I recently discovered more significant Jewish history in Hamburg than I had ever expected to find there. It turns out that Hamburg played an instrumental role in both the early history of Anglo Jewry, and in my family’s own history. It was also the port of embarkment for the St. Louis, and the port that the Exodus was forced to go to. The port of Hamburg sits on the Elbe River which opens into the North Sea.
Hamburg’s Sephardic heyday was in the 17th century. During that time the community was home to more than 600 Sephardim. They were drawn there for economic opportunities, and for the religious freedoms granted to them. They weren’t permitted to build a synagogue until the 1660s, but in Calvinist Germany they were free to revert to Judaism from Catholicism. The City of Hamburg Museum has an exhibit devoted to the area’s Jewish history. Even beyond that particular exhibit, the important role of Sephardim in Hamburg’s 17th century development is present throughout the museum.
The Sephardic cemetery, however, lies in neighbouring Altona (originally under Danish rule), which they shared with Altona’s Ashkenazi community. Altona was home to the famed female Jewish memoirist Gluckel of Hameln.
I’m grateful to Dr. Michael Studemund Halevy for taking the time to share the remarkable cemetery with me. It is the best preserved Portuguese cemetery that I’ve yet to visit. Dr. Halevy is amazingly as familiar with its stones as people are with members of their immediate families.
In 1687 Hamburg’s Burghermasters increased taxes on the Jewish community. That drove away a majority of the Sephardim. Many resettled in Amsterdam, and others in London. It may not be a coincidence that shortly thereafter London’s community (Sha’ar Hashamayim) embarked on the building of Bevis Mark Synagogue (completed in 1701). In fact, London’s third Jewish congregation, established in 1707, was known was the Hambro synagogue, as it followed the Hamburg Ashkenazi minhag.
I recently participated in a TV programme that traces the family roots of celebrities. Rachel Griffith visited with me at Bevis Marks to explore her ancestor Benjamin Levy (see minute 15:25). Levy was a member of London’s Sephardic and Ashkenazic communities, and he originated in Hamburg!
Sha’ar Hashmayim’s first rabbi, Ya’akob Sasportas (1664) found refuge in Hamburg following the outbreak of plague that year in London. Later, in 1704, when a debate erupted concerning a sermon delivered by London’s Haham David Nieto, the Mahamad ultimately wrote to Hamburg’s Haham Zevi Ashkenazi to settle the matter.
Hamburg was at the centre of several Sabbatean episodes. It was home to the wealthy and messianic Texeira family. Hamburg also witnessed the acrimonious feud between Rabbis Yaakov Emden and Yonasan Eybeschutz. Ironically, they were buried just a few feet away from each other.
At the turn of the 20th century Hamburg once again became a pivotal port of Jewish embarkation. At that time around two million Jews passed through her port on their way from Eastern Europe to America. It was during those years that for the first time America’s Jewish population outstripped England’s. Hamburg is home to BallinStadt Museum which is dedicated to telling the story of Hamburg’s role in emigration.
I have great grandparents from both my mother’s and my father’s families that came through Hamburg to America at that time. Though they travelled several months apart from each other, they both crossed the ocean aboard the Graf-Waldersee in 1907. Thankfully, the Hamburg-Amerika passenger lists are now available online. Together with American immigration records it is possible to trace family origins and dates with great confidence back to specific towns in Europe.
While Hamburg’s Jewish community sadly came and went (though a small community remains), it also set the stage for things to come. It was deeply moving for me to ‘return’ to Hamburg, and to in a sense complete a Sephardic and Ashkenazic circle. It was profoundly meaningful to visit a place that both my family and kahal travelled through on their way to a new life.