The Portuguese community in the Dutch Republic carefully guarded the image it presented to the outside world. The parnassim and rabbis repeatedly reminded members to act with decorum and bom judesmo. Yet, the Sephardim in the Dutch Republic had their fair share of scandal. The true story of the clandestine courtship of Eva Cohen, the petite, dark-haired daughter of the wealthy Cohen Pallache family that resided in Delft from the late 1660s till the early 1680s, and Michiel Verboon, a young, tall, fair-skinned, blond and curly-haired Gentile servant in the household of Eva’s brother Jacob in The Hague, has all the makings of a novel of historical fiction: family upheaval, risk of family honor, status, and wealth, tarnishing of faith, and even high court drama.
The affair began in secret, but its subsequent handling over the course of four years eventually became a very public matter, reaching the “Hoge Raad,” the Supreme Court of the Dutch Republic.1 Rebecca Pallache Cohen, Eva’s widowed mother challenged the young couple’s intended union in a lawsuit that was brought in front of the Dutch courts. Though the young woman was an adult and could marry without the consent of her parents, according to Dutch law the alliance could be protested if objections of substance could be shown.2 Rebecca Pallache complained of the inequality of the alliance, though this would not have been considered sufficient reason for the court to prevent the marriage from taking place.3 The case generated a large number of court documents and archival files and also a small printed pamphlet published in English and in Dutch (Fig. 8.1).4 The Amsterdam Portuguese community, likely aware of the situation concerning the Cohen Pallache family, kept its distance from the matter, though the London Portuguese community had no choice but to become publicly involved in it.5
The wealthy Sephardic family that Eva belonged to maintained close connections with the elite circles of Jewish and non-Jewish society in the Dutch Republic and beyond.6 Eva’s father Abraham Cohen had links to the Amsterdam Portuguese community but it is not certain he was ever officially a member. The community’s records list his attendance at a funeral in 1629, and in 1656, he took over a relative’s membership in the Amsterdam-based international dowry society, Dotar.7 While he lived for a time in Amsterdam, his name does not appear regularly on the list of the communal taxpayers though he is listed as having made voluntary contributions (promessas) during synagogue services. A possible explanation for his lack of membership is that he was often abroad on business. Stationed in Dutch Brazil until 1654, his signature, in Hebrew, appears in the communal registers of the Portuguese Jews there.8 He eventually returned to the Netherlands, and settled in Delft in 1669. Besides the Dotar membership and the infrequent voluntary contributions, his name appears again in the Amsterdam Portuguese community registry in 1671, when his widow, Rebecca Pallache, sent money to the Amsterdam Portuguese synagogue for prayers to be recited in his memory on the eves of the new months and during the nights of Yom Kippur. She also insisted that mention of this legacy be made on each Shabbat ha-Gadol (the Sabbath before Passover), her wish expressing family pride and a notion of social standing.9
After Abraham’s death, his oldest son Jacob became a member of the Amsterdam Portuguese community, and as of 1672, he was registered as paying ten guilders per year in communal taxes.10 Eva’s parents and siblings are buried at the cemetery in Ouderkerk aan de Amstel, the burial place for members of the Amsterdam Portuguese community, another proof of their connection to the Sephardic milieu.11
The Pallache family’s affiliation with Judaism is less straightforward. A few members of this well-known family of diplomats of Moroccan Jewish descent had converted to Christianity.12 Isaac Pallache, Eva’s grandfather, converted in Jutphaas (near Utrecht) in 1627, and apparently, he had some, if not all, of his children baptized, including Rebecca Pallache, Eva’s mother. His conversion might have been motivated by economic or political factors, which calls its sincerity into question, especially in light of his later return to Judaism.13
Despite his purported baptism, Isaac’s children received a Jewish education at home. This fact was attested to by Hakham Samuel Tardiola, a rabbi originally from Jerusalem who was active among the Portuguese community in Amsterdam. Hakham Tardiola affirmed that Isaac had told him that his children knew nothing about Christianity but knew all the Jewish prayers in Hebrew. Moreover, Isaac had confided in him that in Leiden, where Isaac Pallache resided with his family, they observed the Jewish Sabbath, holidays, and dietary laws.14
