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Asser Levy

It’s seven months late, but we shouldn’t let 2007 pass without noting that it marks a milestone in American Jewish history. Although the first Jews came to New Amsterdam in 1654, it wasn’t until three years later that one of them, Asser Levy, was accorded the rights and status of a burgher, or citizen, of the colony. This year, then, marks the 350th anniversary, not just of the Jewish arrival in a new land, certainly something that had happened many times in the past, but of a much more meaningful passage: into nascent citizenhood, civil protection, and permanence of the Jewish presence in the New World.

Levy, all but forgotten today, was one of 23 Jews who arrived on September 7, 1654 on the bark St. Charles, carrying refugees fleeing Dutch Brazil, which had just been retaken by the Portuguese. Not wanting to run the risk of the New World’s Inquisition, having already escaped the Old World’s, the Jews were on their way back to Holland, where Levy apparently was from originally (his full surname was Levy van Swellem). Captured by pirates and rescued by a French privateer, the penniless Jews were brought to New Amsterdam, where Peter Stuyvesant immediately tried to have them expelled. The Directors of the Dutch West India Company, so the story goes, refused Stuyvesant’s demand, not out of mercy, but because many wealthy Dutch Jews were stockholders in the Company. (This was a lesson not lost on the new Jewish settlers about the importance of self-interest and property.)

The real test, however, started the following year, when Levy, a trader, petitioned to stand guard in the colony, one of the marks of being a burgher. Stuyvesant had excluded Jews from this privilege, and added injury to insult by fining them monthly for their exemption. Levy’s initial petition was rejected, but records later indicate he was permitted to do guard-duty. Soon after, Levy found his ability to trade goods limited by a decree that a “burgher right” was required. He duly petitioned, and after again being denied, appealed to the Company’s Director General. On April 21, 1657, a decree was issued that Jews in New Amsterdam should be admitted as burghers, equal in rights to the Dutch (though they were not allowed to form a religious congregation until nearly a century later). Seven years later, when the English took over New Amsterdam, the civil rights of Jews were upheld.

Levy was a trailblazer, and it is a shame he has been forgotten by those who owe him much. It appears he was the first licensed Jewish butcher (and a kosher one, at that, being exempted from killing hogs) and tavern owner, not to mention litigant in scores of cases. More importantly, Levy was likely the first Jew to own property in America, first in Albany, in 1661, and the following year in New Amsterdam itself, on what is now South William Street (just a stone’s throw from the headquarters of Goldman Sachs, appropriately). But it was Levy’s fight for citizenship 350 years ago that truly marked the beginnings of Jewish settlement in America, which is a date worth celebrating.


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