The Diary of Asser Levy by Daniela Weil

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

By Daniela Weil

Reviewed by Hank Bitten, Executive Director NJ Council for the Social Studies

In the teaching of world history or global studies, the concept of continuity and change over time is important for students in understanding the big picture of history. In learning about the American colonies, the migration of populations and the perspectives of ordinary people are important in understanding the diversity of the people living in the New World.

Teachers are able to understand the big picture of the 20th century and the rise of the United Kingdom, Germany, Japan, Soviet Union, India, China, Israel, and the United States. Some teachers may also understand how the fall of Austria Hungary, Tsarist Russia, Ottoman Empire, Japan, and Germany changed the world.  We teach about the permanent members of the UN Security Council but also recognize the power and influence of the media, investment firms, energy cartels, and technology firms. History is complicated.

The Diary of Asser Levy provides an opportunity to understand the big picture of European history in the context of Brazil, the western Caribbean, the Dutch colonies in America, and the Roman Catholic Church. The book is less than 100 pages and packed with a chronological memory over a period of twelve years. Students can easily read the accounts of a day in the life of Asser Levy, or a week or a month in a matter of a few minutes. The photographs and images are designed to connect students with the historical content and promote inquiry, literacy, and memory.

The book is written from the perspective of a teenager or young adult about age 16-18. He lived in Recife, Brazil in a prosperous Jewish community. In the 17th century, the Dutch were a powerful empire and one in competition with Portugal, Britain and the Holy Roman Empire. The entries of the diary take place only six years after the signing of the Treaty of Westphalia ending the Thirty Years War in Europe and marking the “Golden Age” of the Netherlands and the Dutch empire in Europe, East Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The Spanish Century of the 16th century was characterized by “God, gold, and glory” was now declining in influence as new states were rising.

The conflict between the Dutch and Portugal is an extension of the Thirty Years War in Europe and a victory for the Protestant beliefs a century after the Protestant Reformation. The ‘new economy” in Europe was based on their global markets. For Portugal and Netherlands, it was the spice trade in East Asia and sugar and sweets in the New World.  Most teachers do not even mention the trade wars of the 17th century and the Diary of Asser Levy provides a point of inquiry for students to ask, “why do the Dutch want Salvador or Recife in Brazil?”

The military operations by the Dutch in Brazil took less than two weeks and 10,000 soldiers. Although the control of Salvador and Recife would be difficult to maintain over time, it changed the way of life for ordinary people who were citizens of the Dutch empire! Conflict is always unsettling because it separates families, postpones dreams, and presents challenges to the spiritual beliefs ordinary people value. This is the point of entry of Daniel Weil into your classroom and her influence on what your students will be thinking.

The Evacuation

“The Dutch have waged war against the crown of Portugal,” Barreto proclaimed, “yet we shall not retaliate.  I will give all foreigners a period of three months to leave Brazil.  You may take back any possessions you can carry. We shall provide additional ships needed to return you to your homeland.” (January 26, 1654, Page 16)

Although this appears a welcome gesture and is better than imprisonment or death, it uprooted the lives of more than 1,600 Jews living a prosperous life after a century of persecution in Europe under the Inquisition. Many Jews were forced to be baptized in Spain and Portugal and as a result many fled to Amsterdam. Under the protection of Dutch laws, the Jews in Recife were allowed to openly practice their religious beliefs and established, Kahal Zur Yisrael, the first synagogue in the New World. Isaac Aboab da Fancseca was the first rabbi in the New World. The Kahal Zur Israel congregation had an elementary and secondary school and supported charities in Recife. Many textbooks call attention to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island, which was built more than one hundred years later in 1763.

The Jewish population of Recife had to sell possessions, close their businesses, end the education of their children, and return to Amsterdam, a place they left more than twenty years ago. Middle school students familiar with the voyage of Columbus, Virginia Company, Pilgrims, and the Massachusetts Bay Company might speculate what the voyage back to Amsterdam in February, 1654. Use this situation to simulate the family discussions in the homes of Recife.

What were the sleeping accommodations like?

Was there adequate food on the ship?

Were the ships seaworthy in storms?

