Reluctant Cosmopolitans

BookReluctant Cosmopolitans

Reluctant Cosmopolitans

The Portuguese Jews of Seventeenth-Century Amsterdam

Littman Library of Jewish Civilization

2004

July 1st, 2004

£21.95

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Winner of the 2000 National Jewish Book Award for Sephardic Studies. In the seventeenth century, Amsterdam took in several thousand New Christians from the Iberian peninsula, descendants of Jews who had been forcibly baptized some two hundred years earlier. Shortly after their initial settlement, the members of this mostly Portuguese refugee community chose to manifest themselves as Jews again. No real obstacles were put in their way. The tolerance extended to them by the Amsterdam authorities was as exemplary as their new-found commitment to Jewish orthodoxy (barring a few famous instances) was strong. These circumstances engendered the new dynamic of a traditional Jewish society creatively engaged with the non-Jewish, secular world in relative harmony. Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jewry was in this sense the first modern Jewish community. Through a fresh and rigorous approach to the documents, Daniel Swetschinki’s lively and original portrait of this justly famous community presents some unexpected conclusions. As well as characterizing the major dimensions of the New Christian migrations and identifying trends within an array of economic activities, it explores the appeal that Judaism as a religion and as a communal structure exercised. Throughout, the analysis focuses on the common rather than the exceptional and seeks the centre from which the interrelationship of all the constituent parts may be grasped. Swetschinski’s emphasis is on the social dimension of Portuguese Jewish economic and religious life, formal and informal. He thereby uncovers the internal dynamics of this remarkable Jewish community that moulded a renegade New Christian population into a model Jewish society, ‘model’ in the sense that it had the support of proponents of modernity and traditionalism alike and also won the respect of the Christian population. His research adds a broad and authentic vision to the panoply of images of early modern Jewish history and enables him to offer new insights into the troublesome question of the transition from medieval to modern Judaism.

‘A detailed and innovative analysis of the subject based on rich documentation.’
- Rachel Simon, Association of Jewish Libraries Newsletter

‘A social history that focuses . . . upon political status, economic pursuits, and community organization . . . advanced students will find this book of considerable value.’
- M. A. Meyer, Choice

‘A rich and detailed description . . . Of particular note is Swetschinski’s careful weaving together of archival and published primary sources with secondary work, which gives readers a sense of the “norm” of the daily existence of the members of this community. His emphasis on the social dimension of this community’s religious and economic life is admirably exhaustive.’
- Jeremy W. Webster, Eighteenth-Century Life

‘Ever since it began to become known in its original form, as an unpublished PhD thesis, Swetschinski’s work has been recognized by all scholars in the field as the best available general survey of the subject and in its final, polished form the book fully lives up to its earlier, emerging reputation. There is much invaluable material here, often taken from the Amsterdam notarial archives, which cannot be found anywhere else. Indeed, no-one will doubt that it will remain an indispensable tool for everyone working in this area for decades to come . . . It is always solidly, usually convincing, and not infrequently highly original . . . this book is a fine achievement . . . It is well-written, eschews unnecessary socio-historical jargon, and often reveals the author’s shrewd and discerning view of life and of people . . . will undoubtedly be one of those works which is widely cited by scholars working in a broad range of fields.’
- Jonathan Israel, History

‘Thoroughly researched’
- Edgar Samuel, Jewish Historical Studies

'Admirable . . . a fine addition to the growing number of studies of this fascinating community.’
- Stephen D. Benin, Religious Studies Review

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About The Author

Daniel M. Swetschinski was born in Brussels in 1944 and grew up in Amsterdam. He studied Semitic languages, philosophy, and history at the universities of Ghent, Amsterdam and Brandeis, and has taught Jewish history at McGill University and the University of Arizona. His many published articles on Dutch Jewish history include a contribution on the period 1516–1621 in Geschiedenis van de Joden in Nederland edited by J.C.H. Blom et al (the English-language edition of which is also published by the Littman Library as The History of the Jews in the Netherlands). He co-edited Mystics, Philosophers, and Politicians (1982) in honour of Alexander Altmann, and has been a major collaborator on projects of the Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam: The Lopes Suasso Family, Bankers to William III (1988) and Orphans Objects: Facets of the Textiles Collection of the Joods Historisch Museum, Amsterdam (1997). He presently lives in Massachusetts.