Eva’s father, Abraham Cohen, an important and highly esteemed figure in Brazil, married his niece Rebecca Pallache, daughter of Isaac Pallache, in Brazil around the year 1652. He was an overseer of Dutch plantations as well as a plantation and ship owner, army provider, broker, and slave trader.15 Cohen was also the agent of the Dutch government in Brazil whose headquarters were in Recife, and consequently he had excellent contacts with the governor of Dutch Brazil, Johan Maurits van Nassau. His marriage to Rebecca Pallache appears to have been his second, and must have been officiated by the famous Hakham Isaac Aboab da Fonseca who, a few months earlier, had performed the hupah (Jewish wedding ceremony) of Cohen’s other niece Eva, Rebecca’s sister, who had married an Ashkenazic Jew by the name of Simon Mayer.16 Eva’s wedding was performed in Cohen’s house in Recife. Cohen apparently paid for her dowry (which included one of his houses in Recife and a slave girl) and wrote the marriage settlement in Portuguese, which was translated into Hebrew by Aboab.17 Abraham and Rebecca kept in touch with Hakham Isaac Aboab da Fonseca, even after their return to the Dutch Republic. In fact, as late as 1681, Aboab made a declaration in Amsterdam at the request of Rebecca Pallache.18
Arriving from Brazil to Amsterdam, the Cohen Pallache family first took up residence in St Antonibreestraat, in the heart of Amsterdam’s Jewish district.19 Abraham, still a leading figure in the Dutch West Indian company, continued to travel abroad for business and was involved in the colonization of overseas territories of Cayenne, Guyana, and Curaçao.20 Later, for unknown reasons, the family moved to Delft. One possible explanation for the move was it being at the time the third largest city in the Dutch Republic with a chamber of the West Indian Company in addition to offices and warehouses of the East Indian Company (Fig. 8.2). It was also in proximity to The Hague with its diplomatic circles and was within easy reach of Rotterdam, Leiden, and Amsterdam.21 The family frequently traveled to The Hague and Amsterdam to visit family and friends.22 Abraham Cohen died in Delft in 1671 and, as mentioned, was buried in the Portuguese Jewish cemetery in Ouderkerk. Rebecca Pallache remained in Delft for another ten years where she continued to raise five of her six children. Her eldest son Jacob Cohen, perhaps at his father’s recommendation, had become chief administrator of the above-mentioned former governor of Brazil, Prince Johan Maurits van Nassau and moved to The Hague, close to the palaces of Johan Maurits.23
It was on one of the family visits to Jacob in The Hague that Eva Cohen met Jacob’s servant Michiel Verboon, a Christian from a respectable but lower class family.24 The legal case files, interviews, and printed pamphlet detail the development of their relationship behind the back of Rebecca Pallache and beyond the borders of the Dutch Republic via Belgium, England, and back. Was Eva and Michiel’s a true love story? We know that she signed some of her early letters to him with her own blood, in which she promised never to leave him.25 We also know that Eva followed Michiel to Brussels.26 However, in the pamphlet, it was suggested that her flight was a means to escape the reach of her controlling mother.27 Did religious motives play a role in the events?28 And what of Michiel’s intentions? Was he in love with Eva or was he hoping for material gain?
The affair, which erupted some time in 1680, less than ten years after Abraham Cohen’s death, most likely came as a shock to Rebecca. However, as the documentation reveals, as matriarch of this wealthy and well-integrated Dutch Sephardic family, she spared no expense to put a stop to what she believed was a ruinous liaison.
2 The Power of the Sephardic Widow Rebecca Pallache
The attitude of the Sephardic widow Rebecca Pallache was not exceptional when it came to choosing marriage partners for her children. In the early modern period social-economic motives were most prominent in this respect. In general, marriages were intended to preserve the material wellbeing of the family or, still more, to increase it. The elite, in particular, was very keen to keep wealth within its own circles and enlarge it, if possible, through arranged marriages.29 Love was not, typically, a priority in the negotiations. Yet, human nature sometimes intervened and marriages for the sake of love did take place. Some were of a clandestine nature and occurred less frequently in Jewish society, though among the Amsterdam Sephardim, such marriages appear to have increased over the course of the eighteenth century.30 Only a herem (ban) imposed by the Jewish community leaders on its members or legal restrictions in the marriage laws in the Dutch Republic could deter such clandestine unions.
