Special Chapter 01: The Story of Uriah Levy

American Jewish History

From 2020 – 2024 I taught American Jewish history at a private school in Passaic, NJ. During that time, a lot of materials were created and I share them for you here to use to teach others.

A short play with too much narration – by Moshe Feigin.

Uriah Levy – The Jewish navy officer with a life story you could not make up.  He loved Thomas Jefferson so much that he fixed up Jefferson’s house and donated a statute of Jefferson to the government which stood in front of the white house until 1870.  

Levy was kicked out of the navy six times and somehow kept coming back . . .

Props if you have them:

– toy gun (x2)

– length of string (to act as a toy whip)

– paint brush (preferably blue)

– a sign with the word ‘thief’

– a sign shaped like a bottle with the word ‘drunk’

– feathers

Narrator 1: Uriah Levy’s great-great-grandfather was the doctor to King John V of Portugal.  George Washington attended the wedding of Lecy’s grandparents.  Uriah believed America needed Jewish leaders and he set out to be a leader.  Not every Jew was sure this was who they wanted to lead them.

— Part 1: Age 14 —  with sailor and Judge

Narrator 1: Part 1 . . . 1809, Philadelphia.  The British are looking for Americans to drag into their navy.  This would lead to the war of 1812, a few years later.  British sailors in Philadelphia march into a tavern with their weapons at their sides:

British sailor: “Picking up runaway sailors!  Show your certificates!”

Uriah: “Here’s mine, here’s mine… it shows I’m an American.”

British sailor: “You don’t look like an American to me.  You look like a Jew.”

Uriah: “I am an American and a Jew.”

British sailor: “If the Americans have Jews manning their ships it’s no wonder they sail so badly.”

Narrator 1: Uriah punches him in the jaw and another soldier hits Levy over the head with the butt of his rifle.  He’s dragged onto a British ship going to Jamaica, a British island. 

British sailor: “So, it’s been weeks of cleaning the ship and working as our slave.  Are you ready to take the oath and join the British navy?”

Uriah: “Sir, I cannot take the oath.  I am an American and I cannot swear allegiance to your king.  And I am a Hebrew, and do not swear on your testament, or with my head uncovered.”

Narrator 1: The captain, unsure of what to do and being a little impressed with Uriah for holding to what he believes, brings him before a judge in Jamaica . . .

Judge: “Another one forced onto a ship?  Levy’s papers appear to be in order.  They look real enough to me.  You may return to Philadelphia.”

— Part 2: Joins the Navy — with Friend and Potter

Narrator 2: In 1811 Uriah purchased a ship and names it the George Washington.  

Uriah: I had passed through every grace of service – cabin boy, ordinary seaman, able-bodied seaman, boatswain, third, second, first mate, and captain.  I have even hung this mezuzah on my cabin door, a gift from my mother.

Friend: Sir, we’re in Africa on land – since you left your ship has been stolen!”

Uriah: “After months finding rides, I’ve made it from Africa back to the United States without money.  I have chosen to join the navy.  The navy gives me little hope of promotion or gain.  The navy does give the best proof that I love my country.  My ship regularly lands in Manhattan where I go to shul at Shearith Israel.”

Narrator 2: During the War of 1812, the British captured his ship and threw him in jail … 

Uriah: The one thing I had most wanted to do in prison was to organize a Jewish congregation.  But I can only find four Jews in this prison.

Narrator 2: Uriah makes it home and a friend says . . . 

Friend: Nine out of ten of your commanders in the navy won’t care that you’re Jewish.  The tenth will make your life miserable.

Uriah: What will be the future of our Navy if others such as I refused to serve because of the prejudices of a few?  There will be other Hebrews.  I will help give them a chance to serve.”

Narrator 2: A few months later Uriah is at a Navy party in uniform and Lieutenant Potter brushes into his shoulder … and then harder … and then a third time even harder. Uriah slaps him.

Potter: You dang Jew!  I challenge you to a duel!

— Part 3: The Duel — with Potter, Jury, Potter’s friends

Narrator 3: Duels are against the law though the laws aren’t always enforced.  The dueling code says, “a man who makes arms his profession cannot with honor decline an invitation from a social equal.” A crowd comes to watch the duel. 

Uriah: Shema, Yisroel….

Potter: Uh?

Uriah: I also wish to say that although I have perfect aim I shall not fire at my opponent.  It would be wiser if we stop now!

Potter: Coward!

Narrator 3: Ten paces.  Turn and fire.

Narrator 3: Potter misses.  Uriah shoots into the air.

Potter: ARGGGH!!! I’m reloading! According to the rules, you must now do the same!

Narrator 3: Potter misses.  Uriah shoots in the air.

Potter’s friends: Are you satisfied?  Leave with honor!

Potter: No!

