Rembrandt's Jews by Stephen Nadler

A Talmudic mystery of old Amsterdam
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The Independent Culture

Stephen Nadler is intrigued by the respectful attention paid to Jewish subjects by 17th-century Dutch artists. In Rembrandt's Belshazzar's Feast, in the National Gallery, who can forget the king's terror as, rising from the banquet table, he sees a ghostly hand writing on the palace wall? Neither Belshazzar nor his wise men can read the inscription, so Daniel is called. He discerns Aramaic words predicting the downfall of Belshazzar's kingdom.

No explanation is given in the biblical text of why the king and his retinue are unable to read the writing. But in the Talmud a number of possibilities are proposed. One rabbi suggests it is because the letters were arranged vertically, not horizontally. This is how we find them in Rembrandt's painting. Who taught him Aramaic? And how did he learn of the Talmudic solution?

Nadler, who is richly knowledgeable about Jewish life in 17th-century Amsterdam, likes to imagine that Rembrandt walked 50 yards down the street and got help from a rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel. It is feasible. Rembrandt was living in the Vlooienburg district, centre of Amsterdam's art market, and also of the city's Jewish world. He had friends in common with Messaneh, one of the most accomplished, cosmopolitan rabbis of his day. Even if at this date the two men did not meet, they would have done so later, when Rembrandt produced four illustrations for Menasseh's history of the Hebrew people.

Received opinion divides on Rembrandt's attitude to the Jews. There are those who detect an unprecedented empathy with Jewish subjects. On the other hand, Gary Schwarz has argued that "to move from these scattered and infrequent projects to an active engagement with Amsterdam's Jews and a deeply philo-Semitic mindset requires a wild leap of the biographical imagination." Nadler proceeds cautiously. He acknowledges missing connections. He puzzles over architectural details, inscriptions and costume, assessing how far Jewish material is present in key works. While others try to identify Menasseh with a half-length portrait etching by Rembrandt, Nadler concedes there is insufficient resemblance to justify this claim.

So Rembrandt's exchange with his Jewish neighbours remains shadowy. What is illuminated by this book, owing to a remarkable feat of historical imagination, is Amsterdam's Jewish society. Nadler is a sympathetic guide to its development, as it takes root and becomes woven into the city's cultural life and material boom. He explains the feuding between Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews; looks at key rabbis; tracks the politics behind the building of synagogues. Finally, Nadler considers the Jewish attitude to death in connection with the Ouderkerk cemetery, on which Jacob van Ruisdael based two fine oils.

At times Nadler slips into the narrative, in his accounts of research visits to Amsterdam. Having vividly described the havoc, noise and dust which builders inflicted on Rembrandt at No 4 Breestraat, he walks us down the same street today. This adds another layering of interest and - sometimes with a touch of irony or paradox - points up the connectedness between past and present.

The reviewer's life of Gwen Raverat is published by Harvill