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Playing Out 'A Sense of History'

July 14, 2005 By:
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"Levy's Ghost" cast members Tim King (left) as Thomas Jefferson and Tony Colavito as the Philadelphia-born Jew Uriah Phillips Levy on the USS Constellation
The story goes something like this: In 1802, a 10-year-old Philadelphian named Uriah Phillips Levy approached the captain of the USS New Jerusalem and offered his services as a cabin boy, hoping to learn the ways of the sea.

Seafaring lore has it that the precocious child, one of 14 siblings, also negotiated the stipulation that he be returned to the city within three years; a Jewish boy couldn't possibly miss his Bar Mitzvah!

As they say, the rest is history.

Levy - who became a Bar Mitzvah in 1805 at Philadelphia's own Congregation Mikveh Israel - went on to rise to the rank of commodore in the U.S. Navy, the first Jew to do so, and successfully campaigned to have the practice of flogging abolished on American vessels. But he is perhaps best remembered for his decision to purchase and restore Monticello, the Virginia estate of Thomas Jefferson, the founding father who Levy considered the architect of American religious liberty.

Now, the life and accomplishments of the naval commander and historic preservationist, who died one month shy of his 70th birthday in 1862, are being honored in several ways.

"Levy's Ghost," a play penned by a Maryland doctor that focuses on the officer's sometimes tumultuous life, is in the midst of a sold-out, six-show run aboard the deck of the USS Constellation, a Civil War-era naval vessel that now sits in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. In addition, the newly constructed Jewish Chapel at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., set for official dedication in September, will bear the name Uriah Phillips Levy.

"He had an incredible life. Here is a man who rescued Monticello," said Lewis Schrager, the 49-year-old author of "Levy's Ghost."

"This is the story of a man who dedicated himself to service in the United States Navy since the time he was boy, and yet as a Jew faced many obstacles," he added.

At the Heart of the Drama
Levy was also known to be a bit of a hot-head, especially when it came to defending his honor and his religion. According to the play, in 1816, on the banks of the Delaware River in what is now Camden, N.J., Levy shot and killed Lt. William Potter in a duel after the man referred to Levy as a "damn Jew."

And it didn't end there.

Throughout his naval career, Levy often encountered hardships because he was a Jew. Between 1845 to 1855, Capt. Levy was denied command of his own ship 16 separate times, and finally kicked out of the Navy due to "inefficiency." Levy's struggle to regain his Navy commission while confronting the anti-Semitic attitudes within the military ranks lies at the heart of Schrager's historical drama.

Schrager - who like his protagonist also helps protect Americans in his day job as a biological terrorism expert with the Food and Drug Administration - became fascinated with Levy's story after a 2002 visit to Monticello, on the outskirts of Charlottesville, Va., with his wife and two children.

"We had completed our tour and were led toward Jefferson's burial place. We came across a single isolated tombstone, and the name on it said Rachel Levy," recalled Schrager, who added that he initially thought the grave might have belonged to a slave who had taken a biblical name, until he saw the date of death - the seventh of Iyar 5591.

Uriah's mother lived at Monticello from 1836, the time he purchased the estate, until her death three years later.

Levy, a successful businessman, felt he owed his prosperity - his very inclusion as an American - to Jefferson's insistence that the United States erect a barrier separating private worship and belief from public life and government, according to Susan Stein, curator at Monticello.

Stein explained that acquiring Monticello was "a very bold act that was born out of Levy's respect and admiration for Jefferson, and for Jefferson's advocacy for the separation for church and state. What he did was so exceptional; people were not in the business of preserving historic houses as they are now. This was almost a revolutionary thing to do."

She added that attempts to restore Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, did not take place until the 1850s, and that the preservationist movement did not take off in full force until the second half of the 20th century.

Uriah wasn't the only Levy whose name is associated with the Jefferson homestead. During the Civil War, the Confederate Army confiscated Monticello, but in 1879 after a protracted court battle, Jefferson Monroe Levy, Uriah's nephew, acquired the property and held it until 1923, when he sold it to the Thomas Jefferson Foundation, the current caretakers.

And in "Levy's Ghost," the spirit referred to in the title turns out to be Jefferson himself. At the play's outset, the author of the Declaration of Independence, who at the time of the play's events had been dead for nearly 30 years, appears before Levy, as the Navy man is trying to figure out what to say to the Naval Board of Inquiry, which was weighing whether or not to reinstate Levy. (It did.)

"What that [scene] allows me to do is raise issues of separation of church and state, and some of the philosophical basis of those issues," explained Schrager. "Jefferson's fundamental religious beliefs - those beliefs are terribly important to review and remember."

The author believes the play has added significance because church and state have been all over the news lately, from two U.S. Supreme Court decisions over whether the Ten Commandments can be displayed on public property to allegations of religious intolerance and coercion at the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Still, the work does not gloss over the fact that both Jefferson and Levy were slave owners; the play actually paints Levy as a hypocrite for derailing prejudice and championing freedom while denying it to others.

On Sunday, more than 150 people boarded the USS Constellation to see the show's fourth performance. A canopy provided some respite from the sun, still brutal in the early evening.

While most of the play takes place at Monticello, a few scenes, including Levy's witnessing of a Navy man receiving 12 lashes for no good reason, appropriately take place aboard a ship.

Director Harriet Lynn heads the Heritage Theatre Artists' Consortium, which produced the play and picked the location. She explained that during the flogging scene - when the audience looks out and sees the ropes, the sail's mast, the bow of the ship and the water in the backdrop - "you really feel a sense of history, and are in the moment."

That's exactly what the author had in mind. Taking a break from folding up chairs after the performance, Schrager said he hoped people would "go back and look at the world of the founders, and see what it is that they intended. This is an America that was explicitly created to make room for people of all beliefs."

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