Knowing of my interest in the the history of Jewish butchers, the ever-helpful Philip Trauring of the Blood and Frogs Jewish genealogy blog sent me a link to a post from New York’s Tenement Museum, “Keeping Kosher in 17th Century New York:”
November 15th, 1660 was, by any means, a normal day in the small Dutch-controlled hamlet called Nieuw Amsterdam. People went about their business, shipping at the busy ports or farming in far-away villages like Haarlem or Breukelen. On this nondescript day, a nondescript event took place that would begin a tradition in New York City…. One shop owner, a man named Asser Levy (sometimes referred to as Asher Levy), received a license from the town to open the first kosher butcher shop in what would become New York City.
A Gentleman and a Shochet?
I contend that Asser Levy (d. 1682) was the first kosher butcher in America, not just New York.
Think about it.
A few other Jews arrived in New England earlier than Asser Levy did. But they weren’t butchers. Ditto the Jews who arrived even earlier in the Spanish-held southwest, who weren’t even practicing Jews but, rather, crypto-Jews . If you are a crypto (hidden) Jew, you don’t open a kosher butcher shop.
Ergo, it’s fair to say that Levy was America’s first kosher butcher.
Was Levy actually a shochet (ritual slaughterer) too? Quite possibly.
According to Chabad.org:
Only a Jew specially trained for shechita —a shochet—can perform shechita. He is required to study for a number of years and is examined, in theory and practice, in the laws of shechita, animal anatomy and pathology. He serves an apprenticeship with an experienced shochet before becoming fully qualified.
Where would Levy have learned the trade? According to “Asser Levy — A New Look at Our Jewish Founding Father” in the American Jewish Archives, Asser may have been the son of Benjamin Levy, an Ashkenazi shochet in Recife, Brazil, where Asser was born.
In any case, according to the same article, when Levy and Moses Lucena (the first co-kosher butchers?) were granted their license, they were exempted from slaughtering hogs. And by then, America’s first synagogue, Shearath Israel (founded 1654) had been established, so the meat could have gotten a rabbi’s seal of approval.
In January 1678, Levy got permission to build a slaughterhouse near Wall Street; in October the slaughterhouse was completed, and Levy entered a partnership to run it. Was this the first strictly kosher slaughterhouse in New York—and America? That’s the topic of another post that I don’t plan to write.
Levy’s Other Claims to Fame
But Asser Levy didn’t have a recreation center and city block in Manhattan and a park in Coney Island named for him because he was New York’s first kosher butcher, important as that role was. No, Levy was a successful businessman and defender of Jewish rights.
Levy was one of 23 Jews who fled the former Dutch colony of Recife, Brazil in 1654, when the Portuguese — who were as keen on the Inquisition as Spanish — recaptured it. The Dutch had generally been friendly to Jewish people, so the group headed for New Amsterdam.
Unfortunately, Peter Stuyvesant (1592-1672), the Dutch colonial governor, was not on board with the friendly program. (He pretty much disliked all other religions aside from his own, Dutch Reformed, but I’ll leave it to members of the other groups to post their own gripes.)
Stuyvesant seized Jewish possessions and ordered them sold at auction, jailed two Jews, and tried to get all the Jews expelled from New Amsterdam. He failed because the Jews appealed their case to Holland. Next, Stuyvesant tried to bar the Jews from serving in the volunteer army — and to tax them for the privilege of getting someone else to serve in their place.
He lost this battle too, in large part because of Asser Levy, who successfully petitioned the colonial court to either be allowed to serve or be relieved of the tax. He became the first Jew to serve in the military.
Stuyvesant didn’t give up. He refused to issue trade permits to Jewish settlers in the new Dutch territory along the Delaware River. This time, when Levy and his associates wrote to the government in Holland to protest, Stuyvesant was disciplined. In 1656, Levy was granted one of New Amsterdam’s first trading permits.
Stuyvesant nevertheless continued to try to rob Jews of their rights. And Levy continued to protest — and win. In 1657, he got permission to practice a trade, which led him to open his kosher butcher shop three years later.
In 1664 English forces took over and Peter Stuyvesant was out of a job. So sad.
Among Levy’s other claims to fame: He was the first Jewish man in North America to own a house and he was the first Jew in America to serve on a jury. For more — though by no means, the complete picture, which I pieced together from several sources — see the Asser Levy entry in Wikipedia.
Levy & Stuyvesant: Linked in Posterity
Although I grew up in “Breukelen,” I’d never heard of Asser Levy until I started doing this research, though I certainly knew the name Peter Stuyvesant: High schools, squares, statues… all kinds of things throughout New York City are named after him. It warms my heart to know that one of the Jewish community’s founding fathers, a fighter for rights who was well respected by Jews and non-Jews alike, was a butcher.
Who could have predicted I would acquire pride for that profession, practiced by all the men in my mother’s family?
And here’s another thing that warms my heart: The playground, recreation center and street named for Asser Levy are between 23rd and 25th Streets in Manhattan — only a few blocks from the (much uglier) apartment complex called Stuyvesant Town.
Asser Levy is still in your face, Peter Stuyvesant. Still in your face.
Note: The medal commemorating Asser Levy and the First Jewish Settlers in America next to the title was designed by Alex Shagin and issued by the Jewish-American Hall of Fame.