Rembrandt’s Jews (book recommendation by Eric Carlson)

Posted on October 10th, 2015 by

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Many times, authors or publishers will give a book about a very narrow topic a very general title in order to sell more copies.  This is an example of the opposite phenomenon.  Art historian Steven Nadler has written a marvelous book that is certainly about Rembrandt’s interactions with (including drawings and paintings of) Amsterdam’s Jews–but is also about much more.  In a delightfully readable 200 pages, Nadler fully contextualizes and historicizes Rembrandt’s artistic representations of Jews and Jewish scenes by describing the history the Jewish community in Amsterdam in the 17th century.  Most of the Jews were descendants of Portuguese refugees from the Inquisition–thus their community title La Nação–and are thus Sephardic Jews, about whom we as Americans generally tend to know far less than we do about the Askenazim (Jews from Eastern Europe) who figure more heavily in U.S. immigration.  Nadler tells about their settlement and reception by the Dutch in Amsterdam, the building of their synagogues, their fascinating rabbis, their views of the afterlife, and their Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk.  The book is a work of art history, of course, and it is richly illustrated with works not only by Rembrandt but also by Emanuel de Witte, Romeyn de Hooghe, and (especially) the Haarlem Jewish painter Jacob van Rusidael.  This is a richly rewarding introduction to a society at a pivotal moment in its history, as well as important figures in the art history of Europe.  I will never be able to look at 17th century Dutch art in a museum–and what art museum doesn’t have a selection of 17th century Dutch art?–in the same way again!  Nadler’s prose style is at once conversational and professional.  He infuses his scholarly work with accounts of his own encounters with the places about which he is writing.  Particularly memorable is his description of attending Sabbath services (he is an observant Jew) at the synagogue in Amsterdam.  (That was my favorite chapter in the book, also.) The way he did that challenged me to think about my own writing and to think about ways to interweave the personal without sacrificing the professional.  This is exemplary scholarship and writing.  I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the period, the places, and/or the people.

Steven Nadler, Rembrandt’s Jews (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003).

 

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