They may have the two largest Jewish kehillos in Belgium, but that’s where the similarity between Antwerp and Brussels ends. Why is one city known as the last shtetl in Europe, while the other is famous for its cosmopolitan air? As the old adage proclaims, the disparity can be explained by three things: location, location, location.
All Roads Lead From Rome
It’s assumed that Jewish traders, following the path of the Roman Legions, arrived in what is today Belgium around 53 CE. But the first written evidence of a Jewish community dates to the thirteenth century, when street names such asrue de Juifs and Joodenstraat and tombstones engraved with Hebrew writing begin to appear. Apparently these early settlers did pretty well, because in the 1260 will of Henry III of Brabant he decreed that Jewish usurers should be expelled from his kingdom. Jews who worked in “honest trades” could remain.
These initial settlers were later joined by Jews who had been expelled from England and France, but the 1300s were difficult years. The new century started off with the 1309 Crusade, in which Jews who refused to be baptized were murdered. When the Black Death epidemic swept through Belgium in the late 1340s, the Jews were accused of poisoning the wells and both the Jews of Antwerp and Brussels were massacred. While some did survive and rebuilt in Brussels, they received another blow in 1370, when several members of the kehillah were accused of desecrating the Host – the wafer used by Catholics during communion. The Jews who had purportedly done the act were burned at the stake and the rest of the community were expelled, after their property was confiscated.
The historical annals then grow silent for about one hundred years – although in truth all the history of these early Belgian Jews is remarkably sparse. While it seems they were successful bankers, tradesmen, and physicians, the kehillos didn’t produce any Torah scholars of note.
Their contribution to the local economy was appreciated by at least a few of the rulers, such as John III, but by the 1400s Jews were scarce in this fiercely Catholic country. Yet, it was precisely because this was a Catholic country that the next wave of Jewish settlement occurred, albeit in disguise. And this is when the character of the two cities begins to diverge.
Read the rest of the article at The Jewish Press.