Virginia Festival of Jewish Film includes story of Navy’s first Jewish commodore
The Virginian-Pilot February 21, 2023
(Tribune News Service) — No place comes to mind more quickly than Norfolk when someone says “Virginia” and “Navy.”
The annual Virginia Festival of Jewish Film kicks off its 30th anniversary season Thursday with seven films, one of which examines the convergence of Virginia, the U.S. Navy and Jewish history.
The documentary “The Levys of Monticello” tells the story of Uriah Levy, who overcame antisemitism and rose to be the Navy’s first Jewish commodore in 1858. In 1834, Levy purchased the former home of his ideological hero Thomas Jefferson and was key to restoring what has become a popular Virginia historical site, Monticello.
The United Jewish Federation of Tidewater will present the documentary at 2:30 p.m. Feb. 26 at the Samuel C. Johnson Theater at Norfolk Academy, 1585 Wesleyan Drive, Norfolk. Tickets are $12.
The screening will be followed by a conversation with Lisa Stark, the film’s associate producer; Marc Leepson, author of the book “Saving Monticello”; and moderator Herman Shelanski, a retired U.S. Navy vice admiral.
When Levy purchased Monticello, the estate was in complete disrepair and required him to pour money into it.
“Why would Levy, a New Yorker, give a damn about buying this wreck in the middle of nowhere Virginia, which he had no real interest in and no connection to?” Shelanski said, in a recent interview.
In the 1800s, Levy fought two duels, Shelanski said, after being insulted for being Jewish. For Levy, freedom of religion was something to die for.
“The No. 1 amendment in the Bill of Rights is freedom of religion, which is a very Jeffersonian idea,” Shelanski said.
Shelanski, a former commanding officer of the carrier Harry S. Truman and Carrier Strike Group 10, said he regularly lectures about Levy’s patriotism and dedication to Jeffersonian ideals. However, neither he nor the documentary shies away from the fact that Levy did not free the enslaved African Americans at Monticello.
“You think, all right, here’s this great American; he’s probably going to free the slaves,” Shelanski said. “But he does not.”
The festival runs through March 1. Click here for more information.
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