Honoring Commodore Levy: Jews in the military
When I studied history in grade school and high school, it was my least favorite subject. Dry and dull, a parade of disjointed dates and battles, all the juice had been squeezed out of it--which is a shame, because it needn't be that way. History is not only exciting, it's essential to know if we are to have even a hope of avoiding a repetition of our mistakes. What's more, history features real--and usually very fascinating--people.
You wouldn't think reporters would make the same errors as my old history texts. But sometimes, it seems they do.
Take this, for example, a rather ordinary article I spotted today in the Boston Globe. Originally written for the Washington Post, it's a serviceable but uninspired piece about the opening of the Commodore Uriah P. Levy Center and Jewish Chapel at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. The gist of the story is that although it took quite a while--longer than it should have--now
..Jewish midshipmen finally will have their own place on the campus to express their faith...The 35,000-square-foot center includes the 410-seat chapel, which will be used only for Jewish services, as well as a character learning center and fellowship hall for midshipmen of all faiths...With today's dedication of the center, the Naval Academy will become the last of the three US military academies to provide Jews with their own worship space.
Later in the story the following sentence appears:
The chapel's architect, Joseph Boggs, led visitors on a tour Thursday, showing them a pavilion at the chapel's entrance that was modeled after Thomas Jefferson's home at Monticello and a nearly 45-foot-high wall that is a replica of the Western Wall of Jerusalem.
Sounds nice; Monticello and the Western Wall. The Western Wall part makes sense--but what about that Monticello reference? That one's a bit mysterious, is it not? After all, it's not as though Jefferson had all that much to do with the Navy or with Judaism--although he did champion the cause of religious freedom.
The key to Monticello's presence in the chapel lies in the background story the Globe/Post article leaves out, that of Commodore Uriah Levy, the man after whom the new building is named. Therein lies a colorful tale; Levy is a character well worth knowing about.
It turns out that Commodore Levy (1792-1862) ("Commodore" being the highest rank in the US Navy at the time Levy held the title) was, among other things, a Jefferson buff, and was responsible for buying and restoring Monticello, which had fallen into disrepair after Jefferson's death. And, in fact, one of Jefferson's well-known letters concerning religious freedom was penned to Mordecai Noah, who just happened to have been a cousin of Levy's (they shared maternal grandfather Jonas Phillips, a Revolutionary War soldier of some renown. The Levy family in general appears to have had a propensity for distinguished military service).
The initial saving and restoration of Monticello was only one of Commodore Levy's claims to fame. Another was that he was the man most responsible for the Navy's abandonment of the practice of flogging.
The irrepressible Levy's life reads like something out of a picaresque novel. One of my favorite details is that he ran away from home at the age of ten to become a cabin boy, returning a few years later to Philadelphia, his home town, for his Bar Mitzvah (when Levy made the traditional declaration "now I am a man" to the congregation, I would imagine they were inclined to agree with him rather more than is usual at a Bar Mitzvah). He shipped out again a few years later and spent most of his life in the Navy, rising up in the ranks in a career not without its setbacks, although he took a few years out to amass a generous fortune in real estate.
Among Levy's setbacks were what may have been a record number of court-martials for a single person: six. Levy was hot-headed and proud, and some of these court-martials concerned fights, many of them occasioned by insults to his religion (in fact, in one of these duels he killed a man). Whether or not he was a Dreyfus-like figure being persecuted for religious reasons is not entirely clear, although he apparently thought so. At any rate, he had a phoenix-like ability to rise from each court-martial to even greater heights than before, and spearheaded the successful anti-flogging drive.
Here's one of my favorite incidents in a life loaded with them:
In March of 1825 Levy joined the "Cyane" as the second lieutenant. While on the "Cyane," Levy became very popular after saving the life of an American who had been impressed into the Brazilian Navy. The Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro, was struck by Levy's courageous act and ordered that no U.S. citizen ever again be impressed into the Brazilian Navy. Pedro then offered him the rank of captain in the Imperial Brazilian Navy. Levy declined, exhibiting his patriotism by stating, "I would rather serve as a cabin boy in the United States Navy than hold the rank of Admiral in any other service in the world."
Here's another chapter in an improbable life:
...Levy returned to America, and, with the start of the Civil War, Levy offered his military services as well as his entire fortune to save the Union. Instead, Lincoln installed him on the Court-Martial Board in Washington, despite his six courts-martial.
Six court-martials, and he ends up on the other side of the bench.
Levy's life is fascinating. But Levy was just one man who served proudly in the US Navy. Levy is not alone, of course. It turns out that Jews have long had a significant presence in the Navy and in the military. You may be surprised (as I was) to find that at times their participation has been slightly higher than their percentage in the US population as a whole:
Block [a 1961 Annapolis graduate] said the Jewish chapel's presence will correct "the general perception that we don't serve in the military. People think that all Jewish boys do everything they can to avoid going into the service." In fact, out of 16.3 million U.S. military personnel who served in World War II, an estimated 550,000 were Jewish. Today, there are about 100 Jews out of 4,000 midshipmen at the academy.
It would be hard to imagine a more appropriate choice than that of Commodore Uriah Levy for the name of the new Annapolis chapel. Levy was dedicated to the Navy, his country, the Jewish faith, and the cause of religious freedom, and this chapel combines them all.