Leeuwarden, Netherlands — 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.