“Jewish history began in Iowa when Alexander Levi settled in Dubuque in 1833.” – Jody Braverman of Agudas Achim Congregation in Iowa City, Iowa
Alexander Levi was born in Hellimer, France near Strasbourg (see map below) on March 13, 1809 to a Sephardic Jewish family. Sephardic is an ethnic term, meaning a person with family origins from the Iberian Peninsula – modern-day Spain and Portugal. Family records show that Levi’s ancestral line links back to a “most noble family of Spanish Jews, who, during the expulsion, fled to Portugal and thence to France.”
Educated in France, Alexander emigrated to the United States when he was twenty-four years old (1833). Arriving first in New Orleans, he made his way up the Mississippi River, settling in Dubuque, just as the Black Hawk Purchase was opening up to new settlers.
Upon his arrival in Dubuque on August 1, 1833, Levi went immediately into the grocery business. One historian says of Levi’s store:
…whatever cheerfulness there was about the dreary little place was in (Levi’s) store. There, the miners came and met together, and there were many scenes of early Iowa politics lined out.
Alexander’s first store (1833-1837) focused on providing groceries and basic provisions. Above is the advertisement text that was published in the Dubuque Visitor on May 11, 1836. Notice Levi, a Jewish merchant, is selling “prime pork and bacon” – certainly not kosher for him, but items early Dubuque residents, I’m sure, fully appreciated! In 1847, Levi expanded by opening a mercantile business, selling dry goods and clothing. James Levi, another Jewish immigrant whose father married Alexander’s daughter, Selina, worked for his uncle as a salesman before he and Alexander’s son Eugene expanded the family business after Levi died in 1893 – calling it James Levi and Company.
While Alexander eventually made a good living in Dubuque selling dry goods, we are assuming that it was the lure of mining that first drew him to the Key City. An amazing businessman, Levi kept his grocery business going while also investing in local lead mining operations. Over time, Levi made a lot of money in the mining business, creating the Dubuque Gold Mining Company in 1860, which, along with his investors, expanded westward, working mines near Pike’s Peak (Colorado)!
In 1847, Alexander went on a visit to his native land, and upon his return, Levi surprised his friends by bringing along a charming bride – a distant cousin named Minette Levi, who was also a native of France. One historian describes her as “(one who) was as faithful a Jewess as (Alexander) was a faithful Jew.”
One year later (1848), their first daughter, Eliza, was born, with records indicating that she was the first Jewish child born on Iowa soil. Together, the Levi’s had four more children: Emil, Gustave (Gus), Selina (wife of James Levi’s father) and Eugene. Their residence in Dubuque, at the corner of Main and Twelfth Streets, became St. Margaret’s Hall of St. Joseph’s Academy in 1933.
In 1856, faithful to his Jewish heritage, Alexander organized B’nai Jeshrun, a congregation that met in a rented hall at Locust and 5th Streets, plus he generously donated six of his 20 acres owned in Julien Township for the city’s first Jewish cemetery – which later became part of Dubuque’s Linwood Cemetery.
In 1862, Levi helped organize a second Jewish congregation in the Key City. In his book, The Jews of Iowa (1904), Rabbi Simon Glazer gives us these details…
The Dubuque pioneers founded a Jewish congregation in 1862, and for a time it was a vigorous element among the rest of the Iowa Jewries. The first religious services conducted were held during the Passover of 1862, Mr. A. Levi being the projector of the movement, and that community could pride itself on being the first one in this state to have bought a Sepher Torah. The Levi’s and several other prominent pioneers were the leaders of the short lived congregation. It lasted for about seven years and had the good fortune of engaging worthy ministers. Among the three gentlemen who guided the spiritual welfare of the Dubuque congregation was Rabbi H.J. Messing, who subsequently had a golden career in St. Louis, Missouri … the Dubuque pioneers held services during many holiday seasons and have managed to give their children as much knowledge of Judaism as their fathers and teachers had instilled in themselves.
The following are Jews living in Dubuque prior to the Civil War: A. Levi – Lead Miner, Abraham Grunwald – Clothing, James Levi – Dry Goods, Moses Leppman – Clothing, L. & B. Rauh – Clothing and Furnishing, I.D. Weil – Clothing, Charles Brezinsky – General Store.
In the many biographical accounts of Alexander Levi, this entertaining story from the early days of Dubuque is often repeated. This would be a good place to share it with you…
In 1843, a Jewish merchant from Alsace, France – a highly regarded soul in the city of Dubuque – fell in love and married a highly-cultured Gentile woman, converting to Christianity in the process. Since both the man and the woman were very prominent Dubuque citizens, Alexander Levi, a fellow civic leader, was requested to attend the ceremony. But alas, Levi politely declined to do so.
