By Hannah Lee
With much difficulty and the necessity of a personal courier to hunt for it in Israel, my shul, Lower Merion Synagogue, was able to screen the documentary film, One of the Lamed Vav, about the life of Rav Aryeh Levin, whose biography was titled, A Tzaddik In Our Time. (Lamed Vav refers to the 36 righteous people hidden in our midst, according to mystical lore.) Our Rabbi Emeritus, Abraham Levene, then spoke about his esteemed grandfather to an audience of seniors. I took privilege in attending, although I was not a member of the target audience.
I’d read the 1976 biography A Tzaddik In Our Time but the new documentary filled in for me the early years of Rav Aryeh’s life and how he became known as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem” and one of modern Israel’s most beloved icons, known for his great acts of chesed (loving kindness) for prisoners, lepers, and the poor. He died in 1969, but people still tell stories about Rav Aryeh. Israel used his image on postage stamps in 1982.
Aryeh Levin was born on March 22, 1885 near the village of Urla, near Bialystok, in northern Lithuania. He was tutored by local teachers until the age of 12, and then left home to attend the great yeshivas of Eastern Europe in Slonim, Slutsk, and Volozhin. His passion for Eretz Yisrael led him to study with Abraham Isaac Kook, later the Chief Rabbi of Palestine.
In one of his most renown roles, Rav Aryeh was the unofficial chaplain (he refused to be paid) for the Jewish political prisoners– members of the Palmach, Haganah, Irgun or Lehi who were fighting for Israeli independence– held during the British Mandate in the 1930’s. As these individuals dared not implicate their families, they had no means of communication with their loved ones. Walking long distances, Rav Aryeh would walk from his home in the Nachlaot neighborhood to the Central Prison in the Russian compound, then deliver messages to the prisoners’ families all over Jerusalem, offering words of comfort and hope. The former prisoners who were interviewed for the documentary were effusive in their praise of a man who was so gentle and loving; he inspired them all to become better people with his mere presence and kind words.
The documentary film, One of the Lamed Vav, has interviews with two grandsons, Rabbi David Levin and his cousin, Rabbi Benjamin (Benji) Levene as well as others, both in prominent positions as well as elderly folks interviewed on the streets. The two grandsons spoke about how their grandfather helped them find their niche in life– the former as chaplain in the Israeli Defense Forces, the latter for work bridging secular and religious Jews through his work with Gesher– as well as a continued source of inspiration and chizuk (strength), such as managing one’s anger in the face of verbal attacks.
Simcha Raz, the author of A Tzaddik In Our Time, was interviewed on the documentary and he recalled that on one of his last visits with Rav Aryeh, he asked if Rav Aryeh thought of himself as one of the Lamed Vavniks. Sometimes, said the latter, because it’s not a permanent role and one could fulfill a necessary task and revert to being an ordinary person. How inspiring is that for all of us? We, too, could have our moment of divine mission and rise to the occasion!
Spiritual leader of Lower Merion Synagogue for 40 years, Rabbi Avraham Levene told me how his family’s name got changed: They were visiting his maternal grandparents in England when World War II broke out. He was traveling on his mother’s visa (being so young) and her name was spelled Levene. His father’s name was Anglicized Lewen (in Hebrew, Lamed Vav or Lev), so to avoid the confusion of multiple names, his family adopted the spelling of Levene. After the war, they moved to the United States where his father had a pulpit position and there they stayed until the father retired back in his beloved Israel. Abraham Yitzhak was 15 when he traveled by himself to visit his grandfather, Rav Aryeh, who cried when they met– Abraham Yitzhak being the eldest grandchild of his eldest surviving son. The stories that my Rabbi Levene tell are of the time spent living with his grandfather, in a simple one-room home, where love and faith were the guiding principles.
Rabbi Benji Levene, younger brother of my Rabbi, has published a story about their grandfather, “The Escort,” in the 2011 book Mitzvah Stories: Seeds for Inspiration and Learning, edited by Philadelphia Jewish Voice Religion Editor, Rabbi Goldie Milgram and Ellen Frankel with Peninnah Schram.
The biography of Rav Aryeh Levin, A Tzaddik In Our Time, by Simcha Raz is now out-of-print but it can still be ordered through Amazon; the DVD is not yet available for distribution in the United States.