Jewish Marriage in Amsterdam 1598-1811
It is about four hundred years ago, towards the end of the sixteenth century, that the first Jews settled in Amsterdam. In the centuries to come, they were to develop into an important component - both qualitatively and quantitatively - of that community. This situation came to an end with the German occupation of the Netherlands from 1940 to 1945.
The fate of the Dutch Jews, including those of Amsterdam, is sufficiently widely known to us not to dwell on it here.
The present book, by providing access to the municipal registers, intends to make available important data on the Jewish population of Amsterdam since the late sixteenth century. For various reasons little insight has been possible until now. There is in the first place the question of names. Fixed family names were not legally required in the Netherlands until the French occupation in the early nineteenth century; From 1811 onwards, every birth, marriage, and death was registered by the civil authorities of the municipality where it took place. Thanks to Napoleon, therefore, most Dutch citizens can easily trace their forebears back to 1811. For Catholics and Protestants, considerable amounts of information are available in church registers from before that date. Jewish ancestors, however, are difficult to trace. For one thing, Jews were not very forthcoming where civil registration was concerned. They saw little use in accurate registration, especially with the civil authorities. But even within the community there was no tradition of registering births. For girls there are thus very few registers available.
Boys, on the other hand, were circumcised on the eighth day, and the mohel, the man who carried out this ritual, did keep a register. But these registers were private, since the mohel did not hold an official function in the Jewish community. Some of their registers have survived, going back to the first half of the seventeenth century, but the series is by no means complete. They are,moreover, written in Hebrew or in Spanish for the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities respectively. In addition to the private mohel registers the Portuguese (Sephardi) community of Amsterdam kept a marriage register after 1672. There is also a fragmentary set of Ashkenazi marriage registers after 1723. These sources have not, incidentally, been used in compiling the present volume.
One of the major sources for the history of Amsterdam Jewry before 1811 consists of a set of registers of intended marriages. Jews, like Catholics and other non-members of the Dutch Reformed Church, the official state denomination, were required to register their marriages with the civil authorities at the local Town Hall. Until 1811, marriage in the Dutch Reformed Church was recognized by the authorities as equivalent to a civil marriage.
The Amsterdam Municipal Archives preserve a set of hooks containing registers of intended marriages from 1578 onwards, the earliest entries pertaining to Jews dating from 1598. Between 1598 and 1811, over 15000 Jewish couples registered their intention to marry. The largest number of these records date from the second half of the eighteenth century. In the seventeenth century the number is smaller and the records are often incomplete, lacking for instance names of witnesses and places of origin. In the course of the eighteenth century, registration became both stricter and more accurate. The standard entry then gives the names and places of origin of the prospective couple, their ages, addresses, and for each the name of a witness, usually the father,or if the father was no longer alive, the mother, or else a relative or friend. The civil registers thus contain a number of essential data concerning Jewish marriages.
There are a number of problems attending the use of this valuable source. As we saw above, not all Jews complied with the official requirement of a civil marriage. Moreover, many Jewish men and women were illiterate in Dutch, and signed their names in Yiddish, which is written in Hebrew characters. The names themselves are also a complicating factor. Menachem might register at the Town Hall as Emanuel and call himself Mendele in Yiddish. On the other hand, he might be called Solomon. Jews do not seem to have taken the registration seriously. As to family names, many Ashkenazim simply did not have one, and if they did not have a Cohen or Levi attached to their names, and no clear geographical derivation like van Praag, "from Prague", they simply registered as Abrahams, or Jacobs, after their father or grandfather. The Sephardi Jews, on the other hand, who had come to the Netherlands from Spain in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries did have family names. Once in Amsterdam, however, they adopted the Jewish names they were forbidden to use in their land of birth, now often using both names side by side. It can be extremely difficult if not impossible to ascertain who is who in such cases.
Apart from complications caused by the way the Jews themselves used their names, the foreign languages involved posed problems for the clerks who had to write them down. The same name might be recorded as Sarfati or Serphati, or even Serfatiem. The name Isaac appears in hundreds of different forms. The present editors have opted for uniform spelling of all names and compiled a list of variants.
This book presents the first comprehensive index to the Jewish marriages recorded in the civil registers. All Jewish entries, all original and variant names have been listed.
Hopefully it will be of assistance to the growing number of Jews seeking information on their ancestors, where they lived, and what they did for a living. Although this is no historical work in the traditional sense,its publication is of great importance for the assessment of Amsterdam's place in the history of European Jewry.