Printers on the Damrak

Etching of Menasseh Ben Israel
Rembrandt van Rijn, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

Printers on the Damrak

Etching of Menasseh Ben Israel
Rembrandt van Rijn, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam
The text ‘Boek- en Steen Drukkerij’ (‘Book and Stone Printing Company’) painted on the side of a building

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The Story

If you turn your back to Central Station and look down the Damrak, you’ll be looking at a long line of former printers. Publishing was important to Amsterdam and vice versa. The world’s first newspaper was printed here. In the 17th century, 30-50% of European books were published in Amsterdam. It’s hard to talk about Amsterdam’s size during 100 years of explosive population growth, but in the mid-1600s there were about 175,000 Amsterdammers. Imagine a town around the size of Breda, NL or Fort Lauderdale, USA or Middlesborough, UK. Now imagine that town bursting with more than 100 printers and 400 bookstores.

Jewish printers played a huge role in the thriving printing industry. Technically, Jewish citizens were forbidden from the trade guilds. They were, however, allowed to furnish goods for their religious practices, even if it was a craft normally covered by a guild. Jewish printers took advantage of this allowance and began publishing books in Hebrew. Eventually, Jewish printers, writers, and paper merchants became so important that the guild admitted them, though with restricted membership. Jewish printers achieved several important milestones for their community, as well as for the larger city. The following are just a couple of the many important figures.

In 1626, the renowned Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel established Europe’s first Hebrew printing press, Emeth Meerets Titsma`h. His first book, THE CONCILIATOR, became quite well known and brought him into contact with the leading thinkers and artists of the day, including Hugo Grotius, Vossius, and Rembrandt, who painted and sketched him. He was also Spinoza’s teacher. When Menasseh was appointed rabbi of the Sephardic Talmud Tora community, he appointed a new manager of the printing house. who eventually passed it over to his son.

From the Ashkenazi side of the community came the world’s first Yiddish paper in 1686. A large group of Ashkenazi Jews from Eastern Europe moved to the 17th-century Dutch Republic to escape increasing anti-Jewish violence and devastating wars. They brought with them the Yiddish language and, according to them, customs that their Sephardic brethren had lost during generations under the Inquisition. Uri Faybesh Halevi was an Ashkenazi Amsterdammer who started a press in 1658 to, among other things, print a Yiddish translation of the Hebrew Bible. He published The Kurant to keep the Yiddish-speaking community up-to-date on international affairs, especially the wars in the east. The Kurant only lasted a couple of years, but through a couple twists of fate, a good portion of its issues are with the University of Amsterdam for digitization.

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