A blog about (hidden) Amsterdam


A blog about (hidden) Amsterdam

Maria Nuñez– or, The (Sea) Battle Between Fact and Fiction

Picture this. A handsome English Duke woos a beautiful Jewish refugee, who tearfully turns him down so she can move to a city where she can openly practice her faith. Wait! I’ve got a better one. When their ship is waylaid by pirates, Jewish refugees are forced to turn pirate themselves. The beautiful young woman with them dresses as a man and acts like part of the crew until they are rescued by an English ship that sends them on their way. And then! Their ship is blown off course by a storm, landing them miles to the north where they meet exactly the person they need to.

Any of these would be an amazing way to start our new Jewish History Tour. If only any of them were true… Even for us history nerds, sometimes the truth stands in the way of a good story. The founding of Amsterdam’s Jewish community is complicated, and the myth of Maria Nuñez captures it all.

Maria was part of a group whose grandparents had been converted by force by the Spanish and Portuguese kings. Some practiced their own faith in secret, some followed the new church, but all were intensely monitored and any perceived transgression was punished by torture and execution. They saw that the new Dutch Republic’s founding document guaranteed religious freedom and headed north. So far, so true. From here, though, it gets dicey.

Depending on your source, Maria’s ship was then waylaid by pirates or a storm. She may have become the center of the English court for her beauty and charm. Or she may have discovered a kindly rabbi who she convinced to travel with her. Either way, her persistence brought her to Amsterdam, where she became the first of these forced Catholics to convert back to Judaism. It’s a beautiful story. But no historical records support it.

The story of Maria Nuñez was written almost a century later for a fractured community trying to find its footing. It had taken Sephardic Jews more than a decade to negotiate with Amsterdam’s City Council for the right to practice their faith. They were mostly experienced merchants in a city and nascent country that desperately needed their expertise.

Within a few years, however, rising war and violence in the east prompted Ashkenazi Jews to move to Amsterdam en masse, often with little more than the clothes on their back. In addition to class and language differences, there was a huge religious gulf in the community. Some Ashkenazi Amsterdammers repudiated the Sephardic community entirely as people who had betrayed their faith.

Though her story was popularized by a Sephardic author, Maria’s story appears to have been first written by an Ashkenazi author. His grandfather had come to Amsterdam with the first Sephardic immigrants as their rabbi. (That’s a whole other story that does fit on our tour!) Uri ben Aaron HaLevi wrote in Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazi community, and laid out his grandfather’s life in epic terms, with stories like Maria’s woven in to emphasize the faith of these early Sephardic Amsterdammers.

It’s not an impulse we can follow, but it’s one everyone at Badass Tours understands. We tell the stories of people left out of mainstream history because we believe in the power of historical storytelling. However, we meticulously research each fact and are transparent when something can’t be verified. We do this because we’re challenging accepted history. Guests are often shocked to hear about an 18th-century trans man, a 17th-century free Black community, or a 13th-century feminist commune. They need to know that they can trust us, so we work hard to earn that trust.

Still, it’s hard to deny the power of a good myth. We all tip our hats to Maria Nuñez.



Jewish Bride by Albertus Brondgeest

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