To stop her daughter from what she clearly viewed as a bad match, Rebecca Pallache had no recourse but to turn to the Dutch courts, which she did with fervor. As a widow in the Dutch Republic Rebecca Pallache had complete authority over her affairs.31 In my previous studies I have shown that even though Sephardic women in Dutch society adhered to the Iberian cultural mores that relegated women to the background, they were, in practice, assertive and enterprising figures inside the home and outside it, just like their Dutch counterparts, albeit somewhat more withdrawn.32 Rebecca Pallache offers another example: her last will shows her skill in handling investments in the West Indian Company and maintaining international contacts that extended across the Atlantic to Suriname, Jamaica, and Martinique.33 Other documents reveal her to have been an uncompromising maternal figure who tried to lead her children along the path she and her late husband had set for them.
Apparently, Rebecca had an uneasy relationship with her daughter Eva; both seem to have been strong-willed.34 She tried hard to limit her daughter’s freedom of movement and, according to the pamphlet, had confined Eva to her room at one point for a period of six months.35 Eva’s harpsicord teacher Dirck Scholl, who was also the chief organist and carillonist of the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) in Delft, had once suggested to Rebecca that to improve relations between mother and daughter she should consider giving Eva more freedom of movement like other young Dutch girls in the city.36 Rebecca had him fired from his post as Eva’s music tutor. She also suspected him of influencing Eva toward the Christian faith.37
Immediately after Eva’s disappearance, Rebecca mobilized a veritable army of laymen and authorities to search for her daughter in Holland and the surrounding countries,38 and she was quickly traced to London.39 In the lawsuits that followed, Rebecca used every connection she could muster in order to secure her daughter’s return. The list of people she sought help from included servants, tutors, tailors, innkeepers, shopkeepers, notaries, and lawyers in Delft, The Hague, Voorburg, Amsterdam, Brussels, Mechelen, and London.40 She contacted the burgomasters of Amsterdam, the commissioners of marriage in Delft and The Hague, the Dutch ambassador in England, and rich Sephardic Jews in London, including Michael Levy who was the community’s representative to the local authorities.41 The list shows the sweep of Rebecca’s control over her immediate environment, enabling her to rally assistance from the lower echelons to the highest elite and diplomatic circles. The extent of her contacts should not be surprising given her upbringing in a wealthy, well-connected family of merchants and diplomats and her marriage to an influential merchant with business and political ties at home and overseas.
It was likely at the urging of Rebecca and other well-connected members of her family that the burgomasters of Amsterdam wrote a letter to the Dutch ambassador in England, which included a formal and explicit accusation of Michiel Verboon “of low-class origin” for seducing and abducting Eva “in an improper and indecent way” on Ascension day 1680. The letter also contained a request for assistance for Moses Cohen (Eva’s brother) and Samuel van der Zee (Eva’s cousin), who had been sent to England to trace her whereabouts and return the young woman to her mother’s care.42
In the case Rebecca brought before the Hof van Holland in The Hague, she accused Michiel Verboon of theft, lechery, and seeking material gain by seducing and illegally marrying her daughter.43 The religious issue (it was illegal for a Christian to seduce a Jewess) was reason enough for Rebecca to object to the liaison,44 but it would not have mattered since by the time of the trial, Eva had already converted and taken the name Elisabeth.
In the verdict rendered by the Hof van Holland in July 1681 it was decided that Michiel and Eva be denied the right to cohabit. Eva was to live with an honest, well-mannered Reformed family in order to reconsider her position, and her mother would pay for her upkeep. Michiel was not to have any contact with Eva.45 The verdict seemed a fair compromise to Rebecca who viewed it as a reasonable starting point for her plan to return Eva to the family fold. Rebecca’s partial victory, however, was short-lived. Michiel not only continued to visit Eva,46 but the couple appealed to the Hoge Raad and in 1684, after a lengthy trial, Michiel and Eva were granted permission to proceed with their intended marriage. Rebecca had lost her case.
