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Asser Levy.

This year is the 338th anniversary of the arrival of the first Jews in North America; in early September, 1654, a small party of twenty-three Jewish refugees from Recife, Northern Brazil, landed in Manhattan. In January of that year they had left South America in a small fleet of sixteen ships to return to Holland after the Portuguese had reconquered their former colony in northern Brazil, seized by the Dutch a quarter of a century previously. On their way to the other side of the ocean, pirates had attacked one of the ships, the passengers being taken prisoner and robbed of their belongings. It must have been providential that a French privateer, the St. Charles, bound for the Hudson Bay, had been able to rescue them and put them ashore at the Dutch settlement of New Amsterdam, where they thus had arrived through force of circumstances. The party consisted of mainly Sephardic Jews, with one Ashkenazi amongst them, a burgher of Amsterdam, Asser Levy van Swellem, who has gone down in American history as merely Asser Levy. Much has been written about this pioneer and Founding Father of American Jewry, but some further details of his life and background are mentioned in the unpublished chronicles and genealogy of my own family, since Asser Levy van Swellen is one of my ancestors.

It appears that the whole family originates from the town of Schwelm in Westphalia (Germany), from where two brothers, Elchanan and Jacob, moved to Frankfurt on Main in the year 1530. As was the custom in those days, Elchanan adopted the name of the town he came from, "Schwelm," as his surname. His brother, Jacob, being an itinerant printer of Hebrew by trade, left Frankfurt for Italy where his two sons, Asscher and Meir, set up a press in the town of Parenzo, near Venice, and became well known in the middle of the sixteenth century as printers of Hebrew works. Their printer's mark showed a Menorah with the name "Parenzo" in Hebrew, which could equally be pronounced as "Prins," and this became henceforth the surname of this branch of the family. Meir's grandson, Isaac Prins (b. 1620), settled in Holland in the year 1640, this writer being his seventh generation direct descendant.

Elchanan Schwelm's grandson, Lob (d. 1632), had a son, named Asscher, born in Frankfurt on Main, who also moved to Amsterdam in his early youth, where he "Dutchified" his name from Asscher Ben Lob (= Levy) Schwelm to Asser Levy van Swellem. His family in Frankfurt were well-to-do merchants at the time, and Asser did equally well in Amsterdam - so much so, that he was soon able to purchase the so-called Poortersbrief which made him a registered burgher of the city.

The early seventeenth century was the period of the young Dutch Republic's Golden Age, and Amsterdam was perhaps the most important trading center in the world. It could thus be expected that from Amsterdam the recently established Portuguese Sephardic Community would strengthen business ties with their kinsmen in the colony in Brazil, which the Dutch had conquered from the Portuguese in 1625, and in which many Marrano families settled after the forced mass conversion of Jews in Portugal in 1497. Quite a number of them became owners of prosperous sugar plantations, while others became exporters of Brazilian timber.

Due to the tolerant Dutch attitude towards freedom of worship, the greater part of the settled Marrano families chose to revert to an open Jewish life-style and, assisted by the Amsterdam Sephardic Congregation, established their Congregation in the newly acquired Dutch colony, the Kahal Kadosh (Holy Congregation) Zur Yisroel in Recife, where a synagogue was already in use by the year 1636. It immediately became a thriving community, able to attract a spiritual leader in the person of the famous Rabbi Isaac Aboab da Fonseca from Amsterdam. He became their "Hakham" (Sephardic Rabbi) in the year 1642, and is thus considered to be the first officiating Rabbi in the Americas.

The close links between the Jewish community of Recife with its Amsterdam counterpart induced a number of Jews from the latter city to expand their trading interests to the new Dutch colony by taking up residence there. Asser Levy was one of them, probably travelling in the same ship as the newly appointed Rabbi.

The Portuguese, intent to retake possession of the lost colony, had meanwhile received some military re-inforcements from the mother country in Europe, which enabled them to start a series of counter-attacks on Recife and even to besiege the town. Living conditions in the colony worsened, and the situation deteriorated to such an extent that the local Dutch authorities called for a military civil defence force, which included a separate unit entirely composed of Jews, who were exempted from guard duties on Sabbath and Jewish holidays. It was this unit that excelled in a fierce battle against the Portuguese in 1646. The enemy's attack was repelled - not, however, without having inflicted severe casualties among the Jewish defenders of the town.

When reports of this heroic battle reached Holland, the Dutch authorities instructed the Governor at Recife to express their sincere thanks to all Jews of the territory for the bravery and assistance shown in the defence of Dutch interests, adding that the Governor "look after them and see to it that under no circumstances should henceforth any differentiation be made between them and the other residents of the colony." It is this letter of thanks that makes some Dutch historians claim that the heroic behavior of the Jewish military unit in the defence of the Dutch colony ensured for evermore the equal status of Jews in the Netherlands and territories.

