Lev Berenshteyn sat on the porch of his Sheepshead Bay house one recent afternoon, staring at a 16-foot-tall, 6,000 pound monument that rose from his lawn. Berenshteyn, a Jewish refugee from Uzbekistan and a retired limousine driver, had just finished building a replica of the Statue of Liberty.
“Oh, I like it,” Berenshteyn, 69 years old, said in heavily Russian-accented English, “Now every morning when I go to clean the yard, I see that ‘The Lady’ is here.”
Berenshteyn sculpted the pedestal by hand last summer with help from his next-door neighbor, Tayfun Yazici, a beefy, 52-year-old Turkish immigrant who works in construction. He topped it off with a miniature statue of Lady Liberty that he bought on Long Island.
The project is the culmination of a deep reverence that Lev Berenshteyn has felt for the Statue of Liberty since his days in Uzbekistan, then a Soviet republic.
Many years ago, he memorized key facts about the Statue of Liberty, like that it was dedicated in the year 1886, that it was a gift from the French people to the American people, and that its designer was a man named Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. But it was its symbolism—of “people living happy and free,” as Berenshteyn put it—that made an emotional impression.
An electronics repairman by trade, Berenshteyn became the director of a large computer center in Tashkent, the Uzbek capital. But with the establishment of an independent Uzbekistan in 1991 came economic and political instability, and tens of thousands of Jews—many of them native Russian speakers like Berenshteyn—emigrated to Israel or the United States.
Berenshteyn, his wife Galina, and their three children settled in Brooklyn, squeezing into a one-bedroom apartment. They had little money. Financial assistance from the Jewish community helped them pay for food and rent. With limited English, Lev struggled to find work.
Eventually, Galina landed a job as a computer programmer. Lev started driving a limousine, and gradually the family built a new life.
In those early years, the family never made it to the Statue of Liberty due to financial constraints. But Lev Berenshteyn’s limousine routes often featured scenic views of New York Harbor, and he would admire the Statue of Liberty from a distance.
The family bought a dilapidated house on the corner of Shore Parkway and East 21st Street, which Berenshteyn fixed up himself. Their children grew up and went off to college. In 2010, after 17 years driving a limousine, Lev—by then a grandfather of four—retired.
With ample free time, he turned his focus to the “beautification” of his home. He built a wrap-around porch with a white picket fence, covering the deck’s surface with bright green artificial turf.
Then one day, according to Galina Berenshteyn, her husband came to her and said, “I would like to put the Statue of Liberty in the backyard.”
“I said, ‘This is a joke,’ ” Galina recalled, “I couldn’t believe that this is true!”
Berenshteyn scoured the Internet and tracked down a seven-and-a-half-foot-high fiberglass model of the Statue of Liberty at a store in South Hampton.
Soon after, Galina said that her husband jumped into his big blue van with their upstairs tenant, Vladimir Stoirovoytov, and returned home many hours later with the Lady Liberty statue jammed diagonally into the vehicle’s backseat. He’d paid $600 for it. (Galina characterized the price as “not so expensive but still it is quite expensive.”)
Lev Berenshteyn’s next task was to erect a pedestal. But it wasn’t a one-man job. He asked his next-door neighbor and friend, Yazici, who’d left Turkey for the United States around 1990, to help. Galina, who was present during the conversation, said that at first Yazici “didn’t say anything—his eyes were so big.”
But Yazici eventually warmed to the idea, and soon the two immigrants were toiling away in the summer heat for several hours each weekend afternoon.
Yazici, a burly construction worker, called the work “not easy.” It involved about 60 hours of labor: mixing concrete, delicately molding the base in the style of the original—in classical fashion with Doric portals—and encasing it within cinder blocks.
Berenshteyn, mild-mannered and white haired, had studied what he said were sketches and dimensions of the Statue of Liberty online. He’d aspired to engineer a model in exact proportion to the monument on Liberty Island. But Yazici pointed out to him that doing so would require building a pedestal several feet taller and wider than Berenshteyn had initially planned for, causing construction to drag into autumn and sending the statue soaring well into the branches of a nearby tree.
Berenshteyn agreed to settle for a smaller version. “I think it’s good enough,” Yazici had told him.
Still, Berenshteyn wasn’t finished. He ran electricity from his basement underneath the yard and up through the statue, programming the torch to glow each night from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.
Berenshteyn said there has been much fanfare. “Many people come to make pictures,” he said, “Many, many people. Even somebody go, ‘Woo! Woo! Statue of Liberty!’ ”
The Statue of Liberty, originally known as “Liberty Enlightening the World,” is 151 feet tall—305 feet including the pedestal—and depicts Libera, the Roman goddess of freedom. While it might be unusual for a common citizen in New York City to display a miniature version of the statue in front of their house, Liberty models around the same size as Berenshteyn’s have graced public spaces throughout the world since the 19th century.
According to Edward L. Kallop, Jr., a former curator at the Statue of Liberty and an authority figure on Liberty replicas, nine-foot-tall bronze casts once stood in small towns across France until World War II, when many were seized by the Nazis and melted down to make weapons.
In 1949, the Boy Scouts of America commissioned the production of over 100 copper models as part of a patriotic campaign titled “Strengthen the Arm of Liberty.” The Boy Scouts donated these to cities and small towns across America.
To this day, dozens of Boy Scout monuments stand in parks, town squares, and on courthouse lawns throughout the United States.
Miniature Liberty models are also prominently displayed in countries like Japan, Brazil, Argentina, and even Israel. France is still home to several, including a bronze copy inside Paris’ Luxembourg Gardens dating back to the 1800s.
In Bordeaux, one of the Liberty casts destroyed by the Nazis was rebuilt in the early 2000s, along with a Sept. 11 memorial. In 2003, vandals desecrated both the statue and commemorative plaque.
Adjacent to his freshly unveiled monument, Berenshteyn installed a fountain resembling a giant Holy Grail whose water gleams at night. Encircling the small, raised pool are several trapezoid-shaped compartments, each with a neatly pruned bush and hundreds of pounds of white and brown stones.
On a recent afternoon, Lev and Galina Berenshteyn were chatting on their porch, the crowned, robed Lady casting a shadow on their sunlit lawn.
Asked to describe what the statue means to them, the couple fell quiet. Berenshteyn looked off into the trees.
“We are proud that we are American,” Galina Berenshteyn finally said, wiping away tears.
Stoirovoytov, the carpenter who rents out an apartment on the home’s third floor, entered through the main gate. Berenshteyn greeted him, and the pair stood by the statue, conversing passionately in Russian.
Stoirovoytov had mentioned to Berenshteyn that he owns a metallic emblem of an American bald eagle. The two were strategizing about how best to attach it to the pedestal with the inscription, “God Bless America.”
As for Yazici, the next-door neighbor, he is very satisfied with how the project turned out. Every day, he gazes at his achievement through a window in his home. “It’s really nice,” he said. “I’m looking at it all the time.”
By now, Berenshteyn has been to the Statue of Liberty many times. Whenever friends visit from overseas—like from Russia, Israel, or Uzbekistan—he leads a tour that begins with Liberty Island and also includes Niagara Falls, Atlantic City, and Washington, D.C.
“But now,” he said, with a confident nod into his yard, “it starts from here.”
Happy Fourth of July, from all of us at Tablet magazine.
Louie Lazar is a journalist living in New York. His work has appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Grantland, and the Jerusalem Post.