Fighting pestilence with Lewis Schrager

Photo by Arno Rosenfeld

Lewis Schrager could have missed it. If he wasn’t Jewish, if he didn’t enjoy photography, if his young children had distracted him as he stepped into the backyard of Monticello. But instead, Schrager found himself on hands and knees in the backyard of Thomas Jefferson’s mansion, squinting at a tombstone for one Rachel Levy.

“It said, died 5 Iyar,” Schrager recalls. “When you put 5 Iyar on a tombstone — that person’s Jewish, period.”

The docent directed him to the gift shop, where he found a book on the Levy family’s quest to save Monticello from disrepair during the mid-19th century and, along with it, fodder for a screenplay about patriarch Uriah Levy.

Schrager’s play, “Levy’s Ghosts,” premiered in 2005 on the deck of the historic USS Constellation in the Baltimore harbor. Now, Schrager is raising funds to bring the play and two others to an Off-Broadway theater in New York City. He says Levy’s story is more relevant now than ever.

Levy fought anti-Semitism to become the first Jewish commodore in U.S. naval history, a post from which he advocated for the abolishment of flogging. Repeatedly harassed and brought up on spurious courts martial, Levy found time to buy up much of what would become Greenwich Village and used a portion of his considerable wealth to purchase and restore Jefferson’s crumbling estate.

Schrager’s fateful visit to Monticello came as the infectious disease expert was running an FDA program to combat biological terrorism threats like the plague, part of the nation’s growing national security apparatus following 9/11.

“It was an important play to write at the time because George Bush was president and I had real issues with his presidency and there were things to learn from Levy’s experience,” Schrager says. “Little did I expect that 14 years later, those challenges would be almost infinitely greater with the Trump presidency.”

Part of a prominent Sephardic family, Levy was “unapologetically Jewish” and stood out in the Navy. If his identity was enough to raise hackles, Levy’s campaign against corporal punishment guaranteed him critical attention.

“He wanted to take the whips out of the hands of the captains, and captains didn’t appreciate that, especially from some uppity Jew,” Schrager says. “The captains wanted him off the ships.”

Whipping sailors was an established practice across the world, but Levy didn’t accept that as justification.

“A lot of these captains were megalomaniacal sadists who did it for pleasure, or no reason at all,” Schrager says.

“Levy’s Ghosts” is framed around the commodore’s sixth and final court martial. Plagued by writer’s block as he crafts a defense, Levy summons Jefferson’s ghost.

“He and Jefferson reflect on the nature of a United States that would take a man like Levy, with his ambitions and talents, and create these impediments to his success based on religious prejudice, which is what Jefferson overtly stood against,” Schrager says.

“It explores how dangerous that kind of bigotry is to the success of the United States, and the importance of looking at American institutions through the eyes of those who might have new ideas.”

Schrager began his medical career in 1981 at Bellevue Hospital in New York City, just weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention release their first bulletin describing a bizarre new illness that compromised the immune system.

“We were at the absolute epicenter of the first big bang of the AIDS epidemic,” he says. “You either became invested in it, or you ran from it.”

Schrager worked on the frontlines of the epidemic until 1989 when he moved to Maryland and joined a federal research team conducting a major study that would eventually discover both the tipping point for when the immune system would collapse in HIV-positive individuals, and how quickly that decline would occur.

“I’ve always thought that service was terribly important,” Schrager said. “I — rightly or wrongly — looked at going into AIDS work as a form of service.”

While Levy broke barriers for Jews in the U.S. military roughly two centuries ago, Schrager’s own father still encountered anti-Semitism while serving in Korea.

Schrager says his knowledge of Levy and his own father’s experience in the military made the dedication he attended for the Levy Center and Jewish Chapel at the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 2005, the same year his play premiered, especially poignant.

“The naval choir was singing Adon Olam, and I got chills in my body like I’d never gotten chills before,” Schrager says. “I only wished my father could have have seen it.”

The Levy Center is home to the first synagogue on the naval campus and the entrance is styled after Monticello.

“What kind of country we are — our greatness — that we could evolve from what Levy fought against to what is now part of one of the great American institutions?” Schrager says. “That’s a story that needed to be told.”

Arno Rosenfeld is a Washington-area writer.

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