Costa, Isaäc da

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COSTA, ISAÄC DA (1798–1860), Dutch poet and writer. The precocious offspring of a distinguished Sephardi family in Amsterdam, Isaäc da Costa was brought up in the moderately Enlightened milieu that characterized the Portuguese Jewish elite of the early 19th century. In these circles much emphasis was put on the assimilation of Jews into Dutch society, and consequently Da Costa (at the early age of 13) became a member of Concordia Crescimus, a Jewish literary society. It testifies to his intellectual talents as well as to the incipient emancipation of Dutch Jewry in this period that, having obtained a higher education at the Amsterdam Atheneum, he went on to study law at the university of Leiden (1816–18). In the meantime, private tuition was provided by the Hebraist Moses *Lemans. It was Lemans who in 1813 first introduced Da Costa to the counterrevolutionary poet and philo-Judaist Willem Bilderdijk (1756–1831). In Leiden, where he attended Bilderdijk's idiosyncratic private lectures on history, Da Costa began to stress his identity as a Jew, albeit one of aristocratic ancestry. In the 1820s he expressly defended the (apparently common) belief that the Sephardim were superior by descent to the Ashkenazim. Moreover, since the Portuguese Jews had migrated to the Iberian Peninsula before the building of the Second Temple, they could not be reckoned as descendants of the Jews who had crucified Jesus. Perceiving the Enlightenment as a threat to his Jewishness, Da Costa's religious quest paradoxically resulted in his acceptance of a form of orthodox Calvinism in 1822. He shared Bilderdijk's strong interest in kabbalism and a chiliasm that focused on the second coming of Jesus Christ and the "national" conversion of the Jews. Thus, to him and to his wife, Hanna Belmonte (1800–1867), whom he had married in 1821, conversion to Christianity was both an alternative path to integration into Dutch society and a means of securing their identity as Jews. Da Costa soon became a prominent spokesman for the orthodox party within the Hervormde Kerk (Reformed Church). His Bezwaren tegen de geest der eeuw ("Grievances against the Spirit of the Times," 1823), in which he castigated contemporary Dutch society for what he regarded as its shallow liberalism, established his reputation as a disruptive controversialist. In the 1830s and 1840s, however, Da Costa concentrated on leading religious gatherings, editing periodicals, and giving private lectures on religious and historical topics. Although he had already achieved renown for his poetry, he began to be accepted as a Dutch poet of standing only after about 1840. His acclaim as a man of literature led to greater activity in public life. He developed an interest in the liberal constitution he had once rejected and labored for social and ecclesiastical reform. Da Costa always remained profoundly interested in the Jews. His Israël en de Volken (1848; translated as Israel and the Gentiles, 1850) is a history of the Jewish people from the biblical period to the middle of the 19th century, written from a Christian point of view. Many of Da Costa's poems have biblical themes. Of importance also are his studies of aristocratic Jewish families. Originally published in Navorscher (1857–59), they were reissued in English translation as Noble Families among the Sephardic Jews (1936).


O.W. Dubois, Een vriendschap in Réveilkring. De omgang tussen Isaäc da Costa en Willem de Clercq (1820–1844) (1997); G.J. Johannes, Isaäc da Costa. Dwaasheid, ijdelheid, verdoemenis! (1996); J. Meijer, Isaac da Costa's weg naar het Christendom. Bijdrage tot de geschiedenis der Joodsche problematiek in Nederland (1941); idem, Martelgang of cirkelgang. Isaac Da Costa als Joods romanticus (5715/1954); P.L. Schram, "Isaäc da Costa," in: Biografisch lexicon voor de geschiedenis van het protestantisme, 3 (1988), 85–88.

[Joris van Eijnatten (2nd ed.)]