As the story goes, the new couple enjoyed more than their share of temporal happiness during such comparatively short time, but, either because of miscalculated economy, or reckless lavishness, the new church member had to resort to something very dishonest in the sight of his brethren, in order to save himself from a crisis of financial distress. Apparently, the situation become so bad, that one day, the man was discovered packing up some goods belonging to his creditors with the full intention of shipping it across the Mississippi. His creditors immediately took action against him, and the man was thrown into the county jail, with none of his new church friends coming to his aid.
A few days later, two pious preachers from the jailed man’s church came to “see” Mr. Levi in order to complain about the poor character of their new convert. Alexander listened patiently as the two long-winded pastors listed their complaints, but when one made a stinging comment about how they “never thought the Jew would prove so tricky, (and) that they now believed some of the horrible tales told about the Jews and that henceforth they would look out,” Levi had heard enough. According to one historian, here was Alexander’s strong reply to this stereotypical nonsense against Jews…
You have undoubtedly considered the Jew a very good man, else a prominent church lady would have refused to entertain and accept a proposal from him; you have certainly been of the opinion that he was free from all bad habits, else you would not have accepted him as a member in your church. You have, I presume, considered him one of the best sons of Israel, else your joy of getting him across the gulf would not have been as great. You have, as you know, thought him to be a gentleman of refinement and good standing, else you would not have frequented his house and suffered yourselves to attend so many of the functions given by him.
Now, how comes it, that continuing for but one year as a member of your church, he is no longer a gentleman, no longer honest, no longer successful and no longer fit to be either Jew or Gentile? Does it not, therefore, appear most strange to you that such a good man shall fall so low in such a brief period?
The truth is this: Till the last minute the Jews could yet claim him as theirs, till the last minute he yet claimed to belong to them, he was that which he was destined to be, that which he was born for, and, therefore, cared not, to change the tranquility of his life — and as such, continued to be a credit to his people and a benefit to organized society.
But the minute he joined you, the minute your environments pulled him out of his root, the minute he lost his originality, he was compelled to please a society, a church and a woman whom he did not understand and who could be contented with anything but his Jewishness. Thus, he was no longer responsible for his deeds as a Jew. Hence, in this case you are the defendants, and all the more honor for those Jews who continue as such.
In other words… “Dear friends…this man was of good character when he was a Jew. But apparently, his rapid decline into moral indecency occurred after he joined with you and your church members!”
Now, just so you know that Alexander Levi wasn’t a man of equal prejudice toward Christians, it’s intriguing to know that the Iowa News of 1837 lists Levi as a generous church contributor, not just to his Jewish brethren, but also giving money to the local Presbyterian church, and later, more contributions to the Catholic Church. As a matter of fact, Alexander, a devoted man of God, who as we told you earlier, founded the first two Jewish congregations in Dubuque, was also a solid supporter of the missionary work of Father Samuel Mazzuchelli, the Dominican priest who built several churches throughout the upper Mississippi River valley, including St. Raphael’s Cathedral in Dubuque, and St. Mary’s in Iowa City!
Truly a man who loved both his city and his state, Alexander Levi holds the honor of being the first foreigner to be naturalized (U.S. citizenship) in Iowa (1837). And speaking of firsts, Alexander also became the first Mason to be sworn into the Dubuque Lodge, and also served as Dubuque’s Justice of the Peace from 1846 to 1848.
In 1887, at the age of 79, Alexander had been forced by health to miss many of his evening Masonic meetings. On July 22, 1887 the other members of the lodge walked two-by-two to his home to honor him on the forty-five years of his membership with a “cane” ceremony. He had been elected twenty-one times to the office of treasurer and occasionally paid the bills from his own account, and in honor of his service, he was presented a Masonic cane.
In a Dubuque obituary, we found these words after Alexander passed in 1893…
Mr. A. Levi was honored by the citizens of Dubuque till the day of his death, and when he breathed his last, a universal sorrow was expressed by every one who ever came in contact with him. He died Friday evening, March 31, 1893, (age 84) and his funeral was one of the largest ever witnessed by the citizens of Dubuque. Many Masonic representatives from various sections of the state came to pay their last respects to their honored brother who was no more, and Rabbi Messing of Chicago, a friend of the deceased, conducted the services and delivered the funeral oration.
Alexander’s wife, Minette, died in March, 1907 and they are both buried in Linwood Cemetery in their beloved home of Dubuque. The inscription on Levi’s tombstone reads…
In Memory of Alexander Levi – A Native of France – Died Mar. 31,1893 – Nissan 145653 (refers to the Jewish holiday of Rosh Chodesh Nissan which occurs in late March) – Aged 84 Yrs. – Rest In Peace.
Shalom – Alexander and Minette Levi – Shalom.