Rebecca had done all she could to restore her daughter. She had reached out to as many people as she was able at home and abroad.47 But also aware of the need to preserve the rest of her family, at the height of the affair, in 1681, she moved from Delft to Amsterdam. Her decision to relocate might have been motivated by her fear that the remainder of her family could fall outside influences as Eva had, and she preferred to raise her other children closer to organized Portuguese Jewish life, away from the dangers of crossing borders into the Christian world.48
3 Eva Cohen in between Judaism and Christianity
Eva grew up in a home that included instruction in the basic tenets and observance of normative Judaism. According to the testimony of Dirck Scholl and his wife at the trial in The Hague, Eva had expressed feelings of guilt when she gave a monetary donation to a sexton of the New Church on a visit to the church on a Saturday (Fig. 8.3), the Jewish Sabbath.49 The Jewish dietary laws appear to have been kept in Eva’s home and among her extended family. On their expedition to England in order to retrieve her, Eva’s brother and cousin were apparently provided with kosher food.50 From Scholl’s interrogation, we also learn that Eva was aware that she was eating forbidden food when she dined at his home.51 In one of Eva’s letters that was entered in evidence at the trial she had asked for sweets [?] for Purim, which showed that she was familiar with the observance of Jewish festivals and rituals.52 Further proof of Eva’s family’s upholding of Jewish tradition was their observance of the Jewish mourning rituals at the death of Eva’s brother Joseph, in 1680: the family sat shiva “in the Jewish manner” in the house of relatives on Verversgracht in Amsterdam.53 From the wording of the text that appears on his tombstone, Joseph most likely belonged to the Tipheret Bajurim society, an Amsterdam study circle for young men from rich Portuguese families.54 Jacob, Eva’s oldest brother was active in the Amsterdam Portuguese community’s charitable Honen Dalim society.55
In Rebecca’s last will there were no gifts to be distributed among the Portuguese poor or any public or private Portuguese Jewish organization,56 which is consistent with the loose connection of the family to organized Jewish life in general and to the Amsterdam Portuguese community in particular, already noted at the beginning of this study. Yet, as was also mentioned above, Rebecca did give the sum of two hundred guilders to the Amsterdam Portuguese community in 1671 for escabot prayers (prayers for the repose of the soul of the dead) to be recited for her husband “Abraham Cohem do Brazil.”57 Also, among the contents in her home was a book of Flavius Josephus, apparently in Hebrew.58 In fact, more than twenty years earlier, in 1660, Abraham Cohen had given instructions to the Amsterdam publishing house of Uri Phoebus Halevi to print four thousand copies of “Josephus” in Hebrew, to be delivered to him by no later than 31 June 1661, most likely for the purposes of trade.59 The copy found in Rebecca’s house must have been from that order.
During their lifetimes, Abraham and Rebecca signed various documents in Hebrew,60 which could be seen as evidence of the importance of their Jewish identity. Furthermore, the inscriptions on their gravestones at the Bet Haim cemetery in Ouderkerk are in Hebrew, which was not a common phenomenon.61 Finally, Rebecca’s recommendation to her children in her last will and testament that they have fear of God is proof of her sincere belief in her faith.62 In all, there is enough evidence to suggest that Eva was surrounded by a Jewish atmosphere at home and that the family lived by the rules of normative Judaism.
