The Diary of Ass­er Levy: First Jew­ish Cit­i­zen of New York

  • Review
By – November 2, 2020

Jew­ish firsts in ear­ly Amer­i­can his­to­ry have always held a spe­cial place in Jew­ish Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty. Before the sec­ond wave of immi­gra­tion that brought over two mil­lion new Jew­ish immi­grants to the Unit­ed States at the turn of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, there were small­er num­bers of Jews seek­ing to find their place with­in Amer­i­can democ­ra­cy with­out the sup­port of an estab­lished com­mu­ni­ty. When twen­ty-three Jew­ish refugees from Recife, Brazil, arrived in New Ams­ter­dam in 1654, their future in the colony seemed unsure. Writ­ten in an engag­ing diary for­mat and enhanced with pri­ma­ry doc­u­ments, Daniela Weil’s new nov­el imag­ines what this expe­ri­ence was like for young Ass­er Levy who, along with his fel­low com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers, is forced to leave his home when Por­tu­gal con­quers the Dutch colony of north­ern Brazil and imposed anti­semitc poli­cies. Mid­dle-grade read­ers of the book will gain his­tor­i­cal infor­ma­tion and a new per­spec­tive on the ear­ly odyssey of Jews to New York City.

His­to­ri­ans have not proven that Levy was part of the Recife group; he may have arrived direct­ly from Europe. Weil acknowl­edges this con­tro­ver­sy in her detailed Epi­logue,” but she has cre­at­ed a believ­able his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive out of the facts which are avail­able. Ass­er begins his diary as the young son of a kosher butch­er, whose sta­ble life in the wel­com­ing envi­ron­ment of Dutch Brazil has been sud­den­ly upend­ed by the Por­tuguese attack. The Nether­lands was a famous­ly tol­er­ant and mul­ti­cul­tur­al soci­ety which had wel­comed Jews, both Sephardic and, like Levy, Ashke­naz­ic, to their nation and its colonies. Weil describes the chaot­ic cir­cum­stances of the Levys’ flight from Brazil, includ­ing an attack by pirates on their ship and their tem­po­rary shel­ter in Jamaica before arriv­ing in New Ams­ter­dam. Levy records his thoughts in an under­stat­ed tone, con­sis­tent with the for­mal style in which authors usu­al­ly wrote in diaries at the time. As the nar­ra­tive devel­ops, Levy reflects more on his emo­tions, includ­ing fear, anger, and his devel­op­ing roman­tic feel­ings for Miri­am Israel, the young woman who would one day become his wife.

Weil empha­sizes the sol­i­dar­i­ty of the small group of immi­grants, nec­es­sar­i­ly sim­pli­fy­ing some of the his­to­ry; as a nov­el for young read­ers, her choic­es are appro­pri­ate for mak­ing the sto­ry acces­si­ble. She suc­ceeds in evok­ing the atmos­phere of inse­cu­ri­ty and ten­sion, as Levy and his fel­low Jews con­front the deep prej­u­dice of Peter Stuyvesant, New Amsterdam’s direc­tor-gen­er­al. In strik­ing con­trast to the more enlight­ened atti­tudes of many Dutch towards their Jew­ish neigh­bors, Stuyvesant con­trives to mar­gin­al­ize them at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. As Ass­er feels called upon to assert the rights of his peo­ple, he argues on the basis of what they legal­ly deserve, but also on the con­tri­bu­tions which they are eager to offer their new home. This embrace of both rights and respon­si­bil­i­ties has been cen­tral to the his­to­ry of Jews in Amer­i­ca. Weil’s book cap­tures the essen­tial qual­i­ty of the Jew­ish Amer­i­can expe­ri­ence through the lens of one of its ear­li­est pioneers.

The Diary of Ass­er Levy is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed, and the exten­sive Epi­logue” includes fur­ther back­ground his­to­ry, pho­tographs, a time­line, a glos­sary, and rec­om­mend­ed addi­tion­al sources of information.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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