Daniela Weil is the author of the historical middle-grade novel, The Diary of Asser Levy: First Jewish Citizen of New York (Pelican Publishing, 2020). The novel tells the story of the Jewish refugees who arrived in Manhattan in 1654. Beautifully crafted, with lots of visual interest, including maps, photos, documents, and more, the novel introduces readers to a fascinating slice of Jewish history. Daniela was born and raised in Sao Paulo, Brazil, but now lives in Houston, Texas. After attending Graded School, in her hometown of São Paulo, Brazil, Daniela Weil graduated from Brandeis University with a Bachelor’s degree Biology. Daniela then became both a marine mammal researcher, and a scientific illustrator. After moving to America, Daniela worked as a 3D medical illustrator and animator. Having been bitten by the history bug, she is passionate about digging up and writing about her diverse cultural heritage. Daniela lives in Austin, Texas, with her husband Erik, and energetic daughter Lucy.
The Diary of Asser Levy: First Jewish Citizen of New York is a truly special book for your readers. I had a feeling that the “story behind the story” was going to be very interesting! I couldn’t wait to learn more about Daniel’s research and writing process.
Tell me how you discovered the existence of Asser Levy and what drew you to write about him?
I had not heard about Asser Levy, even though I was familiar with the story of the 23 Jews that arrived in New York from Brazil in 1654. I am Brazilian, and in Brazil, that history is so well known that it was even a theme of the carnaval parade in Rio a couple of years ago. It was only once I began more in depth research that I learned about Asser Levy. He is perhaps our first Jewish-American “hero”. In New York he is relatively well known, and there are several landmarks named after him. But outside of New York, most people including Jews have not really heard of him. He is a four hundred year old version of the classic “American Dream” story. He arrived as an immigrant in a foreign land with nothing, faced hostility, religious persecution and adversity, fought for his rights in court, won, worked hard, became a Jewish trailblazer (first Jewish citizen, first kosher butcher, first Jewish landowner), gathered a substantial wealth, and made history.
Your story dates back to the 1600s. What were some of the challenges you faced doing research from so long ago?
That is a great question. It is very hard to research primary sources from that long ago, especially if they are written in old Dutch. I read most if not all of the academic papers written by historians, and went through their citations, always digging for the primary sources. Some sources I was able to find translated, but there is dispute among historians as to the accuracy of the translations, which leads to controversies in the story. Other documents I found with the help of a Dutch colleague in the online archives of the Dutch West India Company. Some parts of the story are just not documented, and historians fill in the gaps with their best theories. I found that the most challenging part of my research was believing in a possible version of the story that differed from the current views of the historians, based on the evidence I found. Since I am not a historian, I didn’t have much credibility amongst the scholars and was sometimes seen as a “historical heretic”, which is interesting because my heroes were all dealing with being heretics as well. But I did ultimately find support from some people who are experts in New Netherland history, and they helped me to find confidence in my theory and move forward. Also, fictionalizing the story opens room for interpretation, but I’d love the readers to understand that much of what I wrote is based on history.
You do a lovely job of weaving historical facts with your story’s narrative. Can you share a bit about your writing process?
I wrote many, many versions of the book before it became what it is. I started out writing a nonfiction picture book, which was well within my comfort area for writing. But I soon noticed that non-fiction was going to be hard to pull off, while still being able to make the story appealing for youth. I thought that I could focus on Asser Levy since he is such a classic protagonist and a named historical figure, and Stuyvesant is a fantastic antagonist (and so much more really). So I decided to write it from Asser Levy’s point of view, starting out with him as a young adult so that kids could identify with him, and have him narrate the history. But I also did not want to lose all the non-fiction elements that I had so thoroughly gathered. In my mind’s eye, the book was a blend of nonfiction and fiction, a fusion. But this genre doesn’t really officially exist, and I struggled with its acceptance in the editorial world. I am very happy that Pelican allowed me to fulfill it in the vision that I had for it.
What are some interesting facts you learned about New York history that you didn’t include in your final draft?
Oh my God, I knew very little about the American Dutch colonial period before my research and I became a total New Amsterdam FANATIC! There was really a lot more that I could have said about New Amsterdam. So many interesting stories there. Perhaps I will write them one day. Did you know that it was through New Amsterdam that Santa Klaus arrived in the US? That Stuyvesant had a pear tree he planted which lived until relatively recently, and you can still visit that location? That a black surgeon practiced medicine in New Amsterdam? The story of the slave Manuel de Gerrit the Reus and how he drew the short straw to be hung and was saved by divine intervention. The Flushing Remonstrance, the very first religious freedom uprising… I can go on and on!
The book design is very interesting – lots of graphic elements as well as the use of a font style that is helpful for readers with dyslexia. Did you have any input on the design? What was your reaction when you first saw the completed book?
Thank you for that compliment. I did have a vision for the design, and offered to do the book layout myself, which Pelican accepted. I made the cover and collected and arranged all the visuals in the book. It was my editor (Nina Kooij’s) idea to have the book printed in OpenDyslexic- it would work well visually with the sort of diary-ish, handwritten look AND accommodate a whole other reading audience who is often overlooked.
When I saw the book for the first time, I could not believe it actually existed. I spent the last 6 years working on it and there were many more times that I believed it would never exist than that it would get printed one day. I was very pleased with how it looked. And yet, as a published author, you feel so vulnerable because now people will actually read it and you’re exposed to criticism and reviews and all of that. But so far I think people are pleased with it and I hope that many middle schoolers (and their parents) learn about this incredible story.
Thank you, Daniela. Wishing you lots of success!
Learn more about Daniela and her work here: Daniela Weil