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Descendants of U.S. immigrant rabbi reconnect with ancestral Leeuwarden

After an absence of nearly 200 years


Tags: Excerpts from the Windmill

LEEUWARDEN "So here walked the father of the father of my father." This muttering was one of a number expressing awe and surprise as nineteen of the descendants of Leeuwarden-born rabbi Samuel Isaacs walked towards the door of their ancestral home at Kleine Kerkstraat 32, the one that the Isaacs closed behind them nearly two centuries ago when they left for London, England. Their ancestor Samuel, one of the ten children of merchant-banker Myer Samuel Isaacs (Isaks) and his wife Rebecca, is the towering figure who organized the Jewish community in North America in the mid-1800s.

The nineteen Isaacs' descendents and their guide Peter de Haan, an official with the Province of Friesland, were welcomed at the former Isaacs home by current residents Peter de Boer and Maaike van Gils for a tour of the place and many new impressions. With media reporters looking on, the Isaacs reunion attendees discovered that contrary to expectations, the house is not small at all, with plenty of light.

The party, which was made up from attendees living in the U.S.A., the U.K. and South Africa, learnt all about the home during the tour. They were told that it was built during the 1590s, that Meyer Samuel Isaacs, who likely hailed from Prussia, paid 2,305 guilders for it but sold it at a loss shortly after the country was liberated from the French occupation, when the Dutch economy was in its post-Napoleonic ruins.

First registered Jews

In addition, the Isaacs reunion party received a crash course in Leeuwarden and Jewish local history from Peter de Haan, who said that the city's first registered Jews were probably refugees from Spain and Portugal, settling there as far back as the 1640s, followed by others from countries such as Poland and Russia. Currently, there are only about 40 orthodox Jews living in the city. A former Westerbork camp survivor shared the Holocaust story with the visitors.

A walk through the area around the Kleine Kerkstraat and the Bollemanssteeg, an earlier location that the Isaacs called home, showed the reunion attendees the cityscape their ancestors would have been familiar with, including the former synagogue on the Slotmakersstraat, now the site of a dance school. The use of the building generated a lively discussion since orthodox Jews would have had a dim view of such activity.

Plaque

The Isaacs, who were joined via Internet by others living in New Zealand and Israel, may be installing a Myer Samuel Isaacs plaque at their ancestral home, an idea embraced by the current residents, and also discussed other memorial ideas to reconfirm the ancestral connection, for every passersby to see.

In London, Myer Samuel Isaacs became a rabbi with four of his five sons following in his footsteps. In 1839, son Samuel Myer Isaacs took a call to New York where he emerged as an eloquent defender of orthodox Judaism and a Jewish community organizer. As detailed in Robert Swierenga's book The Forerunners, Dutch Jewry in the North American Diaspora, many Jewish pioneers in the early decades of the nineteenth century were originally from the Netherlands, often via England.

It was during a NYC 400 event that Friesland official Peter de Haan suggested that reunion organizer John Isaacs consider holding his next reunion in Leeuwarden. The Isaacs, who still have many family-history loose ends to sort out, are happy they did.