Monday, September 19, 2005

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.


At 9:07 PM, September 19, 2005, Blogger David said...

Sounds like there would be a great movie in Levy's story.

At 9:38 PM, September 19, 2005, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very nice job of going behind the surface story to provide a more in-depth and much more interesting story. I agree that history as taught in our public schools (private schools?) is excrutiatingly dull. At least it was when I was in school. I remember it mostly as a lengthy list of seemingly unconnected events: first this then that then this then that...without much thought about the meaning and overall significance of what was happening.

Your getting the story behind the story, which the Globe and Post didn't bother with or know enough to do, made for a far more interesting and informative piece--about a highly unusual man and the under appreciated presence, past and present, of people of the Jewish faith in this country's naval forces. The background you provided also adds greatly to the readers' appreciation of the opening of the Levy Center and Jewish Chapel at the US Naval Academy. So, what's with the newspapers? Are our newspaper reporters and editors too much a product of our public schools, or is intellectual curiosity going the way of the dodo bird?

At 10:59 PM, September 19, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

Wondering why it's often thought Jews are scarce in the military.

Perhaps it's because Jews were disproportionately active and noticeable in the Viet Nam anti-war movement, some being among the most "active" (read disruptive and violent) that it seemed to go without thinking that as a group Jews would disdain military service. My guess is, sans evidence, the thinking didn't predate VN.

When I was in college, one of my wife's (then girlfriend) friends had a fiance in naval intel overseas someplace. They were both Jewish. We did the best we could, taking her out for hot fudge sundaes to console her.

I recall about six or seven years ago having an on-line conversation with a Jewish woman about the place of Jews in society. She was in New York, as I recall. I suggested that part of the separation might stem from a perception that Jews don't take the dirty work. When a fallen cop or firefighter is buried, it's mostly a Catholic service, sometimes Protestant, rarely Jewish. I didn't know that to be true in the sense of having researched it, but I'd followed it more or less and that was the impression I got. But I said it to check her response.
More or less, it was, we're not that kind of people.
That hurts.
She didn't disagree. She didn't disagree and provide data.
She implicitly agreed and apparently thought that was the way it was supposed to be. Other people do that work.
One like her offsets a dozen Commodore Levys.

At 2:44 AM, September 20, 2005, Blogger camojack said...

I recently read an article about him in one of my nautical publications...serendipity?

At 9:04 AM, September 20, 2005, Blogger Ocean Guy said...

Thanks for the post and your extra work, you've given life to a sterile Press Release. As a Jew who is also a Naval Academy Alumni, Commodore Levy's story and the opening of the Levy Center fill me with pride.

I'm glad to see others taken with his story.

At 11:39 AM, September 20, 2005, Blogger David Thomson said...

Yesterday the National Review posted an article about Ted Rubin:

“When the White House called Corporal Tibor "Ted" Rubin to tell him he was to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor he thought it was one of his friends playing a joke. President Bush has called the 76-year-old Korean War veteran "one of the greatest Jewish soldiers America has ever known." But Ted is characteristically modest. "I was just a country boy," he told me, "but next week I'll be honored with the country's highest award. This is unbelievable."

At 12:04 PM, September 20, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

The dominant Anglo culture has been reluctant to publicly acknowledge all minorities and their military contributions. The Navajo Code Talkers were not honored until just very recently, so it is not at all surprising that Jewish military leaders have been kept on the back pages, so to speak, of history books as well. This historical discrimination extends into most elements of our history. There were many Jewish pioneers for instance that ventured into the Western frontier of America. The image of a Torah in the saddle bags of a cowboy just didn't fit the bill of fare that the dominant Anglo culture wanted to present to the rest of the nation. Nope! There will be no Kippahs under the cowboy hats in our Western movies, but they were there. And speaking of Jewish people and heroes, Simon Wiesenthal has just died. Now there was truly a great man who accomplished great things in his life. I rather doubt that outside of the Jewish communities there will be much said about his passing and his accomplishments.

At 2:03 PM, September 20, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

I don't know about honoring the Navajo Code Talkers. I'd heard about them thirty years ago.

"honor" them? For what? They did a job like millions of other grunts. Their special ability to talk in a language that the Japanese could never figure out was what they were born to speak.

We only honor them because they are a minority and we're in the minoity-honoring mode these days.

They deserve the same honors their non-Navajo comrades in the front lines got. No more, no less, and I expect that, having been soldiers, they'd say the same.

At 6:49 PM, September 20, 2005, Blogger Solomon said...

"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."

If only someone had informed Oliver Stone before...Alexander.

Nice post.

At 3:35 AM, September 21, 2005, Blogger Goesh said...

Well Richard, I'm not Indian or Jewish and I was a grunt in Nam'. Study up some and see how the Code Talkers turned the tide at Guadacanal, the first stepping stone in the Pacific. The Code Talkers saved a hell of alot more lives than your average grunt ever did or possibly could have all throughout the Pacific. That is what the honoring them is all about, so from one ex military man to another, get your head out of your ass, white boy. What the hell do you think Bush had an honoring ceremony for? PR? The Pacific campaign could well have drug on for another year or more without the Code Talkers. Given the fact that there was a concentrated effort to eradicate Native culture in America, I find it ironic that the same language so disdained by the dominant culture saved so many white lives. White boys couldn't come up with a code the Japanese couldn't break. Maybe that's the part of honoring them Richard you can't do or don't like, since they did save thousands of dumb white boy's lives way back then. Yeah, dumb, Richard - that's the operative word here because the Japs could not break the Dineh language code.

