Tribute to Disappearing Jews of Friesland

Even Yiddish Is Different in Once-Thriving Dutch Region

Few Jews: The provincial Dutch capital of Leeuwarden once had a thriving Jewish community. No more.
getty images
Few Jews: The provincial Dutch capital of Leeuwarden once had a thriving Jewish community. No more.

By JTA

Published September 04, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

When Jacob Nathan de Leeuwe found himself returning nearly two decades ago from his home in a suburb of Amsterdam to this isolated idyll he calls “the end of the world,” it undoubtedly was the pull of his roots.

De Leeuwe’s family had lived in this semi-autonomous region in the northern Netherlands known as Friesland for 200 years, and a unique Jewish community with its own customs, traditions and even language had thrived here. His mother was raised in Leeuwarden, Friesland’s capital, among 1,500 Jews concentrated in a Jewish quarter that had several kosher butcher shops, a kosher cafe and a Jewish education network going from kindergarten to high school.

But then the Nazis came and the Friesland community was wiped out. Today only 50 or so Jews remain in Leeuwarden among the approximately 650,000 people living in the region.

Five years ago, De Leeuwe began focusing on another aspect of his roots, the Talmud, which he started to painstakingly translate into Dutch. This summer he reached the first milestone in his work, completing the translation of the first tractate, Brachot, in nine annotated volumes.

De Leeuwe says that though the Jewish population here is minuscule, Friesland is a fitting place for such work.

Writing here, he says, is a form of “tikkun,” repair: He would produce the world’s first annotated Dutch translation of the Talmud in the place that the Nazis had tried to destroy his family and his people.

In the introduction to his recently completed translation, de Leeuwe mentions the “enemies” of the Jewish people but refuses to use the word Nazis. “I wasn’t going to give the Nazis the honor of being mentioned in Talmudic text,” he tells JTA.

“A thousand years from now,” he says, “this book will still say that, despite how the Germans tried to wipe out the Jewish people, we prevailed.”

The first two volumes of his translation took the most work, says De Leeuwe, a doctor and former cantor who used to teach Talmud classes while living elsewhere in the Netherlands. “I’m able to work much faster now,” he says. He hopes to finish two additional tractates by Passover.

Judaica collectors, libraries and others have bought about 300 copies of each volume, according to de Leeuwe.

Before the war, Leeuwarden’s Jewish community was the largest in Friesland – a province with its own flag and language, Frisian. It is the Netherlands’ only official language besides Dutch. Despite being the kingdom’s third largest province, Friesland also is one of the country’s least populated regions.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • Mazel tov to Chelsea Clinton and Marc Mezvinsky!
  • If it's true, it's pretty terrifying news.
  • “My mom went to cook at the White House and all I got was this tiny piece of leftover raspberry ganache."
  • Planning on catching "Fading Gigolo" this weekend? Read our review.
  • A new initiative will spend $300 million a year towards strengthening Israel's relationship with the Diaspora. http://jd.fo/q3Iaj Is this money spent wisely?
  • Lusia Horowitz left pre-state Israel to fight fascism in Spain — and wound up being captured by the Nazis and sent to die at Auschwitz. Share her remarkable story — told in her letters.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.