Narrator 3: Round 3. Potter misses.  Uriah shoots in the air.

Narrator 3: Round 4. Potter misses.  Uriah shoots in the air.

Uriah: Friends of Mr. Potter! Stop him or I must!

Narrator 3: Round 5. 

Potter: I must have his life!

Narrator 3: He shoots Uriah in the ear.  Uriah shoots him dead in the chest.  Uriah is taken to court and …

Jury: Any man brave enough to fire in the air and let his opponent take deadly aim at him deserves his life.  He is found not guilty.

— Part 4 Uriah’s Promotion — with Ship commander and sailor

Narrator 4: A few days later, Uriah gets into a fight with Lieutenant Bond as he can’t seem to keep out of trouble.  Bond calls him a “dang Jew”.  Both Uriah and Bond are told to behave better in the future.  Some time later President Monroe made Uriah a U.S. Navy officer in 1817, the first Jewish officer.  Uriah goes to his new assignment, rowed to a ship named The United States.

Uriah:  Sir, I am reporting for duty.

Ship commander: You will be a disturbing influence on my ship.

Uriah: I have orders from your boss to join this ship!

Commander: “I have as many officers as I need and want.  Leave this ship.

Narrator 4: Uriah leaves and is sent back a second time.

Uriah: Sir – here is a second letter from your boss saying I must join this ship.  Also, why did you make me wait two hours to tell you this?

Narrator 4: The commander walks away uninterested as a sailor walks towards him.

Commander: Who is this you’ve brought me?

Sailor: This man returned from shore leave drunk!

Commander: Whip him! FLOG HIM!

Narrator 4: The man receives 30 lashes – each one tearing further and further into… nevermind.  

Not long after, Uriah sees a sailor whipping two boys and he tries to stop them.  The man answers him, according to Uriah, in a “mocking and insulting” tone and so Uriah slaps him.

Uriah is brought to court and the judge is the commander of the ship who didn’t want him there in the first place!  Uriah is kicked out of the navy – this is called a court martial. 

President James Monroe himself reverses the court martial.

— Part 5 Court martialed again and again — with President, Sailor, and Weaver

Narrator 5: Before Uriah learned that he was back in the navy, he got into a fight with another sailor …

Uriah: This is my rowboat, Williamson.

Williamson: No, it’s mine!

Uriah and Williamson fighting like six grade boys: It’s mine… no it’s mine… it’s mine… Liar! Scoundrel! Rascal! Coward!

Narrator 5: Uriah went to town and anywhere people would listen he read his letter….

Uriah: Williamson attacked my feelings and insulted me in the grossest manner . . . come see me Williamson and I expect an answer.

Narrator 5: Instead Uriah is brought to court and gives a long speech about anti-semitism.  It’s a really good speech – the play is too long already though.  Anyway, the court found him guilty and kicked him out of the navy a third time.  Two years later, President Monroe steps in.

President Monroe: Although Levy’s conduct merited censure, it is considered that his long suspension from the service has been a sufficient punishment.

Narrator 5: Uriah then gets into a fight with a man named Weaver.  Weaver says this:

Weaver: Uriah is a great scoundrel and a thoroughgoing rascal.
Narrator 5: Weaver places an advertisement in a newspaper saying…

Weaver: If the guilty sailor should be kicked out of the navy again, he sets himself to work with the friends of his tribe …

Narrator 5: … which clearly refers to Uriah because he’s the only ‘member of the tribe’ around.  Uriah responds with his own insults including . .  .

Uriah: , “I’ll tweak his nose”….

Narrator 5: . . . and is court martialed a fourth time. … and so it goes, fight after fight.  Uriah asks for a break from the navy.  The officer says:

Navy Officer: “We would be happy to extend your leave forever.”

Uriah: It’s because I’m a Jew, isn’t it, sir?

Navy Officer: It is.

— Part 6: Thomas Jefferson — with neighbor

Narrator 6: Uriah Levy then begins to invest in Manhattan real estate.  He buys land.  New York City grows.  He sells land.  He buys new land.  This repeats and repeats until he is quite rich.

With his money, he decides to honor his hero . . .

Uriah: Thomas Jefferson is one of the greatest men in history … he did more to mold our republic in the form in which a man’s religion does not make him ineligible for political or governmental life.  I will pay for his statute to sit in front of the U.S. capital. 

Narrator 6: The statute is still there.  It is the only statute in Washington D.C. donated by a private person. 

Uriah: It’s 1836!  Oy!  Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello, has been abandoned!  His daughter hasn’t been able to sell it for five years!  I will buy it and fix it up!

Neighbor: Get out of here!  We don’t want your kind around here!

Uriah: It’s because I’m a Jew, isn’t it?

Neighbor: What?  No, not at all.  It’s because you’re a Yankee!  You’re from the North!

