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‘Paradise is Green’: Tradition & Modernity in Ets Haim

Posted on by BPH


On Thursday 24 November, the Menasseh ben Israel Institute and the Jewish Historical Museum organized a symposium to celebrate the fact that Portuguese Jews who had settled in Amsterdam to escape oppression in their native country founded a Talmud Torah school and the Ets Haim Library in their new homeland, in 1616. The director of the Jewish Historical Museum, Emile Schrijver, and the curator of the Ets Haim library, Heide Warncke, welcomed the participants in the historical ‘wintersnoge’ (winter synagogue).


In these august surroundings Gregory B. Kaplan (University of Tennessee) discussed works by Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jews housed at Ets Haim, in particular texts espousing political ideas that contributed to the early modern European and American shift from monarchy to democracy, while David Sclar (Princeton University) highlighted some of the students of the Ets Haim yeshiva who in the mid-eighteenth century focused on traditional rabbinics, but paradoxically helped to modernize the community at large in formalizing the Ets Haim Library, working in Amsterdam print shops, and strengthening relations with Ashkenazic rabbinic culture.

The next presentation took place in the auditorium of the Jewish Historical Museum, where David Wertheim, director of the Menasseh ben Israel Institute, introduced Irene Zwiep (University of Amsterdam), who took the audience through the eighteenth-century collection to examine the complex role Ets Haim library played as a repository of sources old and new, as a reflection of collecting tastes, as a hub of accumulated knowledge and as an instrument for shaping a dynamic cultural identity.

Emile Schrijver then interviewed Yosef Kaplan (Hebrew University, Jerusalem), the world’s leading historian on the history of Amsterdam’s Portuguese Jews, on his personal attachment to the library, and the history and general significance of the institute. Yosef Kaplan served as librarian of Ets Haim for a brief time and recalled his first impression of the library by referring to Jorge Luis Borges’ famous definition of Paradise. Borges said:

I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library

Yosef Kaplan entered the library for the first time and thought to himself:

I found myself in Paradise, and it was green

Three engrossing presentations by leading academic and a memorable interview with an engaging scholar: it was a perfect way to celebrate the past of Ets Haim and look forward to its future.

The Ritman Library has always enjoyed a fruitful relationship with Ets Haim. In 2005 an exhibition commemorating the Christian kabbalist Johannes Reuchlin was organized in The Ritman Library with a number of unique loans from Ets Haim. Founder Joost Ritman made several donations to the unique library.

psx_20161124_170022Credits photo’s: Steffan Haans


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