This Thanksgiving, Thank God You’re American: The Tale of Asser Levy, New Amsterdam Jew, 1654

This Thanksgiving, Thank God You’re American: The Tale of Asser Levy, New Amsterdam Jew, 1654

by Rabbi David Hartley Mark


Sholom Aleichem, Stranger! My name is Asser, Asser Levy, of—so many places! First Spain, then Holland; Brazil after, and now, America. And you know, something about you made me take you for a Jew. Keep your voice down; Governor Pieter Stuyvesant’s spies are everywhere—not unlike the Inquisition, which I, and belike yourself, escaped. Never mind: come inside—the winds blow coldly across Mannahatta Bay at this time of year, and my missus will prepare a cup of hot tea to warm your bones—(shouts) Gertruida, my dear! Tea, for our guest!

How did I know that you are Jewish? I will tell you this: my old father, God rest his soul, would tell me from an early age that we Jews appear—different from other folk. Not that I wish any harm to the gentiles, regardless of what they may think of me. And, to speak truth, my gentile neighbors and I have worked together to build this little piece of Holland, here in the New World. I consider most of them to be friends. Ha! (laughs bitterly) Even those who denigrate our kind for being usurers and blasphemers of their Saviour’s Name, are first at my door when I butcher a cow or goat, and my dear wife, Gertruida, cooks her famous stew. The delicious smell permeates the neighborhood!

There are, indeed, dangers: plague, Indians, and even nature, which plots against us, especially in the winter. I cannot remember such a cold, or so much snow, in Old Holland, let alone in Spain. We huddle together beneath bearskin blankets and wait for spring to arrive.

How is life here? The Dutch people are fair enough: some better, some worse than others. I have found that most Jew-hatred stems from ignorance, and fight it by being, simply, the best human being I can be. It seems to work—that, as well as there simply not being very many of us here. That fool (whispering), Governor Stuyvesant, only grudgingly accepted our twenty-four Jews to enter his colony. It’s not his—it’s the property of the Dutch West Indian Company! After the French captain tossed us off the ship like trash, after the riskiest voyage of our lives, we huddled on the dock like water rats. Imagine: first, escaping Brazil when the Portuguese Navy—with those devil-priests of the Inquisition undoubtedly on board—suddenly appeared in Pernambuco Bay.

We narrowly escaped, on a French ship, the Sint Catrina, whose thieving captain, one Jaques de la Mothe, thought we were rich—are not all Jews rich? He was disappointed in our poverty, and we were disappointed in his seamanship—my little boy Solomon could have escaped the pirates that attacked us, but de la Mothe panicked and ran up a white flag. We losteverything! Still, I thank God that we are all alive and well, except Isaac Carmiel, who was so fearful of the pirates, that he leapt overboard and was eaten by sharks. No great loss: he was a drunkard and cheated at dice;he defamed the Name of God.

As for Stuyvesant—pah! (spits on the ground) I have met Jew-haters before, but he is paramount. He first refused to let us Jews into the colony—does he think that Europeans are flocking to this icy, godforsaken place? He wrote to the Board of Directors of the West Indian Company—and so did we. Luckily, the Company ordered him to allow us entrance—there are a number of Jews on the Board, and still more own shares in the Company. Ha! Still, Stuyvesant has spurned our every petition for equality—he refuses to let us build our own houses, construct a synagogue, open various shops—I am a skilled butcher; my friend Jacob Barsimson is a baker—or even join the town guard, despite the ongoing danger of Indian attack.

The first time that Jacob and I presented his Governorship with a petition, Peg-leg Peter presented his most frightening mien—he is a tall man, of muscular build—well, he has been a soldier for most of his life. He roared at us, shook his fists, and whacked his silver-headed walking-stick on his desk—so hard, we were surprised it did not break. Of course, he knew nothing about what he was speaking—stuff and nonsense about how we were all on welfare. We waited for him to take a breath, and then explained, politely, that, as former Spanish subjects and current Dutch burgher-citizens, we are entitled to the same civil rights as any other Dutchman. Never mind: another letter to the Board, another petition to the Court—it all builds our position here in New Amsterdam, little by little. Not to be disloyal, but (whispering) my friend Chaim Henriques saw a small sloop with the British Union Jack scouting our coast, just t’other day—we suspect that the English may be planning to take over our little colony, and soon.

Must you leave so soon, Stranger? Ah, you are headed north, to Massachusetts? Is that a good idea? After all, neither Puritans nor Pilgrims are, despite their love of Scripture, particularly fond of us folks who wrote it. Sit, stay a while! I have a little jug of rum in the cupboard for emergencies, and, with the snow falling outside, this seems as good an emergency as any—Sit! Gertruida—fetch those wooden cups, and join us for a nip of toddy!

Nothing like rum for thickening the blood. A question? About me? Ah, but Friend, I am but a simple butcher, an American—dare I say it?—who happens to be Jewish. Why do I fight so hard against that petty tyrant, that old Peg-Leg (He teases up his hair to cover his Royal Baldness, too, he does; my Gertruida does laundry for his missus, and they talk), that rotten excuse for a Governor? Because I want—I want—(drinks) to see our people free. Yes: free, in this New World. There is room here enow for Jews, Christians, agnostic, atheists—yes, and Blacks and Indians, too! All free. You ask, and I answer: that is all I want, and I will spend my life fighting for it. Drink, Stranger—l’chaim!

Asser Levy, among the first twenty-four Jews to enter the New World, never hesitated to fight for his rights as an immigrant to New Amsterdam. An Ashkenazi, rather than a Sephardic Jew, he tirelessly petitioned the governor to allow the Jews to participate in the Town Guard, rather than pay the “Jew Tax” customary in Europe. This succeeded, but Jews were not allowed to run for public office until Francis Salvador of SC in 1775, who later died in the Revolution. The Jews never did get their synagogue during Levy’s lifetime; Cong. Shearith Israel (The Remnant of Israel) was not built until 1730, long after Levy’s passing. (A Jewish Cemetery was founded in 1756, however; death was a near and frequent visitor, regardless of religion.) Levy did, eventually, get his butcher shop, on the understanding that he was not allowed to dispatch pigs. He is buried in an unknown grave, but both a public school and a public park in NYC bear his name.

Rabbi David Hartley Mark is from New York City’s Lower East Side. He attended Yeshiva University, the City University of NY Graduate Center for English Literature, and received semicha at the Academy for Jewish Religion. He currently teaches English at Everglades University in Boca Raton, FL, and has a Shabbat pulpit at Temple Sholom of Pompano Beach. His literary tastes run to Isaac Bashevis Singer, Stephen King, King David, Kohelet, Christopher Marlowe, and the Harlem Renaissance.

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