In 1639, Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam—many of whom had fled religious oppression in their home countries of Spain and Portugal—founded a school and meeting place that was a testament to their newfound religious freedom. Today, Ets Haim (Hebrew for “Tree of Life”), is the oldest functional Jewish library in the world. And it’s visually stunning.
In 1675, the library moved to the Esnoga, the Portuguese Synagogue complex in Amsterdam. And in 1889, David Montezinos, the librarian at the time, donated his private collection of 20,000 books, pamphlets, manuscripts, and illustrations to Ets Haim. (It’s often called Ets Haim/Livraria Montezinos.) During the Nazi occupation, library contents were shipped to Germany. Today, the library is back, with almost 30,000 printed works dating back to 1484 and more than 500 manuscripts dating back to 1282. Not to mention stunning floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, skylights, and a wooden spiral staircase.
Today, with the help of the National Library of Israel and the Jewish Historical Museum in Amsterdam, Ets Haim has been digitizing its manuscripts so they can be more easily accessed. But it’s worth the trip to see them in person.
Photo: Peter Lange