In the late 1500s and early 1600s, as Sephardic Jews were establishing a community in Amsterdam, they founded a school for themselves that would become the oldest continuously operating Jewish library in the world.
Having been forced to live as Christians in their home countries, Spain and Portugal, Sephardic Jews arrived in Amsterdam with the promise of religious freedom. The school/library, Ets Haim (Hebrew for “Tree of Life”), was founded in 1616 to help the newcomers start living publicly as Jews again. Many had continued to practice their true religion in secret while living outwardly as Christians. Amassing the library allowed them to debate among themselves, after so long, what being Jewish meant.
In 1675, the library moved to the Esnoga, the Portuguese Synagogue complex. Since it was dangerous to have open flames in a library, skylights and octagonal openings between the two floors were incorporated into the design to let in natural light for reading. Today, electric lights, including chandeliers, light the rooms, and the bookshelves are floor to ceiling. A wooden spiral staircase connects the floors.
The library holds, in total, nearly 30,000 printed works dating back to 1484 and more than 500 manuscripts dating back to 1282. The documents not only represent centuries of Jewish thought and scholarship, but also the community’s everyday life. They paint a picture of Sephardic Culture going back to its roots in the Iberian Peninsula.
In 1889, David Montezinos, the librarian at the time, donated his substantial private library (20,000 books, pamphlets, manuscripts, and illustrations) to Ets Haim after his wife died. It has since been known as Ets Haim/Livraria Montezinos.
Over the past few years, in collaboration with the National Library of Israel and the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, Ets Haim has been digitizing its manuscripts so they can be easily accessed by people around the world. It is also expected that, with the imaging technology available for the process, scholars will be able to examine the digitized documents more thoroughly than they would in person with the naked eye.
Ets Haim is one of the Dutch Department of Culture’s National Cultural Heritage sites, and part of UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register.
Know Before You Go
The library is inside the synagogue complex. Only a small sample of books are visible to visitors, but the library is open sometimes with guided tours.