"We've also added links to the Diary of Asser Levy... written by a lovely lady called Daniela Weil who started her research by contacting our association and she ended up traveling the world to look at original documents that relate to Asser and his story. So she wrote a fictionalized account that she thought would work for younger readers like middle school. Its really fun. We also have a wonderful presentation on religious tolerance, Noah Gelfand is featured and its very interesting because Noah and Daniela have different theories on how Asser came to New Amsterdam and we see it as part of our role at the New Amsterdam HIstory Center to present as many viewpoints as we can until a definitive answer to the question is provided, and they are all really really interesting."
Mapping Early New York Demo Video by Toya Dubin for the New Amsterdam History Center, 2022. Go to 32 min 47 sec on video.
“The book breathes life into a little-known yet important Jewish figure of early New Amsterdam and New York. Through a series of diary entries based on fact and the author’s creation, the author brings out the emotion, drama, and conflicts of Asser Levy’s turbulent journey to a new land in search of religious freedom. Chronicling much of the mid-1650s, the diary entries depict the ship’s arrival to New Amsterdam only to be turned away. It tells the tale, through fictional accounts combined with historical fact, of Asser’s becoming the first kosher butcher in the new land. The book will add color to classroom lessons on early US history and on Jewish immigration.”
Paul Kaplan, author of Lillian Wald: America’s Great Social and Healthcare Reformer, Jewish New York: A History and Guide to Neighborhoods, Synagogues, and Eateries, and Jewish South Florida: A History and Guide to Neighborhoods, Synagogues, and Eateries
Jewish Book Council:
"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 antisemitic 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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures. – November 2, 2020
Association of Jewish Libraries Journal Sept/Oct 2020:
A small but vibrant group of Jews fled the Inquisition, settled in Recife, Brazil, and then, due to anti-Semitism, escaped yet again, arriving in New Amsterdam in the year 1654. Their story is told in the form of diary entries written by Asser Levy, one of the young men who landed in Manhattan with skills as a kosher butcher as well as high hopes and optimistic dreams. Weil tells the gripping story, beginning with their hazardous voyage during which Levy met his wife-to-be, and continuing with the group’s valiant attempts to successfully integrate into the social structure of their new land. They faced anti-Semitism once again in their new home, notably in the person of Peter Stuyvesant, New Amsterdam’s director-general. Nevertheless, the small community also found helpful allies and, in spite of many obstacles, rose to the challenge of establishing themselves with a clarity of purpose and a determination to succeed. In an epilogue, Weil continues recounting Levy’s personal history, informing the reader that he was the first Jew in New Amsterdam to receive the rights of travel and trade, the first Jew to achieve the title of “burgher” or citizen, and the first Jewish homeowner in America.
The epilogue continues the history of the community up until the surrender by Stuyvesant of New Amsterdam to the British crown and its renaming to New York. The back matter includes a timeline, a glossary, a list of associated websites for continuing research, the sources of the documents displayed, and an extensive bibliography. The diary format gives the account a sense of immediacy and suspense. The text is accompanied by numerous black and white pictures culled from historical sources as well as reproductions of many original documents, seamlessly entwining verified history with this fictionalized account of Levy’s life. In the detailed “Author’s Note,” Weil acknowledges that much of the history she presents here is not fully verifiable but there is sufficient research to make the events recounted in this book plausible. She also connects the story of the Jews of Recife to the refugee crises of our day. The publisher has used a special typeface which is designed to minimize some of the common problems of dyslexia, making this book accessible to a wider audience, though some may find it off-putting.
Michal Hoschander Malen, retired librarian; current library volunteer in Efrat, Israel; editor of children’s and young adult book reviews for the Jewish Book Council
"What a fine job [Daniela] did with this story! ...The diary-style keeps the pace moving, and the adventures make it exciting. Lots of setting details bring the scenes alive, and the dialogue engages the reader in the plot. I can see how it will be easy for a young reader to identify with Asser, worrying about how (and if) he’ll succeed in his quest. I enjoyed the history as well as the human angle. Well done!" Gail Jarrow, award winning author of Spooked, Fatal Fever, Red Madness and Bubonic Plague.
"[Daniela] did a masterful job telling a long story and giving extra information.... it's the middle grade version of the 500 word picture book!" Rachel Kosoy, children's writer.
"I thoroughly enjoyed The Diary of Asser Levy. I learned a lot, too - so thank you!" Barbara Bietz, writer and JewishBooksforKids Blogger
"I read it in one sitting. It’s fantastic. Historical novels are a favorite of mine and that novel, set in the late 17th century is fascinating. I had heard of Petrus Stuyvesant and was totally unfamiliar with the Jewish refugees." James Mead, Smithsonian Institute.
"I started looking at it a short while ago and cannot put it down. It is brilliant, wonderful, absorbing, great.
And it is a winner." Ainsley Cohen Henriques, Director/Chairman of the Jamaican Jewish Heritage Center Committee
"Our kids are going to love it. Really well produced and well written." Zachary Edinger, Sexton at Congregation Shearith Israel, the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, NY.
"What an extraordinary amount of research went into it! And what a creative way of combining historical fiction and contemporary pictures. Kudos! Mazel tov!" Cynthia Levinson, award winning author of The Youngest Marcher and Fault Lines in the Constitution.
"[The Diary of Asser Levy] is very interesting and well done." Esme Berg, Executive Director of the New Amsterdam History Center