Still, the inventory of the contents of Rebecca Pallache’s house, which was drawn up after her death in 1685, includes few material pieces of a Jewish connection.63 There were no ceremonial objects explicitly mentioned as such, even though the silver and copper candelabrums on the list could have been used for lighting candles on Sabbaths and holidays. The “paasbrood” (matsot) mentioned in the inventory suggests that Jewish holidays were celebrated at her home as we have surmised earlier from Eva’s remarks on Purim.64
In all other aspects, the contents of Rebecca Pallache’s house contained objects that could have been found in the home of any member of Dutch elite society: silver objects decorated with coats of arms, paintings—about fifty in all, more than the average in a Dutch residence of the times—including landscape, mythological, vanitas, and genre scenes, family portraits, and portraits of emperors and local rulers, like Prince Maurits.65 The Spanish chairs, Spanish lace, Turkish table carpet, East Indian chest, silken bedcover, and Delft porcelain that completed the inventory hint at the international Dutch-Sephardic nature of this household.66
The Cohen Pallache’s may have been a Jewish home, but it was situated in Delft, where there was no Jewish community to speak of at the time. The Reformed churches, just a few steps from Rebecca’s house on the affluent Oude Delft canal were a lure for Eva and helped to spark her interest in Christianity (Fig. 8.4).67 Stories about the conversion of her grandfather, and the baptisms of her mother, aunts, and uncles, could also have stimulated her interest in the Christian faith. As a teenager, she would have known the story of her aunt Hester Pallache who had converted to Christianity along with her husband Simon Samuel, but had their sons circumcised nevertheless. The governors of the Reformed Church, upon hearing about the circumcision, summoned the parents. Hester explicitly blamed “her sister” (could the sister have been Rebecca?), but the church nevertheless placed the parents under strict supervision.68
Given Eva’s rebellious nature, her own attraction to Christianity may have been a reaction to her mother’s obvious devotion to Judaism, and a way to escape her control.69 She was reported to have spoken disrespectfully about Judaism in the company of people outside of her family, saying she had no inclination to marry a Jew and hoped one day to eat non-kosher food like shrimps. But, being aware of the sensitivity of the subject among her family, she kept her thoughts secret from them.70
It was not difficult for Eva to mix with Gentile circles in Delft through daily interactions with servants, shopkeepers, and tutors.71 Eva’s music tutor Dirck Scholl taught her at home, but Eva apparently also visited his house, from where he took her to the New Church to hear the playing of the organ. At church, she would have listened to the sermons, heard the reading of the New Testament, the singing of the psalms, and seen the performance of various ceremonies.72 Scholl apparently discussed the New Testament with her in the presence of her siblings, and Eva warned him against this fearing that word would get back to her mother.73 During his interrogation in court, Scholl said that he was not aware that Eva had deliberately come to him to learn about the Christian religion. Yet, despite Scholl’s credulousness regarding Eva’s visits to his home and the church, these outings did awaken her interest in the Christian religion.74 In fact, according to the pamphlet, Eva enjoyed reading the New Testament and had become convinced that Jesus was the savior. She had, since then, declared that she wanted to embrace Christianity and rejected Judaism.75 It is possible that she was in touch with the vicar of the New Church, but the latter had declined to answer any questions in the matter.76
Eva fled from Brussels to London in May 1680 and converted to Christianity in London on 10 October 1680. According to the pamphlet, the clergy in London allowed some time to pass before her conversion in order to test the sincerity of her desire, in the interim offering her protection at the home of a pastor.77 Eva’s decision to convert was not exceptional. Other Jews converted to Christianity in the early modern period, causing scandals and uproar in both the Jewish and Gentile communities.78 Though Eva did not return to Judaism after her conversion, the language she uses betrays the fact that she did not completely leave the Jewish fold either.79
4 The Education of a Wealthy Sephardic Girl
Little is known about the education and upbringing of girls in the Western Sephardic milieu in the early modern period. The story of Eva Cohen, however, offers an opportunity for a closer look at the rearing of a daughter in an elite Sephardic family. In the Portuguese community in the Dutch Republic, there were no official religious or secular educational institutions for girls. Sephardic girls from less fortunate families were thus often illiterate.80 Girls from well-to-do families, however, generally received private tutoring at home.81 Eva was taught to read, write, and speak Dutch and received instruction in the basic laws of Judaism. She also received private music lessons from a famous musician as noted above.
Portuguese girls like Eva were closely supervised. The statutes of the Amsterdam Portuguese community and various notarial deeds contain decisions limiting the freedoms of the community’s female members. They were to remain at home and were not to go out unaccompanied, not even to the synagogue, where they were explicitly prohibited from going in the evenings and early mornings with the exception of certain holidays.82 On visits to The Hague and Amsterdam, Eva was escorted by her siblings.