Once arrived in New Amsterdam, Asser Levy and his party soon discovered that the local Dutch official attitude towards Jews was completely different from what they had experienced in the former Dutch Brazilian colony. The Governor of the territory, Peter Stuyvesant, a difficult and dictatorial person who looked askance at anybody who was not a Calvinist, particularly Jews and Lutherans, rejected the refugees' petition to stay in the young American colony.

Asser Levy must have been well aware of the fact that this refusal did not agree with the official Dutch attitude as expressed in the aforesaid letter of thanks, the contents of which had been widely publicized among Jewry in the Brazilian colony. He thus did not lose any time in referring the matter to the Sephardic Congregation of Amsterdam with a request to intervene.

Shortly thereafter, in January, 1655, the Directors of the Dutch West India Company (W.I.C.) received a petition from "the Jewish Nation of Amsterdam," humbly requesting them to grant the right of permanent settlement to all Jews entering the new American colony. With a few words in the margin of this request, the W.I.C. laid the foundation of the first Jewish community in New Amsterdam.

Permission is granted that they can live and trade in the territory

provided they do not become a charge to the Dutch Church or the W.I.


In their letter to Peter Stuyvesant, the Directors of the W.I.C. censured his negative attitude, admitting, however, that, they were not overfond of Jews either, but since they had invested in the Company and, moreover, had taken a prominent part in the defence of the colony in Brazil, it would be unfair not to admit them into another Dutch colony.

During the course of the same year a trade-war broke out between the Dutch Republic and Sweden, whereupon Peter Stuyvesant received instructions to remove a Swedish settlement from the Delaware River (where Newcastle now stands). For this purpose, an army was needed. A local conscription list was duly drawn up, which excluded Jews on the ground that they were barred from carrying arms. Nevertheless, those exempted from military duties would be made liable to the payment of a special monthly tax. Asser Levy and his friends refused to pay this on the ground that they had offered their services in good faith, since they had performed these same duties in the former Dutch Brazilian colony. They thus formally requested the local authorities to be allowed to perform guard duties and have the special tax abolished. This request was turned down with the remark that unless they would abide by the existing laws they would have to leave the territory. It was Levy who again appealed directly to the Headquarters of the W.I.C. in Amsterdam to have this latest decision reversed. To the chagrin of Stuyvesant, Levy's appeal was allowed and the Governor was again reprimanded. Nevertheless, the battle against discrimination was by no means over.

Sometime in the year 1656, Asser Levy, keen businessman that he was, wished to extend his activities to the Port Oranje (Albany) region, but Stuyvesant banned Jews from having business dealings in that part of the colony. Quite unperturbed and confident, Levy once more asked Holland to intervene. The outcome was that the ruling was declared invalid. This decision enabled Levy to proceed with his business development in the district, where he became the first authorized butcher in Albany.

In March, 1657, a local court ruled that only full burghers of the Colony could become entitled to certain specific trade privileges. Since Jews were not considered to belong to that category, Levy immediately produced his original Amsterdam-issued Poortersbrief showing him to be a registered burgher of Amsterdam, simultaneously mentioning that he had done his military service in common with the other local burghers of the colony. His protests were of no avail, and the court persisted in its refusal to grant these trade privileges to any Jews. This time he did not refer the matter to Holland, but, the day following the refusal, he remonstrated directly with the Governor, demanding that the court's ruling be set aside.

With the various reprimands perhaps still rankling in his mind, Peter Stuyvesant gave in, at last. Only a few days later, on the 21st of April, 1657, the memorable Decree was published that entitled Jews in the New Netherlands to become eligible for full citizenship in the colony. The clashes between the forceful Asser Levy and the antagonistic Peter Stuyvesant had come to an end at last. Jews had obtained equal status in the young American colony, auguring well for the happiness of American Jewry of the future.

Stuyvesant had become a disillusioned man. He was well aware that he was unpopular with this superiors in Holland, due to his pomposity and dictatorial attitude. Though he had proved to be a most able civil servant, the W.I.C. Board had been at loggerheads with him on numerous occasions in the past. It must be admitted, however, that Stuyvesant ably managed and promoted the extension of the acquired North American territory, which he governed until it had to be ceded to the British in the year 1664, when he was recalled to Holland. He retired there for a short while, but returned to New Amsterdam (meanwhile renamed New York.) in a private capacity to spend his last years on his farm (Dutch: "Bouwery"), situated on the lower tip of Manhattan, where he died in 1672. He was buried beneath the chapel on his farm, nowadays the site of St. Mark's in-the-Bouwerie Church.

