"The Jews in the Age of Rembrandt," now at the Judaic Museum of the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington, 6125 Montrose Rd., Rockville, is an exhibition touched by extraordinary ordinariness. What makes its antique prints remarkable is what they do not show.
No sinister stereotypes leer from these old etchings, no Cossacks swing their sabers against the kidnapers of children and the poisoners of wells, no thick stone ghetto walls scar these old Dutch maps.
The Dutch Jews we encounter here perform no loathsome rites. They walk in bourgeois comfort along Amsterdam's canals, pet their dogs and gossip. The Rembrandt who portrays them -- in a dozen prints on view here -- seems less a mighty master than a kindly, curious neighbor. We mark his genius less than we do what Kenneth Clark once called "his rightly judging human heart." This show is free of fire. Mildly it celebrates a moment of prosperity, tolerance and peace.
Harvard professor Simon M. Schama, writing in the catalogue, sets its context nicely: "Michelangelo's Moses has horns; Rembrandt's does not. With this minor act of iconographical surgery, the image of the Jew was translated from the realm of monsters to the realm of men. In Dutch art, unlike any other Christian art before it, the Jew is re-admitted to the company of humanity."
He does not much stand out. He goes about his business. He poses for portraits. He wears the same broad collars and dark cloaks preferred by his Christian countrymen. His houses, if he's rich, are comparably palatial, his carriages fine. Humanist, anti-Catholic 17th-century Amsterdam was the first metropolis in Christendom to treat its Jewish citizens much like other men.
Much but not quite. Amsterdam might have been, for Jews, a haven of tolerance -- but only in comparison with other cities of the time. Its Jews were few in number (in 1672 they numbered only 7,500, 1 1/2 percent of the city's population). They were relatively literate and relatively rich. But the guilds remained closed to them, and all sexual liaisons between Jewish males and Christian females (but not the other way about) were against the city's laws.
Many of these prints show their synagogues, their neighborhoods, their graveyards and their homes. A number show their faces. Among the worthies we encounter here are Isaac Aboab Da Fonseca, who sailed to Brazil in 1641 to become the first rabbi in the Americas; the humanist philosopher Spinoza, who was excommunicated ("cursed by day and cursed by night; cursed when he goes forth and cursed when he comes in") by his co-religionists in 1656; and Mennaseh Ben Israel, the great Rembrandt's friend.
Ben Israel was a scholar, a diplomat, a rabbi and a publisher. In 1655 he published a small book, the "Piedra Gloriosa," for which Rembrandt did four small, highly original, strangely anti-academic etchings. They show scenes from the Bible -- Jacob's Ladder, the statue seen by Nebuchadnezzar, David and Goliath, the Vision of Ezekiel. So do many other works by lesser masters -- Jan van Vliet, Anthonie Waterloo, Ferdinand Bol and Pieter Lastman -- included in this show.
Neither Bol's understandably frightened Abraham, nor Lastman's aroused Judah looks particularly Jewish. Of the 17th-century Dutch masters, only Rembrandt -- who portrays in his Bible scenes his Jewish friends and neighbors -- seems to link the Jews of the Book with the Jews of the Street. Without his dozen pictures here, this show would lose its heart.
It was organized, to mark the Netherlands-American diplomatic bicentennial, by Ruth E. Levine and Susan W. Morgenstein. They've done a first-rate job. Their catalogue is excellent, Schama's essay is superb. "The Jews in the Age of Rembrandt" will travel after closing at the Judaic Museum on Jan. 10.