Despite the limitations placed on their movement by the communal religious authorities, the lifestyle of wealthy Sephardic women was unconstrained and privileged in other ways. The relatively tolerant society of which the Dutch Republic was an example, allowed Eva, a Jewess, freedom of movement, which enabled her contact with the wider world.83 Affluent Sephardic women were attended by servants in and outside of the home, including to and from the synagogue.84 When Eva traveled to Brussels in order to meet Michiel, a servant accompanied her and carried her baggage.85 Sephardic women were also known for their fashionable dress and lack of restraint in this regard, which the rabbis and communal elders often decried.86 Indeed, Eva was reported as wearing expensive clothing and jewelry at the inn in Brussels where she joined Michiel after she fled from home.87
5 Eva’s Letters
During the period of Eva’s stay in London, between the years 1680 and 1681, Eva and her mother exchanged a series of letters.88 Of the four surviving letters from Eva, two were written during the summer of 1680, before her conversion. While this correspondence makes clear that Rebecca intended to maintain contact with her daughter, it also appears that she sent Eva money in an attempt to lure her home.89 She used that tactic again in October 1684 before the verdict of the Supreme Court, when she transferred a monetary gift to Eva “out of motherly love and tenderness.”90
The language of Eva’s letters is ambiguous. On the one hand, she shows remorse for having caused her mother pain and expresses her love for her. Explaining that she acted out of desperation, she promises to be obedient91 and to return to the family and to her mother’s supervision.92 She does not relate to the events surrounding her running away, dismissing them as unimportant.93 On the other hand, without mentioning the name of Michiel Verboon, Eva tries to justify her desire to marry someone of a lower class by offering comparisons of a king’s daughter marrying a count and of a princess marrying a nobleman.94
The letters suggest that Eva is torn between her love for Verboon and loyalty toward her mother and family. She admits her joy at receiving her mother’s letters and writes of her great love for her siblings, especially for her sister, who was then around eight years old,95 and her brother Jacob,96 and of dreaming of her brother Joseph, who had died a few months before. In this respect, she apparently felt the growing isolation and alienation that could overcome converts on the verge of leaving behind a close-knit family and familiar environment.97
Eva’s efforts to soothe her mother,98 could have been part of a strategy intended to stop her mother from taking legal steps to disinherit her,99 and at the same time maintain her relationship with Verboon. Eva’s intention to convert is not addressed in her letters or in her mother’s. Perhaps her conversion is the “matters” she mentions in the letters, which, aware of the sensitivity of the subject, she cautiously prefers to discuss with her mother in person.
The letters between Eva and her mother were written in Dutch. Eva and Michiel Verboon must also have communicated in Dutch.100 From her letters we know that Eva was trying to learn English and had even hired a private teacher for that purpose soon after she arrived in London.101 In one of her letters, Eva uses the Hebrew terms “Poeriem” and “Vesalom,” but writes these in Latin characters.102 We cannot be certain whether she knew how to write Hebrew.
6 Michiel Verboon’s Motives
Michiel Verboon, a servant in the employ of Jacob Cohen, actively courted Eva Cohen, the sister of his wealthy master.103 He wrote her letters, brought her gifts, and sneaked visits with her in her home in Delft and on trips to The Hague.104 He insisted that he was in love with Eva.105 Rebecca’s mother, however, was convinced that Michiel’s interest was not Eva, but her fortune.106 Supporting her intuition were remarks of friends of Michiel interviewed for the trial. For example, on a trip from London to Rotterdam, Michiel had told his good friend Benjamin Torens that by courting Eva he tried to make his fortune. He told his colleague Jacobus Bradly likewise.107 He maintained that he was even willing to embrace the Jewish faith for such a purpose.108 He also said that he was waiting for Eva’s mother to die so he could cash in the inheritance.109
In an attempt to impress the Cohen Pallache family Michiel went so far as to devise a ruse involving a sick uncle on his deathbed who was about to leave him a fortune. While accompanying his master Jacob Cohen to the shiva for his and Eva’s brother Joseph at a Pallache family member’s home in Amsterdam, Michiel arranged for a servant to deliver a letter to him on behalf of this imaginary rich uncle. This make-believe uncle was summoning Michiel to his home in Voorburg in order to bestow upon him a large sum. Michiel asked his master for permission to leave in order to attend the signing of the last will. Michiel naively assumed that the Pallache Cohens would be impressed by his impending inheritance, and thereby increase his chances of marrying Eva.110 To people he met on his travels to Brussels and London, he claimed he worked as a cornet (officer in the army), producing as proof an orange scarf with silver fabric from his travel bag. He also showed off gold rings studded with diamonds and blue stones, apparently taken from, or given to him by, Eva.111
In many respects, Michiel was a simple dreamer and a highflyer, yet he was also stubborn and brave. Supported by his lover, he was ready to appeal his case to the highest court, though both he and Eva likely knew that their chances of success were relatively good.