Did people experience sickness?

Was there danger from enemies or pirates?

Were families together or separated?

What dangers did young men and women experience?

Stranded in the Caribbean

Asser Levy wrote in his diary on March 20, 1654, “This morning, the Falcon rocked harder than usual.  I fumbled my way up to the deck to see what was going on. An ominous grey sky had replaced the blue, and strong winds howled.  Ripples turned into waves, and waves into giant swells. The captain ordered all passengers to take cover below. Lightning exploded over the ship. The Falcon was being tossed around like a toy boat.” (Page 27)

What choices did passengers who are also refugees have at sea? Did they have any rights as Dutch citizens?  Would their religious beliefs sentence them to prison, would able workers be kidnapped, could they be killed? Would they feel safe in a Spanish or Portuguese port in the Caribbean?

Five days later on March 25th, Asser Levy wrote with an exclamation, “Red flag!” Pirates!  The most likely encounter middle and high school students have with pirates, is the Disney experience of ‘Pirates of the Caribbean.’  For Asser Levy and the other refugees fleeing Brazil, this was a death sentence, perhaps their greatest fear. They would lose their possessions, men might be kidnapped, women raped, and death or injury to anyone who dared challenge the pirates.

Use the two maps below for students to make a claim about the voyage from Recife, to the place of the storm, the boarding of the ship by pirates, and arriving in Jamaica. [On the first map, Jamaica is just south of the eastern end of Cuba and Recife is not visible. In the second map, Recife is on the most extreme end of the eastern coast of Brazil and Jamaica is south of Cuba.]

On April 1, about one week later, the Falcon, in need of repairs, drifted close to Jamaica. Understanding the geography of the Caribbean, especially the journey of approximately 40 days at sea from Recife to Jamaica should result in many questions and arguments that need evidence. Try to follow the diary and map the intended route of the Falcon with the actual route taking them to Jamaica.

Students studying colonial America are generally familiar with the religious exodus of people with Protestant faiths coming to Virginia, Massachusetts, New Sweden, and Connecticut. They likely understand the settlement of Maryland and the passing of the Toleration Act, 1648. Ask your students if people kept or lost their rights when their ship docked in a Spanish port. How did the Inquisition play out in real time when their ‘passports’ were checked? Asser Levy and the Jewish passengers on the Falcon were now under interrogation and the penalty of imprisonment or death for heresy.

Frustrated in New Amsterdam

This morning, September 5, 1654, “the St. Catherine turned and entered a large bay.  The ship slipped through a narrow passage between two forested hills.  We drifted into calm, sheltered waters, leaving the agitated open ocean behind, In the distance, the top of an island covered in mist slowly became visible. All the passengers came up on deck to witness the sight.” (Page 41)

When studying the past, we do not have all the answers. In fact, asking the right questions is necessary to the historical context when documents and artifacts are not available or never existed. Ask your students to draw a picture of Asser Levy who departed Cuba on August 15 and now, 21 days later, has arrived in New Amsterdam.

Draw a line from the place in the image of Asser Levy to answer the following questions:

What does he see with his eyes?

What is he thinking in his head?

What sounds does he hear with his ears?

What sentences will he write with his hand and pen?

What does he smell with his nose?

What does he feel in his heart?

When he arrives on shore, where will his feet take him?

What are his fears?

Why is he holding a weapon?

What are his hopes?

The traditional opportunities to learn about diversity in the American colonies focus on Roman Catholics in Maryland and the banishment of Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams from Massachusetts Bay, it is 1654, so the Charter of Liberties has not been adopted in Philadelphia, and a safe haven for debtors in Georgia is still 80 years in the future. The evidence in Asser Levy’s diary provides inquiry into the lives of Jews who were Dutch citizens.

There are also clues in this book about self-government in the colonies. Most students learn about the representative government in Virginia’s House of Burgesses, the Mayflower Compact, the town meetings in New England, the power of the purse in determining local taxes, and the Fundamental Orders of Connecticut. The Diary of Asser Levy provides a unique look into the authority of judges and the colonial court system. It also provides a prompt for discussions about civic engagement to correct what Asser Levy believes to be arbitrary or unfair decisions.