At 7:40 AM, September 21, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...


The code talkers saved lives. Without them, some other way would have had to be found.

The scientists who developed the atomic bomb saved more lives. Millions more lives.

And when they set the first one off, at Trinity, they didn't know--they hoped they knew but weren't sure--what would happen, including to them.

And without the atomic bomb, the Pacific Campaign would have dragged on and killed millions more.

So if you're interested in honoring people who saved lives, the code talkers have lots of competition. The guys who developed radar before the Japs got it. The guys who won at Midway, against odds.

No more. No less.

And, yes. PR.

That whites tried previously to eradicate Indian culture is true, not relevant, but, as you point out, an irony, considering the situation

At 9:23 PM, September 21, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

History is always interesting once you get the context. Propaganda is always more effective once you leech the context out, or modify it. I wonder if the newspapers and the history books know which technique they are using, or variation of techniques.

The thing is, I have not seen a movie that quite adequately captures the qualities of heroism as another medium such as a book could. I hear that the old post-WWII movies were nice in telling war stories, but it seems that art has been lost, or covered up by special effects and big name directors.

That whites tried previously to eradicate Indian culture is true,

The whites were usually just trying to protect their family, stake out a livelyhood on the land, and remembered how them Indian atrocities committed in the past.

The Navajo Indians and the codetalkers are the perfect example of a conquered culture, and the correct way to assimilate such a culture so that both sides are happy, and also in such a way that it benefits the broader culture. The Germans' final solution was to kill what they found disagreeable, and so they didn't deserve to win.

The American's solution, was to overwhelm any competition, and once overwhelmed, try and offer some autonomy to save face and allow people to live their own lives so long as they don't threaten us. Our way gave us the edge, the German's way removed their edge (Jews fought well in Germany's military), so we deserved to win and the Navajo Codetalkers are a great example of the success of American moral highground and the correctness of our philosophy in war. If that message is neither understood nor conveyed by people who honor the Navajo Codetalkers, then that is their problem, not mine. People can do what they like.

Even though history would have gone better had there not been a bunch of ignoramuses running around in the past, back in the time when rednecks weren't cool or misunderstood.

At 10:14 PM, September 21, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...


You may be on to something.

About twice a generation, the striped-pants set (diplomats) screw up and the eighteen-year-old spearmen--or riflemen, depending on the millenium--have to turn out to take care of the mess.

Recently, in the US, the white guys are expected to do their thing and go home and shut up. When a member of a minority does the same thing and gets a special honor, I see it as pandering, or condescending, or low expectations.

You think it's demonstrating the success of the American experiment.
I think it does demonstrate the success, but I don't think that's the conscious or unconscious motivation behind it.

At 9:53 PM, September 23, 2005, Blogger Ymarsakar said...

Recently, in the US, the white guys are expected to do their thing and go home and shut up. When a member of a minority does the same thing and gets a special honor, I see it as pandering, or condescending, or low expectations.

Some of the reactions may be because of low expectations, but the reactions of any single human being are multi-faceted. Especially in this case. Since a lot of people seem to think that "being conquered" in general is such a bad thing. Being conquered is only a bad thing if what you got was worse than what you had. Anyone making a deal knows this.

So people may react in a surprised manner because they expect all conquered populations to be resentful and bitching about it like they seem to hear constantly on the Middle East and the Euros.

Given the Europeans had colonized the ME, that isn't very surprising to me.

You think it's demonstrating the success of the American experiment.
I think it does demonstrate the success, but I don't think that's the conscious or unconscious motivation behind it.

I do think so, yes.

But the results weren't consciously worked for only because this result is because the sum was greater than its parts. A soldier may not want to consciously become a hero and be the decisive factor in the decisive battle that decides the decisive war that saved his country, but all the training and discipline of that soldier can indeed contribute to such a result.

At 6:16 PM, September 24, 2005, Anonymous Richard Aubrey said...

Your last.

The "it" I was referring to was not the actions of the soldiers, but the special honors for minority soldiers.

At 2:18 AM, March 27, 2006, Blogger google nut said...

I just happened upon your blog and it's proven to be quite interesting. I run a bird feeder website at and I have some deals you may find interesting this spring. I will return often to your blog and check out your new posts. Good luck and keep it going!

At 2:41 AM, February 08, 2007, Blogger USNR-R said...

The most famous Jewish US Naval officer of the 20th century was Captain Hyman Rickover, who was un-retired by his supporters in the Congress and retained on active service and who remained until he received four stars. He too was a graduate of the Naval Academy. But his photo and bio in the Academy annual (yearbook) was inserted on a separate perforated page for easy removal.. it was standard practice for almost fifty years to either not include Jewish graduates in the yearbook, or to place them on separate perforated pages, so their presence could be erased from memory.


Post a Comment

<< Home

Powered by Blogger