7 The End of the Story
Eva Cohen and Michiel Verboon spent four years (1680–1684) battling for recognition of their relationship and for their marriage to be legalized, which it finally was following an appeal of the decision of the Hof van Holland to the Supreme Court of the Dutch Republic. In July 1684, the Supreme Court granted the couple the right to marry.112 Fearing an outcome where part of her family’s wealth would have to be surrendered to the servant, Rebecca Pallache took the unusual step of disinheriting her daughter already in 1682.113 She reiterated her decision in her last will just before she died in 1685, and justified her decision by citing her daughter’s repeated complaints and reproaches despite the fact that she had helped her by sending money to relieve her financial situation.114 In order to ensure that what happened with Eva will not be repeated, she further stipulated that should any of her other children marry without permission of the guardians she appointed to take over their care after her death, they would lose their inheritance as well.115 Her son Mordechay unsuccessfully tested this provision a few years later.116
Michiel and Eva lived in poverty.117 The couple eventually settled in England, but the exact location and date remain unknown. Michiel died around fifteen years after the verdict of the Supreme Court, apparently as a soldier, sometime in the 1690s, certainly before 1699. In that year, one Elisabeth Cohen widow of Michiel Verboon is mentioned in a deed before an Amsterdam notary, Mr. Pelgrom. Eva was remarried to one Francois van Spijck, and apparently was trying to extract some financial benefits from her father’s assets.118 Her whereabouts are still unclear at this point: did she live in Holland or England or elsewhere? Most likely, she lived in England: a document from 1720 from Chester, England deals with the inheritance of Elisabeth Verboon to be handed over to her daughter Catherine Verboon.119 We can assume then that Elisabeth Verboon, nee Eva Cohen died around that time.
The dispute surrounding Eva Cohen offers us an extraordinary opportunity to look behind the coulisses into Sephardic family life over the course of the seventeenth century. In this specific case, but which is applicable to quite a few other Sephardic families, connections to the organized Jewish community were not strongly fixed, social status was high on the agenda, and signs of integration into Dutch society were easily visible.
The study also exposes the motivations behind conversion at that time, which seem to have been a blend of religious, economic, social, and emotional parameters. Among the Portuguese Jews, the reaction to conversion to Christianity was vehement and harsh, and was even more so when it involved a well-to-do family that saw its wealth threatened, its Jewish heritage negated, and its Sephardic pride tarnished.
At the same time, the case offers an opportunity to gather new data on the neglected field of research into the status of women among the Dutch Sephardim in early modern times. It particularly highlights the position of the community’s young girls and widows, their background, education, and skills, their interactions within the family and with the world at large, and their ability to strike a path of their own despite obstacles on the way. The extraordinary documents that survive from this case, like the letters and interviews, offer rare insights into female emotions and expressions, all of which further our knowledge about the complexities of Sephardic identity in early modern times.
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BurnetGilbert. De ware bekeringe en violente vervolgingen van Eva Cohen nu genaemt Elisabeth. Zijnde een persoon van qualiteyt vande Joodsche gesintheyt geweest ende gewoont hebbend tot Delft; dewelke gedoopt is den 10. October 1680 in St. Martins Kerck des Coninghs Parochie van Whitehall door den seer Eerwaardieghen Heer William Floid bisschop van St. Asaph (no place; no date).
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