September 9, 1654: “Two days have passed since our trial.  Today, we had to return to court with Mr. Petersen and face La Motthe again.

The captain made his case.  He had not been paid the remaining guilders.  Mr. Pietersen begged for a little more time.

“’The Jews have not paid their legal debt to Captain La Motthe,” Stuyvesant declared. “However, they have sufficient property on the St. Catherine.  I will allow the captain to sell all of the Jews’ belongings at public auction within four days.’” (Page 51)

For high school students, consider comparing the court system in New Amsterdam with the experiences of four enslaved persons in the courts of Virginia around 1650. (Source). The arrival of the 23 Jewish refugees from Brazil corresponds directly with the arrival of 300 enslaved individuals from Brazil in New Amsterdam.  The double arrival presented problems for this colony of 1,000 residents regarding diversity, language barriers, housing, and work. By 1660, New Amsterdam was considered the most significant slave port in North America. (Source) These ‘threads,’ or themes, that are part of the historical tapestry of the colonial experience are available to your students through supplementary texts, The Diary of Asser Levy, and digital resources.

The information in The Diary of Asser Levy is a rich resource for student inquiry, especially for teachers who want to involve their students with guided research, interdisciplinary connections, understanding the diversity of the American experience, and evaluating decisions. The illustrations in the book from colonial New York, with specific street addresses, also provides information for teaching how communities have changed over time.  For example, the history behind Pearl Street, Mill Lane, Maiden Lane, William Street, Water Street, and Wall Street are part of the local historical narrative.

Resilience and Restoration

The subtitle of The Diary of Asser Levy is, “First Jewish Citizen of New York.” Brainstorm with your students if it should be changed to, “First Jewish Dutch citizen of New York,” “First Citizen Advocate,” “First Jewish Homeowner in America,” “First Refugee in New York,” “First Jewish Banker,” etc. According to the author, Daniela Weil, Asser Levy was the 38th wealthiest person in America. History comes to life for our students when they make connections with the relevance of today.  The websites in the Works Cited section provide digital resources for further exploration and investigation. Of particular note are,, and

It is the resilience and civic engagement of Asser Levy as a young man under age 20 who spoke for justice, pursued equality, advocated for the right to employment, homeownership, freedom of religious expression, and made the colony of New Amsterdam, and after 1664 the colony of New York, a safer and better place. This is not a book or lesson about any one person or group of people. Instead, it is a starting point for a deeper discussion about the ordinary people who are the ‘soul’ of America more than a century before the Declaration of independence and the birth of a United States of America.

In this context, students might reflect on the legacy of Asser Levy and how history and New York remember him, when his memory was first discovered, if communities outside of New York have places named in his honor, and how he will most likely be remembered in the future of this century and specifically on August 22, 2054, the 400th anniversary of his arrival in New Amsterdam!

Asser Levy Park, Brooklyn, NY (near Coney Island)

Weil, Daniela, The Diary of Asser Levy, Pelican Publishing, New Orleans, 2020.

Conflicted Vision: Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia

Conflicted Vision: Thomas Jefferson and the University of Virginia

by Alan Taylor

Review by James J. Carpenter

            In any discussion of early America and public education, Thomas Jefferson inevitably plays a central role. For many, he “remains one of democratic education’s founding fathers” (Neem, 2013, p. 3). Jefferson’s Bill for the General Diffusion of Knowledge called for a three-tiered system of public schooling that would, according to Wagoner (2004), “elevate the mass of people to the moral status necessary to insure good government and public safety and happiness” (p. 34). Jefferson’s vision for Virginia schools would fall victim to the political realities of that state, save for the eventual establishment of the University of Virginia in 1819. Indeed, the university is one of three accomplishments Jefferson had engraved on his tomb, along with being the author of the Declaration of Independence and of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom.

