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History, Herstory, Ourstory: Asser Levy in New Amsterdam

October 5, 2013
by Leo Hershkowitz ase3Who were the first Jews to arrive in New Amsterdam (New York)? The answer, repeated endlessly and deeply embedded in history, is that twenty-three individuals, “big and little” having been forced to leave Brazil after the Portuguese conquest in 1654,found their way to the Dutch settlement and so “established” the first Jewish presence in the area. These “founders” were Sephardim, of a proud heritage. However, the story needs a good deal of revision. In late summer, 1654 two ships sailed into New Amsterdam’s harbor. One, the Peartree (Peereboom) arrived from Amsterdam on or about August 22. Among those who disembarked were Jacob Barsimon and probably two other Jews, Asser Levy and Solomon Pieterson. All three were members of the prosperous and tolerant Dutch Republic. They were also Ashkenazim, and the first Jews to set foot in the Dutch settlement. With them begins the history of the Jewish community in New York. For the “twenty-three” aboard the Saint Catrina, which left the West Indies to arrive about September 7, 1654, New Amsterdam was not their original choice, and none of these “founders” remained in New Amsterdam. All were gone after a few years. If there were a “Founding Father,” it would be Asser Levy. He fought to become a citizen (burgher), bought and sold property, engaged in trade, worked as a butcher, and lived and died (1682) in New York. Originally from Eastern Europe, he became a prominent member of the community, and his name and accomplishments became very much a part of the story of New York. Asser LEvyThere are many intriguing questions concerning Levy. For example, he sometimes signed his name as “Asser Levy van Schwelum.” This appears to be a reference to Schwelum in Westphalia, near Dusseldorf, Germany. Levy made at least one trip there in 1660. Why? He also is known as “Asser Wilde.” Again, in 1660, while he was in Amsterdam, his signature, written in excellent Hebrew, reads, in translation, “attested to by Asser, the son of our master and teacher Rabbi and teacher Judah Leib of blessed memory who is of Vilna.” Surely, Asser was from Vilna, then in Poland — which, perhaps, to a Dutch clerk, sounded like Wilde? Interestingly, his sister Rachel married Simon Vanderwilde. Was Simon also from Vilna? The indescribable horrors committed from 1648 to 1658 by Chemelniki Cossacks and their allies against Jews of Eastern Europe, including those of Vilna, caused the death of at least 100,000 people. Survivors fled to other parts of Europe, including Amsterdam. It seems likely Levy was one of the refugees fleeing the frightful pogroms of the time. Asser Wilde, Asser van Schwelum — perhaps the answers are to be found in relevant Dutch, German, or Polish archive. The Levy story awaits inquiry and discovery. It is a voyage worth undertaking. Surely, Asser Levy would agree. Leo Hershkowitz is a professor emeritus of history at Queens College. He is the author of Tweed’s New York: Another Look (Anchor Press) and the co-editor of Wills of Early New York Jews, 1704-1799 (American Jewish Historical Society).