By Jonathan D. Sarna
Courtesy American Jewish Historical Society
March 2, 2004
WALTHAM, Mass., March 2 (JTA) — About 350 years ago, in 1654, a small vessel
named the Ste. Catherine, or St. Catrina, sailed into the port of New
Amsterdam. Most of the ship’s passengers –”twenty-three souls, big and little,”
according to an account at the time — were bedraggled Jewish refugees from Recife,
Brazil, who had been expelled when the Portuguese recaptured the South
American colony from the Dutch.
The refugees were not the first Jews to arrive in North America. In 1585, a
Jew named Joachim Gaunse served as the metallurgist and mining engineer for the
ill-fated English colony on Roanoke Island. Thereafter, a small number of
other Jews, mostly intrepid merchants bent on trade, made brief stops at American
ports to conduct business.
However, the “big and little” refugees from Recife differed from the Jews
who came before them. Though economically ruined, they sought to settle down and
form a permanent Jewish community in North America, to “navigate and trade
near and in New Netherland, and to live and reside there.”
Much can be learned from the experience of America’s earliest Jews. For one
thing, they displayed political savvy in fighting for their rights and
illustrated by personal example their principle that “all Israel is responsible for
Helped by their fellow Jews back in Amsterdam, among them “principal
shareholders” in the Dutch West India Company that controlled New Amsterdam — which
later became known as New York — they succeeded in overcoming a series of legal
and political obstacles, including fierce opposition from the colony’s
anti-Jewish governor, Peter Stuyvesant.
Over Stuyvesant’s objections, they won the right to set down roots in New
Amsterdam, specifically the right to “travel, trade, live and remain,” provided
that “the poor among them shall not become a burden to the company or to the
community, but be supported by their own nation.”
No less important a theme from 1654 is the fact that the Dutch authorities,
forced to choose between their economic interests and their religious
sensibilities, voted with their pocketbooks in allowing Jews to remain — a significant
sign of modernity.
The Jews’ usefulness — the fact that they might help to enrich the colonies –
proved far more important to the Dutch than the fact that they were not
Christians. The Dutch West India company feared that a heavy-handed and
restrictive colonial policy would diminish the population, discourage immigration, and
scare off investors.
New Amsterdam’s Jews also extended the boundaries of American religious
Stuyvesant, an elder in the Dutch church and the son of a minister, sought to
promote morality and social cohesion by enforcing Calvinist orthodoxy and
clamping down on competing faiths. One of his many reasons for denying Jews
rights was that, “Giving them liberty, we cannot refuse the Lutherans and Papists,”
as Catholics were then known.
He understood that the decision about admitting Jews to New Amsterdam was, at
the deepest level, a decision about the social and religious character of the
Over his objections, the Dutch West India Company extended limited rights to
people of different religions. Its advice to Stuyvesant in 1663 became, in
time, the policy that distinguished America from other countries around the
“Shut your eyes, at least [do] not force people’s consciences,” the company
wrote, “but allow every one to have his own belief, as long as he behaves
quietly and legally, gives no offense to his neighbor and does not oppose the
Having received the right to settle, the most difficult challenge facing New
Amsterdam’s nascent Jewish community — a challenge American Jews would
confront time and again over the centuries — was how to preserve and maintain
Judaism, particularly with their numbers being so small and Protestant pressure to
conform so great.
From the earliest years of Jewish settlement, a range of responses to this
At one extreme stood Solomon Pietersen, a merchant from Amsterdam who came to
town in 1654, just prior to the refugees from Recife, to seek his fortune. In
1656, Pietersen became the first known Jew on American soil to marry a
While it’s not clear that he personally converted, the daughter that resulted
from the marriage, named Anna, was baptized in childhood. Like the
descendants of many subsequent Jewish immigrants to America’s shores, she vanished into
the Protestant mainstream.
Asser Levy stood at the opposite end of the spectrum. An Ashkenazi Jew from
Vilnius who briefly had sojourned in Amsterdam and perhaps Brazil, he arrived
in New Amsterdam in 1654 totally impoverished but deeply committed to
maintaining his Jewish faith.
In 1655, he protested when Stuyvesant and local officials required Jewish
males ages 16 to 60 to pay a special tax in lieu of guard duty.
Stuyvesant had cited “the disinclination and unwillingness” of local
residents to serve as “fellow-soldiers” with the Jewish “nation,” and “to be on
guard with them in the same guard-house.” Levy insisted, however, that as a
manual laborer he should be able stand guard like everybody else.
Initially thwarted, Levy succeeded within two years in standing “watch and
ward like other Burghers.” Thereupon he promptly petitioned for burgher rights,
or citizenship. Again he was thwarted, but backed by wealthier Jewish
merchants who had immigrated months before from Amsterdam and recalled the promises
made to them by “the Worshipful Lords” of the Dutch West India Company, the
decision was reversed and Jews’ rights to “burghership” were guaranteed.
Of course, local records still denominated Levy as “a Jew,” ensuring that
this characteristic would define him. Nevertheless, he enjoyed considerable
success as a butcher — “excused from killing hogs, as his religion does not allow
him to do it” — merchant and real estate entrepreneur.
Among the Jews who immigrated to New Amsterdam in 1654, Levy was the only one
who stayed, maintaining a home in the city until his death in 1682.
For long, lonely stretches as Dutch rule waned and the rest of the Jews
departed for colonies with more sun and promise, Levy’s was the only Jewish family
in town. The inventory of his estate suggests that he resolutely observed at
least the principal rituals of his faith, including the Sabbath and Jewish
dietary laws, within the precincts of his home.
Levy’s life epitomized both the hardships entailed in being a Jew in early
colonial America and the possibilities of surmounting them.
Over the next three and a half centuries, millions more Jews crossed the
ocean to America. Like New Amsterdam’s first Jews, a large number came as refugees
seeking a new home.
They also faced the same central challenge that New Amsterdam’s Jews did: to
preserve Judaism in the face of pressures to assimilate. Even religious
liberty was not something that they could ever take for granted. They remained
ever-vigilant, perennially concerned lest their hard-won freedoms be lost.
To look back upon this history in this anniversary year is to recall the
theme of human potential, the ability of American Jews — young and old, men and
women alike — to change the course of history and transform a piece of the
American Jewish history, properly studied, is not just a record of events; it
is the story of how people shaped events — establishing and maintaining
communities, responding to challenges, working for change.
That, perhaps, is the greatest lesson that 350 years of American Jewish life
teaches, the lesson that we too can make a difference, that the future is ours
Jonathan Sarna is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish
History at Brandeis University and author of the recently-published “American
Judaism: A History” (Yale University Press), from which some of this article