverty and Welfare Among the Portuguese Jews in Early Modern Amsterdam

The Littman Library of Jewish Civilization


July 5th, 2012

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National Jewish Book Awards Winner of the Mimi S. Frank Award in Memory of Becky Levy for Sephardic Culture, 2012.

Early modern Amsterdam was a prosperous city renowned for its relative tolerance, and many people hoping for a better future, away from persecution, wars, and economic malaise, chose to make a new life there. Conversos and Jews from many countries were among them, attracted by the reputed wealth and benevolence of the Portuguese Jews who had settled there. Behind the facade of prosperity, however, poverty was a serious problem. It preoccupied the leadership of the Portuguese Jewish community and influenced its policy on admitting newcomers: the struggle to keep poverty under control and ensure that finances were available for welfare was paramount.

Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld looks at poverty and welfare from the perspective of both benefactors and recipients. She analyses benefactors’ motives for philanthropy and charts its dimensions; she also examines the decision-making processes of communal bodies and private philanthropists, identifying the cultural influences that shaped their commitment to welfare. At the same time her detailed study succeeds in bringing the poor to life: she examines what brought them to Amsterdam, aspects of their daily life in the petitions they sent to the different welfare institutions, and the survival strategies offered by work, education, and charity. She also considers the related questions of social mobility and the motivation of the poor for joining the Amsterdam Portuguese community. Her research takes her, finally, beyond the margins of the established community to the small but active groups of Sephardi bandits who formed their own clandestine networks. Special attention is also paid to poor women, whether arriving alone or left behind and sometimes heading small family units, who were often singled out for relief. In this way the book makes a much-needed contribution to the study of gender, in Jewish society and more generally.

This ground-breaking, multi-faceted study of the dynamics of the relationship between the rich and the poor adds a nuanced new dimension to our understanding of Jewish life in the early modern period.

'This volume offers the first systematic study of the poor and poor relief among the Sephardi Jews of early modern Amsterdam. It is a rich, thorough, and often touching exploration of the topic, and goes far in correcting the impression that all Jews in this community belonged to wealthy merchant families. Levie Bernfeld has given a voice to a largely silent but important population, in a work of meticulous scholarship.'
Miriam Bodian
'The wealthiest Jewish community in the early modern period has finally received a comprehensive and detailed study of its poor, based on a meticulous analysis of a broad variety of sources. Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld has painted a colourful and fascinating historical portrait of the poor and ordinary people of the Sephardic community of Amsterdam, with their social and cultural profile, their distress, and the ways that the community leadership and its social elite dealt with their disturbing presence. This is one of the most important contributions in recent years to historical research on Dutch Jewry as well as on the western Sephardic diaspora.'
Yosef Kaplan
'The first systematic study of the poor and poor relief in Sephardic Amsterdam . . . a pioneering work . . . based on a thorough grasp of all the archival and historical sources . . . convincingly shows that the poor made up an increasingly greater percentage of the population than previously thought . . . this major study of Dutch Jewry is highly recommended.'  Harvey Sukenic, Association of Jewish Libraries Reviews
‘Explores and maps new territory in such an astonishingly thorough manner . . . a splendid example of prodigious research producing a result that illuminates an important aspect of a great Jewish community.’  Marc Saperstein, European Judaism

'I consider this to be one of the best and most important theses I have had the privilege of examining in my career and one of fundamental importance not just for early modern Dutch Jewish history but for all early modern Jewish history. I have no doubt at all that her book, which is well written and clearly set out, will be a landmark in Jewish historiography, an outstanding work of research which will at the same time be very widely referred to by Jewish historians of many different kinds. The book is also impressively erudite, showing a good working knowledge of virtually the entire primary and secondary published literature pertaining to the Portuguese Jewish community of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Amsterdam, whether in English, Dutch, Spanish, Portuguese, or Hebrew. No one has systematically researched the problem, dimensions, and history of poor relief in the Portuguese Jewish community of Amsterdam before, and Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld has carried out this task carefully, thoroughly, and convincingly. She has skillfully utilized the data she has extracted from the community records and other archival materials to expand and (in a number of cases) importantly correct our knowledge of the general demographic, organizational and financial history of the congregation. Since a majority of those in receipt of poor relief in the Amsterdam Sephardi community were female, the thesis also makes a relevant and notable contribution to the history of gender, and of the family, within a Jewish context.'Jonathan Israel