            Like most of Jefferson’s life, there is a considerable volume of literature on his educational views and his plans for improving education in his beloved Virginia (e.g. Addis, 2003; Conant, 1962; Gilreath, 1999; Heslep, 1969; and Wills, 2002). I was curious, therefore, to read Alan Taylor’s latest work entitled Thomas Jefferson’s Education. Was this a description of Jefferson’s personal educational odyssey or was this another discourse on his educational philosophy and plans for public schooling in Virginia?  I was pleasantly surprised to find it was both and more. Taylor successfully weaves Jefferson’s fight to advance public education in Virginia with stories of a wide variety of individuals who supported or resisted his goals. Furthermore, he situates these often bitter political struggles in the context of a stratified Virginia society built on a foundation of enslaved labor.    

Indeed, Taylor’s description of a complicated social milieu often seems to be the real subject of his book. At first, as a reader, I was distracted by the many anecdotes and stories Taylor offers as illustrations for the contesting forces that impacted Jefferson’s goal of free public education for white males. It is only when the reader sits back and focuses on the entire mosaic rather than on the individual tesserae that Taylor’s story becomes clear. He rather quickly addresses the failure of Virginia’s legislature to approve Jefferson’s plans for publicly funded elementary and secondary schools and focuses on Jefferson’s goal for a public university that would rival Harvard and Yale.

            Taylor places this struggle to create the University of Virginia in the context of powerful cultural forces within the state – and by extension throughout the South – and thereby creates a fascinating subtext for his book. The primary forces at work were the increasingly rigid attitudes regarding slavery and the strict adherence to the gentry’s belief in their privileged status including their preference for drinking, gambling, and dueling in defense of their honor. Taylor masterfully posits these societal flaws against Jefferson’s wishes to create a university which would train leaders who would reform Virginia. Jefferson envisioned this next generation of leaders would further republicanism by adopting “a more democratic state constitution for white men,” by embracing his goals for public education for all white children, and by emancipating but deporting slaves (p. 307). Jefferson’s hopes for the future evolved during a period where regional bitterness was hardening at an alarming rate, an extreme bitterness Joanne Freeman (2018) has described as a violent “cultural federalism” (p. 50). Southern politicians increasingly saw the Union as endangered by northern political and economic interests which would put the South at a distinct disadvantage. Southern fathers did not want their sons attending northern institutions of higher learning for fear they would be corrupted by antislavery ideas and dangerous democratic ideas of equality. Instead, southern “gentlemen attended college to hone social skills and cultivate social networks” (p. 82). Additionally, “fathers wanted sons to develop a robust sense of honor,” including choosing dueling over accepting insults (p. 83). And, as Taylor describes, their sons whole-heartedly bought into their privileged status; to the extent that they believed themselves exempt from obeying rules and policies implemented by those they believed to be of inferior status including their professors. Indeed, according to Taylor, this strategy at times worked all too well. Most of Virginia’s young gentlemen “became petty tyrants” to the state’s enslaved population (p. 83).

            It was in this social and cultural milieu that Jefferson and others in Virginia’s founding generation tried to re-establish that state’s prestige. As other states, especially in the North, gained in population and in political influence, these aging leaders identified education as the means to restore Virginia to what they believed to be her rightful status. The College of William and Mary was in decline since the state capitol had moved from Williamsburg to Richmond and Jefferson saw this as an opportunity to build a new university, one that would embody his philosophical beliefs and be free from any religious connections. Taylor describes Jefferson’s reliance on his chief lieutenant in the state legislature, Joseph C. Cabell, and his efforts to thwart other attempts to construct a university in locations other than Charlottesville. Many personalities are presented in this account; some famous like James Madison, Patrick Henry, and James Monroe and others less so, such as the Scottish teacher James Ogilvie, the mercurial John Randolph, and Jefferson’s rival for controlling the fledgling university, John Hartwell Cocke.

In detailing how he secured his beloved university, Taylor sheds light on Jefferson’s complex personality. For example, in constructing the university Jefferson dismissed the idea of sharing state education allocations with two other campuses he ridiculed as “’local interests’” while remaining oblivious to the parochial nature of his own plans (p. 198). Believing “that only architectural grandeur could attract many students” (p. 211), Jefferson’s construction costs exceeded both the state appropriations and private monies raised through subscriptions leaving the university with no money for scholarships for deserving students. As a result, only sons of the wealthiest Virginia families could afford to attend causing the university to “suffer from their homogeneity and sense of entitlement” (p. 214).

