1660: N.Y.'s First Kosher Butcher Is Licensed

Asser Levy, a successful if often-sued Dutch businessman, was the first Jew to open a kosher butchery in N.Y., serve in the local militia or own property in North America.

David Green
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
The arrival of Jews in the New Wold must have had pigs jumping for joy.Credit: AFP
David Green

On November 15, 1660, Asser Levy received his license to operate as a butcher in New Amsterdam, with a waiver from having to slaughter hogs, making him New York’s first kosher butcher. (Some sources give the date as October 15.)

Levy’s date of birth is unknown, but he probably came from Amsterdam. He is believed to have arrived in the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in 1654, as part of a group of some two dozen Jewish refugees who left the Dutch colony of Recife in Brazil when it was taken over by Portugal (which intended to introduce the Inquisition there).

Levy went on to make a significant mark on the history of the New World. A year after his arrival, he joined with Jacob Bar-Simson in petitioning the governor of New Amsterdam for permission to serve in the local militia – or at least to be relieved of the tax that was paid by those who did not perform their service guarding the colony. When their request was turned down – with an invitation to “depart whenever and whither it please them” – they appealed to the Dutch West India Company in Holland, which eventually sent a rebuke to Governor Pieter Stuyvesant for his discriminatory actions. The two petitioners were subsequently permitted to do guard duty.

Court records show Levy involved in litigation immediately after his arrival in New York, when a woman successfully sued him for money she said he owed her for his travel fare. In following years, he was involved in numerous business transactions and often in litigation over debts.

But in the meantime, he became, in 1661, the first Jew to own property in North America (in New Orange, near Albany) and, shortly thereafter, in New Amsterdam. In 1664, when prosperous members of the colony were asked to loan the city money to build fortifications to defend it from the British, he provided 100 florins. (Later, when the British replaced the Dutch as sovereigns in the colony, he was the first Jew to swear allegiance to the British crown.) And while the historical record shows he was involved in frequent lawsuits over financial matters and even successfully sued the “city weigher” for “affronts” (presumed to be anti-Semitic statements), he was trusted by Jews and Christian alike, often serving as the executor of estates of Christian merchants. He built up extensive holdings and business partnerships not only in New York but in the colonies of New England as well.

In 1678, 18 years after receiving his butcher’s license, Levy built a slaughterhouse on what is today Wall Street, along the East River. He also owned a popular tavern in the area. After his sudden death, on February 1, 1682, there was extensive litigation over his estate. Oddly, his place of burial is unknown. But several parks in New York City and a public school are named for him.  

Comments