On our Jewish Antwerp Tour, we will take you on a journey into the multifaceted soul of Belgium’s second-largest city and biggest port, a city with startling architectural and cultural contrasts. Antwerp is a city of art, with an urban landscape composed of Neo-Renaissance villas, medieval castles and Art Nouveau residences. The world capital of diamonds and one of Europe’s fashion and entertainment meccas, it was also home to one of the biggest painters of the 16th century, Rubens, the leader of a group of Flemish painters who have since entered the history of art. Thus, it is no wonder that Antwerp’s population is as diverse as its spirit, and the Jews of Antwerp have a very special place in the city.
Approximately 80% of Antwerp’s Jewish population, which reaches around 15.000, makes a living from the diamond industry. More than half the world production of diamonds passes through a few streets near Centraal Station, Antwerp’s Jewish district. The peak of our journey into Antwerp’s Jewish Heritage will be precisely in Pelikaanstraat and the diamond district, also known as “Pelikan”, “Yiddish Town” or Shtetl, a Yiddish term for village or small town, due to the city’s high concentration of Hassidic Jews.
The shtetl is concentrated in a two-square-mile area comprising some 1,500 companies and four diamond bourses. Also, family-owned shops, kosher eateries, religious institutions and fur, textile and leather industries can be found here.
We’ll make sure you have the chance to try the excellent Blue Lagoon, Benelux’s one and only kosher Chinese restaurant, and that you can stock up on some cakes and pastries at Kleinblatt and Steinmetz.
On our Jewish Antwerp Tour, we will take you back in time, to the beginnings of Antwerp’s Jewish heritage, which goes as far back as the 13th century, with the arrival of the “Ashkenazi” Jews from central Europe. In addition, Jews expelled from France and England also arrived in Belgium in the 13th and 14th centuries.
The next big immigration wave occurred at the end of the 15th century, when Jews were expelled from Spain and Portugal. Although Emperor Charles V tried to have “Marrano” Jews from Portugal banned from Antwerp, local authorities protected them because by then they had become essential to the financial development of Antwerp. Between 1650 and 1694, a secret synagogue even conducted services in Antwerp.
When Belgium became independent in 1830, it immediately officially recognised Judaism. Belgium’s Jewish population grew significantly after 1880, with the arrival of many eastern European Jews, and again in the 1930s, with the arrival of German refugees.
During WWII, despite Belgium’s active resistance movement and Belgian police officers’ reluctance to follow the Nazi order of putting yellow badges on all Jews, more than 25,000 Belgian Jews perished in the Holocaust.
Now, there are six Ashkenazi synagogues in Antwerp. The biggest is Romi Goldmunz, whose world-famous chazzan (cantor) is Benjamin Muller. The Sephardim meet in their synagogue opposite the Diamond Exchange. Antwerp’s Portuguese Israelite Synagogue (Beth HaKnesset Portugeese) includes some 300 families, and its numbers have swollen recently due to the arrival of numerous Israelis.
After leaving the Shtetl, a world where time stands still, we will be ready to dive into Antwerp’s vibrant cobbled lanes, filled with cafés, bars and clubs.
We will admire Onze-Lieve-Vrouwekathedraal, Belgium’s finest Gothic cathedral with its elegant, 123m-high spire. If you are an art lover, Rubenshuis is must – built as a home and studio for celebrated painter Pieter Paul Rubens, it hosts around a dozen of Rubens’ world-famous canvases and a priceless collection of 17th-century art.
Works by Rubens can also be found in the Museum Plantin-Moretus, but it's the world's oldest printing press, priceless manuscripts and original type sets that earned this museum its UNESCO World Heritage status.
Next, take a stroll along the picturesque Grote Markt (market square), Antwerp’s medieval heart, dominated by a stately Italo-Flemish Renaissance-style stadhuis (city hall). And don’t worry, we`ll always make time for you to indulge in some delicious Belgian chocolate and the finest of Flemish home cuisine.
Discover with us a unique symbiosis of tradition and modernity on our Jewish Antwerp Tour!