A perpetual thorn in Peter Stuyvesant
's side, and one of the founding members of a community which eventually brought us Woody Allen
, Asser Levy van Swellem
came to New Amsterdam
. He and 30 others had left from Brazil
. That same year, the Dutch
had lost their holdings in Brazil, after a ten year war with the Portugese
. Being Jewish
in a Portugese colony must have been nerve-wracking
, so Levy and his companions were in an all-too-familiar position for future immigrants to Manhattan
Levy and his fellow refugees arrived in New Amsterdam in early September, aboard a French ship. They weren't warmly welcomed. While the Dutch were one of the more tolerant colonial powers, Governor Stuyvesant was not at all happy about the Jews' arrival in his city. Levy, on his part, was not about to take any crap, not even from somebody nicknamed Peg-Leg Peter. He had just traveled 7,000 kilometers by sea, and several people on the ship had died.
Levy and two others from the ship met with Stuyvesant, who was demanding that they leave. Largely because of Levy's connections in Holland, the group of 23 was allowed to stay. Not that Stuyvesant was appeased — oh no, not at all. An adequate expression of his feelings may be found in this line from a letter to a friend: "The deceitful race — such hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ should not be allowed further to infect and trouble us".
Peter Stuyvesant tried to bully the Jews, much as he encouraged colonists to beat Swedish Catholics, and ordered the arrest of Quakers and Lutherans (he was an all around nasty guy). However, Levy rose to thwart him at every attempt. For example:
In 1655, when Stuyvesant went to war against the nearby colony of New Sweden, and the Jews were so uppity as to try to enlist, he rammed an ordinance through the city council that read, "Jews cannot be permitted to serve as soldiers, but shall instead pay a monthly contribution to exemption". Levy was one of the group who had tried to enlist, and Levy refused to pay.
That same year, when Levy petitioned the city to allow Jews the right to stand guard as burghers did, Stuyvesant politely offered to pay for his return ticket from Manhattan. Levy responded by sending his petition to Holland where his connections again won the day.
A few years later, Levy asked the council for the right to be licensed as a butcher. Stuyvesant refused. Levy won again, and he and his friends acquired two ships that sailed merrily up the Hudson, as far as Fort Orange.
So Stuyvesant forbid any Jews from trading at Fort Orange.
Holland was getting pretty sick of Stuyvesant by now and publicly rebuked him. The Dutch West India Company stated that any colonist of New Netherland had the right to trade at the fort.
So Stuyvesant changed the law so only burghers could trade at the fort.
Levy petitioned for the Jews to be made burghers. And they were.
It will be no shock to you by now if I state that Levy's name appears exceedingly often in early New York court records. He did not let any slight pass. Such behaviour might have aggravated the other colonists, but, in fact, it had the opposite effect. Everyone loves an underdog, and so when he went to Connecticut in 1665, on behalf of another Jew, the judge gladly remitted the fine "as a token of its respect to the said Mr. Asser Levy".
Today, New York City is home to the largest Jewish community outside of Israel. No word on whether old Peg-Leg Pete is spinning in his grave.