When Amsterdam was a Catholic city, the quiet chapel in the center of the Begijnhof was where the beguines went for their daily prayers. When the city converted to Protestantism, it became a center of theological debate. Scholars came from all over, including ones whose ideology didn’t fit in with new Protestant governments. The Reformed English Church in the Begijnhof Chapel was founded by such people, one of whom had an interesting run-in with his new Jewish neighbors.
Isaack Levi de Bondia was born in Bordeaux and moved to Amsterdam sometime in the early 1600s. Isaack’s family likely fled the Spanish Inquisition after the fall of the Emirate of Grenada, where they had lived in relative peace for centuries. In Bordeaux, they probably pretended to be Christian. Isaack then joined one of the first groups of Sephardic Jews who moved to Amsterdam to practice his religion openly. With so little evidence about him, it’s hard to know anything for sure, but the facts suggest that he was educated, devout, and financially stable.
The Sephardic community that arrived in Amsterdam during the late 16th century negotiated a fragile peace with its newly Protestant government. The Jewish community was responsible for policing itself. The leaders of the community, who included the wealthy merchants who’d secured the community’s admission into Amsterdam and received the patronage of the ruling House of Orange, needed to be sure no member of the community came to the authorities’ attention. The insularity this required explains why we have so little information about Isaack and why what he did in 1625 was so shocking.
Isaack swore before a notary named Laurens Lambert had he’d been engaged in a sexual affair with Mercy, the daughter of scholar and Protestant reformer Mattheus Sladus. Moreover, the affair had taken place all over Mattheus’ own house, once in the presence of his maid! Mattheus was part of a group of classical scholars who spoke Hebrew and wrote about Jewish history, which may have been how the couple met. The relationship was forbidden, however, under the legal framework that allowed the Jewish community to live in Amsterdam.
So why did Isaack swear, first before the notary and then before the much stricter body for policing and enforcement, that they’d had an affair? Mattheus had arranged for Mercy to marry a Protestant scholar. Was Isaack making a desperate attempt to prevent his girlfriend from being married off? Her father was furious and hired two midwives who offered a sworn statement that Mercy was still a virgin. She was married two months later, and the couple had at least nine children. Isaack disappears from the records, but his story is an early example that no laws or community regulations could keep Amsterdammers from finding each other.
Below are a few questions specific to this story:
We sent you several stories to read through. If this is your last story, click the button below to fill out a few general questions we have for you.