Life and career
Asser Levy was probably born in Vilna, present-day Lithuania. He left Poland for Amsterdam, possibly to escape the pogroms of the Khmelnytsky uprising. Although he lived for a time in Amsterdam, he was not given burgher (citizenship) rights, and probably was not granted poorter (permanent residency) rights either. He might also have lived for a time in Schwelm, a town in the County of Mark in modern-day Germany. Two archived documents from Amsterdam reveal that on April 26, 1660, he was there seeking payment of a debt owed to him, and on May 24, 1660, he announced he was going to Germany. Levy might have married his wife Miriam (whose maiden name was probably Israel) while living in Amsterdam, but this cannot be verified; no record of this marriage exists in the Amsterdam archives, but this might be due to the fact that Jews were not required to register their marriages in Amsterdam until 1695. While in Amsterdam, he learned about the opportunities in the New World, and migrated there. Levy might have initially moved to Dutch Brazil; he has been mentioned as one of the 23 Jewish refugees who fled from Recife after the end of Dutch rule in the area. However, Levy is not listed in the extant congregational minute books of the Brazilian Jewish community, which casts serious doubt on this theory. It is known that he eventually ended up in New Netherland, having possibly arrived in New Amsterdam aboard the St. Catherine or St. Charles in early September 1654.
In 1655, Peter Stuyvesant, the governor of the colony, was ordered to attack New Sweden, the Swedish colony on the Delaware River, and accordingly issued orders for the enlistment of all adults. Several Jews, among them Asser Levy, appear to have been ready to serve, but the governor and council passed an ordinance "that Jews can not be permitted to serve as soldiers, but shall instead pay a monthly contribution for the exemption." Levy and his comrades at once refused to pay, and on November 5, 1655, petitioned for leave to stand guard like other burghers or to be relieved from the tax. The petition was rejected with the comment that if the petitioners were not satisfied with the law they might go elsewhere. Levy successfully appealed to Holland, and was subsequently permitted to do guard duty like other citizens.
Levy appears also as a prominent trader in Fort Orange, present day Albany. It is likely that he was responsible for the rebuke given to Stuyvesant by the directors in Holland during the same year because of his refusal to permit Jews to trade there. Levy was also one of the first licensed butchers in the colony. In 1657, the burgher right was made essential for certain trading privileges, and within two days of a notice to that effect Asser Levy appeared in court requesting to be admitted as a burgher. The officials expressed their surprise at such a request. The record reads: "The Jew claims that such ought not to be refused him as he keeps watch and ward like other burghers, showing a burgher's certificate from the city of Amsterdam that the Jew is a burgher there." The application was denied, but Levy at once brought the matter before Stuyvesant and the council, which, mindful of the previous experience, ordered that Jews should be admitted as burghers on April 21, 1657.
Levy was the first Jew to own a house in North America. As early as 1661, Levy purchased real estate in Fort Orange; he was also the earliest Jewish owner of real estate in New York, his transactions there commencing in June 1662 with the purchase of land on South William Street. Within ten years of his arrival Levy had become a man of consequence, and when, in 1664, the wealthiest inhabitants were summoned to lend the city money for fortifications against the English, he was the only Jew among them: he lent the city 100 florins.
It is as a litigant, however, that Levy figures most prominently in the Dutch records, his name often appearing for days in succession. He invariably argued his own case and was almost invariably successful. Only on two or three occasions did he figure as defendant. As a litigant he is named also in the records of Gravesend in 1674. Levy's trading relations extended to New England, and he frequently appeared as attorney for merchants in Holland. In 1671 he lent the money for building the first Lutheran church in New York. About 1678 he built a slaughterhouse in the east end of what is now Wall Street, where he appears to have been the owner of a famous tavern.
Instead of being unpopular on account of his many lawsuits, the contrary seems to have been the case. The confidence reposed in his honesty by his Christian fellow citizens appears frequently from the court records. Property in litigation was put into his custody; he is named as executor in the wills of Christian merchants, and figures as both administrator and trustee in colonial records. His influence was not confined to New York; in the colonial records of Connecticut he appears as intervening to obtain the remission of a fine imposed upon a Jew there. The court remitted the fine with the comment that it did so "as a token of its respect to the said Mr. Asser Levy." He left a considerable estate, over which there was a long legal contest.
So far, Levy's legacy is limited to structures in New York City.
- Asser Levy Place, a park between 23rd and 25th Streets in Manhattan, New York that was formerly a street; also the attached Asser Levy Recreation Center, which includes the Asser Levy Public Baths, a public bath house and swimming pool, and Asser Levy Playground, both on the east side of Asser Levy Place
- Asser Levy Park, a public park in Coney Island, Brooklyn
- New York City's PS 19, an elementary school in Manhattan, named the Asher Levy School
- Greene, Jacqueline Dember (1988). Out of Many Waters.
- Oppenheim, Samuel (1909). The Early History of the Jews in New York, 1654-1664: Some New Matter on the Subject.
- "New Amsterdam's Jewish Crusader". Jewish Virtual Library. Retrieved 2007-07-03.
- August 3, 2005 The Jewish Press, Glimpses Into American Jewish History, August 3, 2005