Meanwhile, Asser Levy, now a full citizen of the colony, had been able to extend his various business interests without further interference. The records of the Dutch Archives in the Netherlands show him as a buyer of real estate in Albany in 1661, also becoming the first Jewish landowner in New Amsterdam, soon to be renamed New York. His many transactions in that city commenced with the purchase of land in June, 1662, when he bought some plots in the Zuid Willemstraat (South William Street), followed in 1678 by the building of an abattoir on a site where Wall Street now stands. He also became the owner of a then well known inn in the district. Within a period of ten years from his arrival he had managed to become one of the most prosperous businessmen in the colony. When the local Council required funds towards the erection of defence-works against the British, Levy was the only Jew who responded, with a contribution of one hundred guilders. The records of the year 1671 show him also lending money towards the building of the first Lutheran church in New York.

An accurate picture of Asser Levy's mentality and character may be drawn from the study of the large number of lawsuits that he was involved in. His name appears in numerous suits as the plaintiff, but only in one or two as the defendant. He always argued his own cases, and the records show him to be the winning party in most of them. The conclusion might be drawn from a number of these suits that Levy was a headstrong and very argumentative person and perhaps overfond of litigation - all traits which might have made him unpopular. Nothing could be further from the truth. Many records show that the non-Jewish business fraternity, as far north as New England, put the utmost trust in him. Not only was he called to act as a mediator in a number of Gentile business disputes, but several non-Jewish merchants even made him executor of their estates. Nor was his influence limited to the state of New York. In a court case in Connecticut, where he appeared as a witness to plead for the remission of a fine imposed on a fellow-Jew, the judge acquiesced with the following words: "This is done out of respect to the heretofore mentioned Asser Levy."

Asser Levy van Swellen died in the year 1682, leaving a considerable estate.

It would appear to be rather difficult to determine an ancestor's character three centuries later, but, if one believes in the theory of genealogically determined character formation, then this writer recognizes Asser Levy's positive qualities in a number of his twentieth century's blood-relations, to wit, his great concern for social justice, his sense of leadership and other positive character traits, though admittedly also quite a few negative ones.

So far as the Jew, Asser Levy, is concerned, it must not be overlooked that he was perhaps the only Ashkenazi amongst the Sephardic Jews in the young American colony, the latter being practically all ex-Marranos and first generation residents in the Dutch Republic, all from a quite different background, culture and walk of life. Levy, with a German-Dutch "bourgeois" commercial background, must have felt far more at ease with the non-Jewish New Amsterdam trading fraternity than with his more aristocratic Sephardic co-religionists.

This reasoning is strengthened by the fact that it does not appear that Asser Levy was in any way involved in strictly religious Jewish affairs, certainly not in the founding of the earliest local Jewish congregation, which ipso facto was a Sephardic one. His name, therefore, does not appear in the two requests for a plot for a Jewish burial ground, submitted in July, 1655 and February, 1656, which petitions show only the names of three prominent Sephardic residents.

His experiences in the Brazilian Dutch colony, together with his knowledge of the letter of thanks with directives about equal status for Jews, must have made him quite confident that his almost personal battle with Governor Peter Stuyvesant would end in his favor. He proved to be right.

It is thus apt that almost two and a half centuries later, on the 22nd of January, 1920, on the occasion of a gala dinner of the Jewish Historical Society of England, the main speaker, the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, Mr. A. Davis, praised Asser Levy's steadfast character and deep sense of social consciousness, by summing up his achievements with the words:

... Asser Levy, through whom and since when the Jews in America

have demanded and have exercised the right, with their compatriots, to

stand guard over American Liberty.

(1.) Particulars on the life of my ancestor, Asser Levy van Swellem, form a separate chapter in the unpublished Der Prins en Boek (Book of the Prins family), written in Dutch and existing in manuscript form only. The work contains the complete genealogy and chronicles of my family on my father's side from the year 1500 until the present day, compiled by my late uncle, the former Dutch Historian and Doctor of Law, Izak Prins, who died in Israel in the late 1960s. He was the co-founder of the Netherlands Society for the Science of Judaism, and an authority on Marrano history. It took him many years to complete his research on all aspects of the subject. Shortly after his death, the entire manuscript was placed in the custody of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Only lately has the whole manuscript been photo-copied and bound in two volumes, which have been handed to some members of the family of Maurits Prins. For the original document see the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

MAURITS PRINS was a historian and writer with a particular specialty in the lives of his ancestors, who included Asser Levy and Samson Raphael Hirsch.
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Title Annotation:founder of American Jewry
Author:Prins, Maurits
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Sep 22, 1992
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