— Part 7: His Own Ship — with Hooe and President Tyler

Narrator 7: After 20 years, Uriah joins the navy again.  He is given a ship to command!

Uriah: The ship is a cruel joke – the wood is rotting!  The decks are collapsing!  The metal is full of rust!  The crew is all drunk!  Only one man even saluted me when I arrived!  The joke is on them!  Paint the rusty metal blue!  The cannons!  The anchor!  Everything!  Also, we’re not flogging anyone on this ship!

Lieutenant Hooe: Sir!  Are you mad?  How will we control these drunks?

Uriah: I will see it done!

Hooe: Have you lost all reason?  Flogging has been a navy tradition since the 1600s!.

Uriah: I will see it done!

Hooe: Watch out! There’s a runaway man with a wallet!  What will you do with this thief on the run?

Uriah: Write ‘THIEF’ on a piece of wood and hang it around his neck. 

Hooe: … and this man who is drunk?

Uriah: Cut a piece of wood in the shape of a bottle, write ‘DRUNK’ on it.  Hang it on his neck!

Hooe: … and this man who is mocking my voice?

Uriah: Put some tar on his rump, take some feathers, and stick them on.  If he’s going to act like a parrot, let him look like one!

Narrator 7: When Uriah finished with his time on the ship, he was told to “await orders”.  Hooe brought him to trial and argued that “the youth had been permanently traumatized”.  Nonsense, it was a good joke, his lawyers argued.

Uriah was court martialed a fifth time.

President Tyler received the decision and asked the court to review again.  The court shot back:

Court: The punishment was not only unusual but unlawful and exceedingly cruel.

President Tyler: A small quantity of tar was placed on the back of the boy and a half dozen parrot’s feathers put on it was substituted in place of twelve stripes of the cat (a whip).  This was a temporary badge of disgrace in order to correct a bad habit of mimicry of the parrot whose feathers he wore.

Narrator 7: Still, the navy refused to give Uriah a new position – he waited and waited and nothing.  He wrote the navy many times … no response.  Uriah was busy though and by 1850 he got congress to get rid of flogging in the navy.  He also married his 18 year old niece, whom they found were related to each other 14 different ways as the old sefardi families had married with each other so much.

— Part 8: Rewrite the Law — with two Narrators and Court

Narrator 8: 16 years passed and in 1855 Uriah received a letter that he was kicked out of the navy because he could not perform his duties.  

Uriah: This is an outrage!  I can’t challenge this?  There’s no one to talk to?  I’m going to Congress!  I got flogging banned!  I’ll get this fixed too!

Narrator 9: He did.  

In 1857 the trial was set to take place – Uriah was the most famous Jew in the country with the newspapers reporting everything.  On the day of the trial, instead of driving directly to the navy offices he took the long way past the capital building and his statue of Thomas Jefferson pointing out his statue to all as a sign for Geula.

Narrator 8: The court spent days reading into the record all of Uriah’s court martials.  Then the navy brought officer after officer to testify that Uriah was “generally disliked” and “his reputation is low”.  He was “impulsive and eccentric.”  He “interrupts people who are talking to each other.”  

Narrator 9: Then Uriah produced, over days, thirteen officers, six former officers, and more who signed statements of support.  Everyone thought the trial was over.  Then Uriah had stream in his bank presidents, merchants, doctors, editors of newspapers, and even the governor of New Jersey!  Senators came, former mayors came .. Jews came, Christians came … famous people of all kinds.  Fifty three more witnesses came!  Uriah concluded the trial …

Uriah: My parents were Israelites and I was nurtured in the faith of my ancestors .. if injustice is done to me today, tomorrow it will be this kind of Christian, or that kind of Christian … There is but one safeguard and this is to be found in an honest, wholehearted, inflexible support of the wise, the just, the impartial guarantee of the Constitution … I leave my destiny in your hands.”

Narrator 8: Applause filled the room.

The Court: Levy is morally, mentally, physically, and professionally fit for the Naval Service.

Narrator 9: Uriah rejoined the navy and was given command of his own ship and many ships and navy buildings have since been named after him.

He had one more request: His wife must join him!  The navy was afraid to fight Uriah any further … and so … never before and never after was a captain allowed to bring his wife on a ship with him!

Name: _______________

Uriah Levy Questions

Part 1: Why was Uriah taken to Jamaica?


Part 2: What Jewish practice did Uriah do?


Part 3: Why was it considered okay for Uriah to duel?


Part 4: How did the commander treat Uriah?


Part 5: What does it mean to tweak a nose?


Part 6: Why was Jefferson important to Uriah?


Part 7: What did Uriah think of whipping people in the navy?


Part 8: Did Uriah win his court case against the navy?



You may also like...

Leave a Reply