Alexander Vega: Bringing New Life to the Amsterdam Tefillot
Synagogue and cemetery have been the two principle symbols of the Spanish-Portuguese community of the Netherlands since the Second World War. With the already small community decimated by the Holocaust, the stately Spanish-Portuguese Synagogue in Amsterdam (affectionately called the snoge), which survived the war, became its principal physical representative. The Beth Haim of Oudekerk aan de Amstel, the historic community cemetery outside of Amsterdam, was the other marker of the community’s history and traditions.
My father-in-law, Lex Vega, was born in the Netherlands before the war, which he and his entire immediate family survived. His father was both the secretary of the community and caretaker of the cemetery, so Lex grew up in Oudekerk. In his youth, he and his brother and sister would be free to play among the graves on Shabbat morning until it was time for tefillot, which the family would recite together. On holidays they would be in Amsterdam at the snoge.
He was educated at home in the customs of the Spanish-Portuguese community and in the Dutch community’s Jewish school. While studying science, he also also studied to be a Hebrew teacher, the first phase of which was to translate portions of the Tanach and tefillot into Dutch and to learn Hebrew grammar. Eventually, he moved to Israel to receive his Ph.D. in science from the Weitzman Institute and then to the United States, where he worked for DuPont in Delaware for decades.
Yet it is a small world. On vacation at a kosher hotel in Switzerland, Lex met an older Israeli Jew of German origin. The stranger mentioned that he was a publisher, and Lex responded that he had heard most about in Israel was Koren, known for its edition of the Hebrew Bible. He was right on the mark as his interlocutor turned out to be Eliyahu Korngold, who had changed his family name to Koren and started the publishing house. Koren, who felt an obvious passion for his daunting project of creating a new Hebrew typeface as a vessel for a new edition of the Bible, felt a similar commitment in Lex. Both valued the Hebrew language and appreciated precision, diligence, and thoroughness.
Now, in a further turn of events, that same publishing house has issued the first new Tefillot in decades. The old Dutch prayer books had the charm of antiques. The typography was lovely, but studded with the imperfections that arose from the use of an old-fashioned printing press - the outlines of the letters less than perfectly straight, the instructions to the reader either confusing or unhelpfully placed, the Dutch translation getting steadily more dated. The new book places the Spanish-Portuguese rite on the same level as all the other flavors of Jewish prayer, which feels like both a demotion - removing a historical artifact from its pedestal - and an elevation, in giving a living expression to a tradition that might otherwise feel moribund.
I once commented to Lex that though the Amsterdam snoge was imposing, it might not be exactly beautiful. “It is beautiful to us,” was the reply. The ‘us’ in that sentence is worth examination, because since the Second World War the question for the Spanish-Portuguese was whether there would continue to be an ‘us’ to appreciate the beauty of the snoge, and remember its rituals and customs – to honor Shabbat Nachamu as the anniversary of the snoge’s dedication, or to remember how on Sukkot the lulabim are kept upright in the candle holders, creating a forest of green in the snoge. The new Koren Tefillot -- spearheaded by Efraim Kornberg in Holland and assisted by Lex and all the others who worked on it -- is an effort to ensure that an audience that can appreciate the beauty of the snoge persists.
At the conclusion of Kipur we will recite “Zechor tzidkat avihem v’chadesh et yemeihem.” May the Spanish-Portuguese heritage be renewed with the help and merit of those who cherish it.
Michael Gordan and his family are members of Kahal Kadosh Mikveh Israel in Philadelphia.