VATICAN CITY — When Mordechay Lewy presented his credentials as Israel’s ambassador to the Vatican the other day, he explained to Pope Benedict the reason for the unusual spelling of his last name.
Levi, of course, is a common Jewish name, as one of the Hebrew tribes. But when one of the ambassador’s ancestors decided to emigrate to the United States in the 19th century, it became Lewy.
“The fact that my grand-grandfather, from the town of Rogasen in the district of Posen (now Poznan in Poland), changed the spelling from Levi to Lewy was due to his illusory notion that Americans would pronounce Lewy better. He proved to be wrong,” the ambassador told the pope.
Lewy recounted how his great-grandfather participated in the American Civil War before returning to his homeland, which by then had become part of Imperial Germany, and starting a family in Berlin. From there, in the middle of the next century, the ambassador’s father saved himself from the Holocaust by illegally emigrating to Palestine.
That’s where the ambassador was born on May 15, 1948 — the day after the independence of Israel was declared.
Lewy met with a small group of reporters Thursday at the Israeli Embassy, and he handed us copies of his own speech to the pope. The ambassador knows Latin and, perhaps encouraged by the Vatican’s recent inauguration of a Latin-language Web page, his text was sprinkled with Latin phrases.
The opening line: “Benedictus qui largitur de majestate sua carni et sanguini” is the Latin version of a traditional Hebrew greeting that means, roughly, “Blessed is He who gives of his glory to flesh and blood.” Lewy told the pope this was a traditional blessing a Jew made out of respect when he encountered a monarch or a ruler.