Thursday, January 14, 2010

Who Was Asser Levy

I remember, as a child,driving around with my dad throughout New York City. To be honest, I really can't remember what we were doing or where we were coming from. But I do specifically remember a certain route he always took to get to the FDR Drive. My dad would drive east along 23rd Street then take a left on to the FDR Drive service road which he would take to the highway. There was always a street along the way that always caught my eye. The name of that street was Asser Levy Place. I always wondered who Asser Levy was. Well, here he is.

Asser Levy's fate was intertwined with that of the Quakers who I had mentioned in a previous post on the Flushing Remonstrance of 12/27/1657. How are they related you may ask. Well, in the same way that the Dutch Director-General of New Amsterdam Peter Stuyvesant opposed the Quakers in the New Amsterdam colony, Stuyvesant opposed the Jews. But before I get to the religious conflict in New Amsterdam, allow me to shed some light on another conflict concerning another Dutch colony: Nieuw Holland (Dutch Brazil).

The colony of Nieuw Holland was located along parts of Northeastern and East of current day Brazil. Settled by the Dutch West India Company the colony was one that promoted religious tolerance since the aim of the colony (as those of the other Dutch West India Colonies) was to make money. This religious tolerance attracted a large number of Jews, especially Sephardic Jews (those from Spain) to the area. To highlight how the Jewish population settled in the area, it is believed that The Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue is the oldest Synagogue in the of the Americas, located in the town of Recife. This Reuters article from offers more information on the Kahal Zur Israel Synagogue. Click here.

Relative peace lasted in the area until it was taken over by the Portuguese in January of 1654. A final treaty was signed on August 6, 1661 giving Portugal total control of the former Dutch colonies in Brazil. Click here for more information on the Treaty of the Hague 1661. The thought of the Catholic Portuguese taking over brought back images of religious persecution and violence against the Jews. This caused a small number of Jewish citizens to flee from Nieuw Holland. The Jews boarded a ship called the Sainte Catherine which was headed to the Dutch colony of Nieuw Amsterdam.

You would think that going from one Dutch colony to another would be an easy transition. Unfortunately for the Jewish refugees, the colony that they would arrive to on September 1654 was controlled by Peter Stuyvesant, a fiercely religious member of the Dutch Reformed Church. A group of the size that made up the Jewish refugees (23 in total) needed permission from the local authorities to take up residence. Stuyvesant refused, echoing many of the Anti-Semitic rhetoric that would be heard centuries later to describe the Jews: Usury, Deceitful, Infectious, Blasphemers of the name of Christ to name a few. Since Stuyvesant needed approval from his superiors in Amsterdam, he sent his objections to the Jewish refugees in writing. Not willing to remain passive, the Jews also sent their own letter to Amsterdam. They directed their request to remain in Nieuw Amsterdam to the Jewish community of Amsterdam.

The Jewish community enjoyed religious and economic freedom in Amsterdam and used their influence in Amsterdam to file a petition to the Dutch West India Company. It should be noted, that many a shareholder in the Dutch West India Company was Jewish who made his or her profits engaging in trade under the Dutch banner throughout the world.

As how it would be repeated with the Quakers, the Dutch West India Company went against its Director-General Stuyvesant and decreed that the Jewish refugees could travel in and out of Nieuw Amsterdam, engage in trade and live in the colony. These rights came with restrictions:

- The Jews could not train with the guard or militia. A special tax would replace military service by the Jews
- Barred from trading outside the colony
- Barred from building permanent houses and symbols of their faith
- The Jews must care for their own poor. The poor Jews would not be wards of the colony

Stuyvesant used all the force at his disposal to enforce the rules the company placed on the Jewish refugees. So, how does Asser Levy fit into this whole scenario.

By 1655, Levy became the most prominent member of the Jewish refugees in Nieuw Amsterdam and continued the fight for freedom in the colony. Through his efforts, the restrictions placed against the refugees by the Dutch West India Company were lifted:

- The Jews could now join the militia and not have to pay the special tax
- They were allowed to trade within the Hudson and Delaware Valleys
- They were allowed to build houses and places of worship, which they did so along Whitehall Street

Asser Levy's efforts earned the Jews the right to citizenship in 1657 allowing them full rights as burghers within the colony. These 23 Jewish refugees from Nieuw Holland would become the first permanent Jewish settlement in North America. As for Asser Levy he would go on to become New York's first kosher butcher ands a founding member of Shearith Israel, the country’s first Jewish congregation. The street to the west of the recreation center bearing his name was named after Levy by local law in 1954. What's ironic is that the playground and recreation center which bears Asser Levy's name is only a short block from the housing complex that bears the name of Peter Stuyvesant (Stuyvesant town). To see the area on Google Maps, Click Here. Even along the city streets of modern day New York, they are not that far from each other.

For Further Reading:

Hasia R. Diner The Jews of the United States, 1654-2000 (Berkeley, University of California Press, 2004);

Russell R. Shorto The Island at the Center of the World (New York, Vintage Books, 2005)

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