Friday, September 13, 2013

Yom Kippur and Jews in the Confederate Army

On the eve of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, it is somehow appropriate to relay this story of recognition, given 150 years after the fact. A few weeks ago (August 2013), I witnessed (for me, anyway) a most unusual event: the formal recognition of a Jewish Confederate soldier, buried in Philadelphia’s Mikveh Israel Cemetery. On the grave of Sgt. Julian Camden Levy was placed a "U.S. Confederate Veteran" medallion and flag by the "Sons of Confederate Veterans, Lt. General John C. Pemberton Camp #2060, Philadelphia, PA." GPS coordinates were taken and entered into the database by the Graves Registrar for the organization.

It might surprise you to know that Jews fought in the American Civil War. It may also surprise you that not every Confederate veteran is buried in the South, and not every Union veteran is buried in the North.

Philadelphia’s Congregation Mikveh Israel Cemetery (Beth Hahayim) “Number Two,” as it is sometimes called, is located at Eleventh and Federal Streets in South Philadelphia. Number One, the original congregation cemetery established in 1740 (and the “oldest tangible evidence of Jewish communal life in Philadelphia” (ref.), is located at Eighth and Spruce Streets. Number Three, which is the one with more recent burials, is located at 55th and Market Streets.

As the congregation grew and more space was needed for burials, more space had to be purchased at various distances from the original synagogue. All three burial grounds are kept in fine condition, with grass mowed regularly. All are walled, fenced, and under lock and key. You can only gain access by having the rabbi let you in. 

Rabbi Gabbai unlocking gate to Mikveh Israel Cemetery
A few weeks ago, my friend Sam Ricks, Graves Registrar for the Pennsylvania Division of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, told me he was planning to visit Mikveh Israel Cemetery Number Two to install a veteran marker and flag on the grave of a Jewish Confederate Civil War veteran. I asked if I could tag along. Graciously, he said yes. So on a hot sunny August afternoon, Sam and I met Rabbi Albert Gabbai at the gate. In the photo above, the gate is being unlocked by the Rabbi and Sam is at right. The small cemetery is in the middle of a residential neighborhood in South Philadelphia (near my house), with a school on one side (Andrew Jackson Elementary).

Sgt. Levy's unmarked grave (large flat stone in ground)
Sam Ricks volunteers his time identifying and marking the graves of Confederate veterans buried in the Philadelphia area. Why would there be Confederate veterans buried north of the Mason-Dixon Line? Well, in the case of Julian Levy, he fought for the Confederacy with the Alabama Infantry, and was killed in action in Virginia in 1862. His body was brought north in 1899 to be buried with his parents, who were Philadelphia residents. Not unusual, as I am led to believe. (Prior to the war, Levy was a cotton merchant in Mobile, Alabama.)

Sam Ricks posting Confederate flag
Until I met Sam Ricks, I always thought that Northern and Southern sensibilities ran deep and along very tight boundaries. Naively, I assumed entire families were either for or against slavery. It never occurred to me that a son would fight for the Confederacy while the parents lived in Philadelphia and may have been abolitionists. I also assumed that all Union veterans were from Northern states and were therefore buried in the North, and that all Confederate veterans were from Southern states and were therefore buried in the South. Amazing how much you can learn by hanging around cemeteries!

The school kids on the other side of the wall (shown in the photo above) learned a bit about cemeteries that day. The cemetery is typically locked and no one can get inside. While we were there, a basketball flew over the stone wall onto the grass at Sam's feet. He promptly picked it up and tossed it back over the wall! I'm sure the kids in the schoolyard were surprised!

Sergeant Levy does not have a government-issued “CSA” (Confederate States of America) headstone (his is the large flush-to-the-ground marble gravestone, the inscription on which is barely legible). One reason might be the reluctance of Northerners to draw attention to that fact that he fought for the Confederacy. Personally, I am wondering how long the Southern Cross flag will continue to wave over Levy’s grave in this little Jewish cemetery in Philadelphia. (A month after Sam installed it, it is still there.)

Further Reading and Reference:

Read more about Sergeant Julian Levy here.
Mikveh Israel Website  


From the Sons of Confederate Veterans Website:

Grave of Sgt. Julian Levy, CSA (Mikveh Israel Cemetery, Philadelphia)
"In 1896, the Sons of Confederate Veterans was founded by the veterans and progeny of veterans who fought in the War Between the States. The Sons of Confederate Veterans was established as, and remains, an independent organization that supports the protection and preservation of Confederate heritage. Current members are descendants of the original defenders of Confederate heritage, and are not aligned or affiliated with any other organization."