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  • A Communal Tree of LifeWestern Sephardic Jewry and the Library of the Ets Haim Yesiba in Early Modern Amsterdam
  • David Sclar (bio)

Mass production of books in the early modern period broadened the quest for learning, promoted the invention of new educational tools, and generated wider social networks. As wealthy individuals assembled vast collections of texts, and institutions formed new spaces as centers of specialized scholarship, an increasingly large and diversified readership gained access to, utilized, and shaped knowledge on a grand scale. Semipublic libraries developed into cultural hubs, at once enabling and driving intellectual, social, and religious developments in Europe.

In the first decades of the seventeenth century, a book collection belonging to the Ets Haim Yesiba (Tree of Life Seminary), the scholastic arm of Western Sephardic Jewry in Amsterdam, emerged as the period's first Jewish institutional library.1 It grew in size and importance as thousands of Conversos emigrated to the Dutch Republic in search of religious tolerance and financial opportunity. As a whole, these newly professing Jews, whose ancestors had been forcibly baptized in Spain and Portugal, took advantage of their new surroundings. They amassed immense wealth through mercantilism, formed new communities in western Europe and across the Atlantic, and built strong communal institutions, including a host of charities, the Talmud Torah educational system (under which formed the Ets Haim Yesiba),2 and the monumental Esnoga synagogue.3 They forged an identity as a Naçao (Nation) and frequently referred to themselves as "Portuguese" Jews, indicative of a deeply intertwined Jewish and Iberian heritage.4 As carriers of new knowledge, books—specifically, traditional texts in Hebrew, and Bibles, liturgies, and legal works in vernacular languages—supported the population's Judaization, particularly within the walls of the Ets Haim (Figure 1). [End Page 43]

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Figure 1.

Adolf van der Laan, 't Gesigt van de Portugeese en Hoogduy[t]se Jodenkerken tot Amsterdam (Amsterdam: Pieter van Gunst, ca. 1710). Image provided by the Library of the Jewish Theological Seminary (PNT A41.1.21.1). The imposing Portuguese synagogue (Esnoga) appears on the left, with the Ets Haim Yesiba and its library located in the smaller building in front of it. The Great Synagogue of the Ashkenazic community is situated across the canal on the right.

The library of the Ets Haim Yesiba stands as a unique development in the history of premodern Jewry, and possibly of religious and communal institutions in early modern Europe in general. It did not belong to any single person, grew under the decentralized and ever-changing leadership of elected officials (parnasim), and served the broad religious and moral concerns of the Portuguese Jewish community. Unlike contemporary patrician and university libraries, formed by or for and according to the whims of intellectual and socioeconomic elites, the Yesiba's collection was a formal repository of texts funded by patrons and community coffers in the service of an expansive educational program. The Livraria, as it became known, originated as a sort of purchasing department responsible for providing students with textual and ritual supplies in support of their primary instruction. As the community grew, however, so did the school and its library. Through decades of Converso immigration, crises posed by nonbelievers and religious enthusiasts,5 and the expansion of the Western Sephardic diaspora, religious and lay leadership formed a rabbinic library of record consisting of hundreds and eventually thousands of volumes. Throughout its history, [End Page 44] its user base included pupils enrolled in yeshiva, elder students in the community seeking greater textual fluency, and scholars in the Medras Grande (the highest class of the Yesiba) pursuing advanced studies and working on their own publications.

The Library's maturity reflected broad European developments in authorship, publishing, and reading, as book collections began to fill rooms rather than mere shelves. Collecting still required literacy, money, supplies, and texts from which to copy, but printing with movable type, particularly in cultural and economic centers like Amsterdam, revolutionized the availability of materials and the capacity to publish. Greater access to texts and increased literary awareness contributed to intellectual and social development. In the case of Portuguese Jewry, the Ets Haim's growing...


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