            Known for his pleasing manners and hospitable nature, Jefferson could also be sharp and intransient on issues he deemed important. His insistence that the university be free from religious influence and that there be no professor of divinity alienated many Virginia Christians, especially Evangelical Episcopalians and Presbyterians, leading to contentious struggles with the university’s Board of Visitors and state political leaders. Though he expressed a faith in the free expression of ideas, Taylor describes how Jefferson “assumed that the free pursuit of truth always led to his conclusions.” His university would be a bastion of republican orthodoxy free from “Federalist “’heresies.’” For example, Jefferson selected political readings that “favored states’ rights over national consolidation” as texts for the professor of law to use (p. 238, emphasis added to first quote). Republicanism was the litmus test in hiring for Jefferson. Therefore “no Federalist need apply to become professor of law at the University of Virginia,” regardless of his qualifications (p. 239). Far from promoting a democratic education, Jefferson often endorsed a more authoritarian approach in managing the day to day issues at his university.

            Today the University of Virginia is one of the most respected public universities in the United States. It is fondly referred to as Mr. Jefferson’s university. The picture Taylor paints of the early days of the university is at odds with what it has become. Plagued by low enrollments and financial problems, it initially housed a student population more dedicated to drinking, gambling, and carousing than to studying. Students accustomed to privilege and power frequently fought, rioted, mistreated slaves, and disrespected faculty, with one student actually fatally shooting a professor. Following Jefferson’s death in 1826, things began to change, albeit slowly. By the mid-1840s, the university could afford to grant scholarships to deserving but less affluent students. Increasing enrollments led to greater numbers of Christian students who would have been unacceptable to Jefferson. Faculty hires became less political and rule changes on campus led to less violent and more sober student behavior. By the eve of the Civil War, the University of Virginia was becoming a major academic institution though not as envisioned by its famous founder.

            The evolution Taylor describes contains many ironies. For example, while largely ignoring the need to educate women beyond what was required to be a good wife (though he did promote learning for his own daughters and granddaughters), it was Jefferson’s daughters and granddaughters who became “teachers of a new generation of women” and who managed to save their family financially after the Civil War (p. 315). And Taylor masterfully describes the problematic relationship between Jefferson’s primary objectives for students who attended the University of Virginia. One goal was to produce republican leaders who would protect the rights of states against what he perceived as an increasingly threatening union controlled by northern politicians. His second objective was that these more enlightened leaders would reform Virginia, especially by first ending slavery and then deporting the formerly enslaved out of the United States, thereby ridding the country of its original sin. Jefferson failed to see these two goals as being contradictory. As Taylor demonstrates, the next generation did defend states’ rights in ways Jefferson could not have imagined. And rather than seeing slavery as a sin to be abolished, Virginia leaders promoted slavery as a positive institution which protected an inferior race. Ultimately, the university students did not “uproot slavery as Jefferson had hoped,” but instead “defended it and served the Confederacy in the Civil War” (p. 307). In delineating this progression to the potential dissolution of the union Jefferson had helped create, Taylor not only has made a valuable contribution to the literature on Thomas Jefferson’s impact on education but also to that of the history of education in the United States and to that of sectional development in ante-bellum America.    


Addis, C. (2003). Jefferson’s Vision for Education, 1760-1845. New York, NY: Peter Lang.

Conant, J. B. (1962), Thomas Jefferson and the Development of American Public Education. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Freeman, J. B. (2018). The field of blood: Violence in Congress and the road to civil war. New York NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Gilreath, J. (Ed.). (1999). Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen. Washington, D. C.: The Library of Congress.

Heslep, R. D. (1969). Thomas Jefferson & Education. New York, NY: Random House.

Neem, J. (2013). Is Jefferson a founding father of democratic education? A response to “Jefferson and the ideology of democratic schooling.” Democracy and Education, 21 (2), Article 8. Available at

Wagoner, J. L., Jr. (2004). Jefferson and education. (Monticello monograph series). Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

Wills, G. (2002). Mr. Jefferson’s University. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society.