PHILADELPHIA ““ Uriah P. Levy, the first Jewish commodore of the U.S. Navy, was one for voyages.
His first came in 1802, at the age of 10, when he offered his services to the captain of the USS New Jerusalem, stipulating that he be returned to Philadelphia in time for his bar mitzvah at Cong. Mikveh Israel, then less than a century old.
More than 200 years later, Levy, in the form of a two-meter-high statue weighing more than 1,000 pounds, has arrived back home. The artwork of the man famous for abolishing flogging in the Navy and later purchasing the home of Thomas Jefferson began its journey in a Moscow studio and has landed atop an enormous pedestal outside the same Old City synagogue where Levy once read from the Torah.
The two men responsible for bringing the monument here – both graduates of Philadelphia’s Akiba Hebrew Academy who now live on opposite sides of an ocean – are hoping that its prominent placement across from Independence Mall will prompt generations of children to ask their parents, “Who is that man and what did he do?”
“Great American people need to be permanently remembered by their people,” said Gary “Yuri” Tabach, a recently retired U.S. Navy captain living in Moscow who hoped to be in Philadelphia this week for the statue’s official dedication ceremony.
For financial and logistical help, Tabach recruited his high school classmate Joshua Landes, the son of Beth Sholom Congregation’s emeritus rabbi, Aaron Landes, who is a retired Navy chaplain and rear admiral.
“I have always been proud of Jewish service,” said Joshua Landes, 49, a wealth manager who lives in Riverdale, N.Y., and sits on the board of the American Jewish Historical Society. “As a lover of America and a lover of the Jewish people and lover of my native Philadelphia, I feel that all the stars aligned for us to get prominent real estate right on Independence Mall.”
Tabach, also 49, was born in the Soviet Union, grew up in Northeast Philadelphia and went on to a long career in the armed forces. Until his retirement in September, Tabach had served as the chief of staff for the NATO Military Liaison Mission in Moscow. Before that, he headed up the NATO Center of Excellence-Defense Against Terrorism.
It is because of Levy, who confronted rampant anti-Semitism during his career, that Jews have a place in the U.S. military, Tabach said in a phone interview from Moscow.
So Tabach desired to pay homage to Levy the way Levy, who died in 1862, once did for Jefferson – by commissioning a statue.
“Levy was a dedicated Jew” who accomplished great things, said Tabach, who also said that he is currently volunteering for several Jewish groups in Russia, including Hillel and Friends of the Israel Defense Forces.
Levy is remembered for many things, one being his refusal to bow to anti-Semitism. Between 1845 and 1855, Levy was denied command of his own ship on 16 occasions, and finally kicked out of the Navy on the grounds that he was an inefficient officer. Ultimately, he regained his commission and rose to the rank of commodore, which is akin to the title of admiral today.
Then there was his decision to modernize the Navy by abolishing cruel punishment. Finally, there was his fascination with this country’s third president, who Levy believed was the founding father most responsible for erecting the barrier between church and state, which allowed a Jew to prosper.
In 1836, Levy, who had also made a fortune in real estate, purchased Monticello, Jefferson’s then-dilapidated estate outside Charlottesville, Va.
At a time when the concept of historic preservation did not exist, Levy spared no expense to restore the home and grounds to their former glory. Although it again fell into disrepair during the Civil War, Levy’s nephew, Jefferson Monroe Levy, took over and was most responsible for the full preservation of Jefferson’s architectural masterpiece.
Uriah Levy also commissioned a statue of Jefferson by French sculptor David d’Angers, and in 1834 presented it as a gift to Congress. Levy is buried in the Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue’s cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Levy never achieved the same fame as other Philadelphia Jews from the early days of the republic, such as Revolutionary War financier Haym Salomon. Levy, however, has received more respect in recent years. In 2005, the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., opened a new chapel named for him. The same year, a play about his life called “Levy’s Ghost” was staged in Baltimore and revolved around a dialogue between Levy and the ghost of Thomas Jefferson.
Still, Tabach felt that outside of the Navy, Levy has never really gotten his due.
While stationed in Russia a few years ago, Tabach met Russian sculptor Gregory Pototsky at a party hosted by the Egyptian embassy in Moscow. After some discussions and negotiations over price, which Tabach and Landes would not disclose – they did say it was tens of thousands of dollars – Pototsky began designing a piece based on a portrait of Levy signing the order to abolish flogging.
Landes financed the construction of a large pedestal for the Levy statue.
So they had their statue and a pedestal, but where were they going to put it?
Initially, they had hoped to display it at Penn’s Landing, the site where Levy boarded his first ship. The two said, however, that finding a site on city land proved difficult.
Back in 2009, the piece spent about six months on display at the Center for Jewish History in Manhattan. After that, it went into storage, its future somewhat uncertain.
Landes then learned that space on the Fifth Street side of Mikveh Israel became available because the 25-foot-tall 1874 monument known as “Religious Liberty,” which had been in place since 1976, was being moved a block southward to the new home of the National Museum of American Jewish History.
Tabach, however, who had given a miniature version of the piece to the U.S. embassy in Moscow, was adamant that the art not be affiliated with a religious institution.
Then, just over a year ago, fate intervened. His mother fell and broke her arm. Feeling he needed to be by her side, he flew from Russia to visit her at Jefferson University Hospital. Yom Kippur came around and he did not know where to go for shul; Landes suggested he try Mikveh Israel.
That experience changed his perspective, he said. The site, across from Independence Mall and not far from the Liberty Bell, was perfect, he said.
Some Jews might frown on the practice of erecting statues, but there is nothing in Jewish law that forbids the building of monuments, said Rabbi Albert Gabbai, Mikveh Israel’s religious leader.
“Nobody is going to go and worship that statue, it’s just a piece of art,” said Gabbai, a Sephardi Orthodox rabbi. “It’s a tribute not only to the congregation, but to the Jewish community and the whole nation.”
JTA/ Jewish Exponent