Author Information

Tirtsah Levie Bernfeld was born in Rotterdam and studied history at the University of Amsterdam, at Brandeis University, and at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she earned her doctorate. As an independent scholar she is involved in research on different aspects of Dutch Sephardi history during the early modern period and has written several articles on the subject. She is the co-editor of Dutch Jewish History: Proceedings of the Symposium on the History of the Jews in the Netherlands (1984). A former curator of the Jewish Museum in Amsterdam and visiting curator at the Amsterdam Historical Museum, she has also been involved in various exhibitions and publications, such as Wonen in Amsterdam in de 17de en 18de eeuw (1980), published in Portuguese as Portugueses em Amsterdão 1600–1680 (1988), and Êxodo: Portugezen in Amsterdam 1600–1680 (1987). She lives in Amsterdam.

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Half Title 2
Title Page 4
List of Tables13
List of Figures15
Note on Transliteration and Orthography16
Note on Monetary Units18
1 Setting the Scene20
Terminology: The Definition of Poverty23
What Precisely Are We Trying to Establish?24
2 Migration of the Poor32
Evolving Policy on Admission and Relief of the Poor35
Where Did the Poor Come From?39
The Journey to Amsterdam from the Iberian Peninsula41
The Route: From Portugal, from Spain, and from France to Amsterdam43
Funding the Journey47
The Journey to Amsterdam from Other Regions50
Italy 50
North Africa52
South-eastern Europe and the Levant53
The New World56
Hamburg and Antwerp57
Emigration from Amsterdam58
Pressure on Migrants to Move On60
Destinations and Numbers66
Female Migration72
The Migration Balance77
3 Demographic Outline80
The Scope of Poor Relief81
Financial Strength86
Family Composition91
4 The Organization of Welfare96
The Theory: Modern Elements in a Traditional Approach97
Centralization versus Private Initiatives97
Selective Poor Relief99
Criteria for Granting Poor Relief101
Procedures: Petitions and Lots111
Domiciliary versus Institutional Care113
Poor Relief in Practice: Communal and Private Provision114
Communal Care115
Education of Paupers116
Care of Orphans121
Care of Paupers in Sickness and Death127
Distribution of Clothing130
Loans and the Portuguese Variant of the Monte di Pietà132
The Abodat Ahesed Society and the Workhouse for Ashkenazim136
Shelter for Strangers140
Other Forms of Organized Private Poor Relief142
The Kahal’s Response to Private Charitable Initiatives152
5 Financing Charity155
The Public Sector155
Income and Expenditure155
Reforms to the Financial System163
Tax Increases and their Effect164
The Creation of a Reserve Fund166
Cost-Cutting Measures167
The Private Sector171
The Contribution of Individuals to Public Poor Relief171
Private Support for Ḥevrot172
Direct Assistance to Paupers by Individuals174
The Scope of Charitable Bequests175
6 The Motives behind Charity178
Charity Sustained by Piety178
Inspiration in Action185
The Family as the Main Object of Charity190
The Civic Sense, Trust, and Charitable Gifts194
Social Concern and Mutual Responsibility199
7 The Daily Life of the Poor 206
Money and Work211
Appeals for Help: Petitions221
The Level of Poor Relief226
Protest and Misbehaviour231
Life on the Fringe235
Networks of Crime237
Conclusion: A Motley Crowd242
8 Epilogue245
I Tables250
II Figures272
III Four Biographical Studies276
Glossary of Terms and Names280
Archives Consulted508
Index of Persons566
Index of Subjects588