This post was written by Museum intern Lila Norris.
One of the most common questions we get from our visitors here at the museum is “Which deli is the best?” New Yorkers and tourists alike are always on the lookout for the best kosher (or kosher style, more typically) deli in the city, But it’s not as often that we wonder which was the first – how did the deli tradition get started in this city? Any iconic New York deli might try to tell you that it is the original, the oldest, or the best, but the first kosher deli is practically ancient history as far as New York timelines are concerned – it opened on November 15th, 1660 by a man named Asser Levy. Technically, it didn’t even open in New York – the city was still called New Amsterdam at the time.
Asser Levy, is believed to have been born in present day Lithuania, but eventually moved to Amsterdam in order to escape religious persecution. During his time in Amsterdam, Levy most likely learned about the opportunities in the New World and eventually moved to a Dutch colony in Brazil. However, he was once again forced to re-establish himself when the Portuguese took over and expelled many of the Jewish Colonists. So he made his way toward another Dutch settlement – New Amsterdam.
Which is how Asser Levy received the first-ever license given for a kosher butcher in New York on November 15th, 1660. Aside from being just the first of its kind in New York, it is quite possible that Levy’s deli was the first kosher butcher shop in America.
A kosher deli is about more than just a dietary restriction. Yes, it is the diet outlined by Jewish Law that states that all meat and dairy consumed must be ritualistically slaughtered and blessed by a rabbi. Under kosher law, certain types of food are prohibited altogether. But, the establishment of a kosher butcher in a neighborhood also signifies the establishment and solidity of the Jewish population. Levy’s new business could have been one of the first occasions of such Jewish permanence to happen on American soil.
This was not Asser Levy’s first “first.” He is likely the first Jew to serve in the New York militia, which he had to fight for the right to do. Under Governor Peter Stuyvesant, Jews and other ethnic groups in New Amsterdam were not allowed to fight in the colonial militia and were then charged a tax for not participating. The law stated that “Jews can not be permitted to serve as soldiers, but shall instead pay a monthly contribution for the exemption.” Asser petitioned successfully to overturn this unjust law, and went on to enlist to protect his colony.
He is also said to be the first Jewish man to own land in North America. By 1662, he had earned enough of a living for himself to be able to purchase a house on South William Street in Fort Orange, New York (today’s Albany). Owning property also allowed him to be the first Jewish man to serve on a jury! Shortly after this purchase, in 1664, he was considered among New York’s wealthiest businessmen and was part of the small group of established New Yorkers who were asked to lend the city money to support new fortifications against the encroaching English military.
Although not a household name, New York City does pay tribute to Asser Levy to this day. Between 23rd and 25th street along the East River, there is a small park dedicated to him called Asser Levy Place, including a recreation center that also bears his name. That building was originally built in 1904 as a public bath house, and today it is a designated New York City landmark, protecting it from demolition or drastic alteration. There is another park in his honor on Coney Island, named Asser Levy Park, and even an elementary school in Manhattan, the Asser Levy School.
Asser Levy was a true American entrepreneur. He was someone who may not have been able to see himself within the American dream, but who was able to fight and carve out a space for himself there. By doing so, he opened up space for all those who came after him. If it wasn’t for the first kosher deli in America, we might just be living without our New York tradition of the iconic Jewish Delicatessens.
If you want to learn more about Asser Levy, our friends at the Tenement Museum also wrote a blog post about the pioneering Jew. And if you’re interested in more early history of Jews in North America, Asser Levy is just one of several notable names you can learn by going down this Wikipedia rabbit hole. Enjoy!
Lila Norris is a sophomore Anthropology major at Eugene Lang College of Liberal Arts at the New School.