Many Worlds, One Faith
By Ivriah Krumbein Levine
The etymology of the word “sincere” is somewhat obscure. Although not given in standard dictionaries, the derivation of the word may well be the Latin sine cera, without wax, meaning sans the wax that was used as a cosmetic base. Thus, the word connotes without guile, without deception, unadorned. The charm and the real value of the heartfelt memoir Many Worlds, One Faith, authored by Ivriah Krumbein Levine, lies precisely in its straightforward and unvarnished presentation of facts and events.
This chronicle serves four distinct functions. It showcases the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States from the 1930s to the ’60s, portrays the experience of aliyah and life in Israel in the following four-and-a-half decades, serves as a tribute to the accomplishments—academic, communal and personal—of her late husband, Rabbi Chaim Yitzchak Levine, z”l, and presents a detailed account of volunteer service at the helm of Emunah women and active participation in conferences of women’s organizations worldwide. An autobiography composed primarily for the edification of immediate family members whose life experiences are so different from those of the author in order to afford them a window into the past as a vehicle for understanding the life of their forebears, the narrative has sociological import for the broader community far beyond its immediate family purpose.
As a young graduate student in the sixties working in the field of European Jewish history, this reviewer expressed an emerging interest in American Jewish history as well. The late Professor Irving Agus responded in unfeigned horror, “You want to spend time on schuster and schneider [cobblers and tailors]?” Were he still with us, Professor Agus might still not regard the contemporary American Jewish community to be a worthy field for historical research, but the community has come of age, and the transformations it has undergone excite the imagination. The foremost nineteenth-century Reform leader, Isaac Mayer Wise, famously predicted that there would be no future in the United States for adherents of what he termed “half-civilized Orthodoxy” who “gnawed the bones of past centuries.” For their part, rabbinic figures looked askance upon those who had moved to America. Rabbi Shlomoh Kluger wrote that the majority of Jewish immigrants to America were frivolous people who lacked religious seriousness. Years later the Chofetz Chaim cautioned the observant that at all costs they must avoid settling permanently on these shores. But those who thought that there would be no need to be concerned with issues of religious divorce because soon no one would take heed of such matters and that observance of kashrut would fade away were to be confounded. Defying prophets of doom, twenty-first-century American Orthodoxy has acquired an unanticipated dynamism and boasts of flourishing communities of every stripe.
The changes in the Orthodox community in the United States between the 1930s and the present have been so dramatic and momentous that no historian of American Jewry can fail to take note of those phenomena. Arthur Hertzberg, in his insightful study The Jews in America: Four Centuries of an Uneasy Encounter (New York, 1989), and later Jonathan D. Sarna, in his comprehensive American Judaism: A History (Connecticut, 2004), have written of the growth and development of a newly vibrant and self-confident Orthodoxy and have sought to analyze the impact of the influx of the post-war immigration of European Jews upon the more acculturated, if embattled, indigenous Orthodox community. But the subtle nuances of the interactions of those groups, and the manner in which the newcomers and the older, more entrenched observant population have together fashioned the current Orthodox community has not yet found its chronicler. It is a tableau that at times is illuminated more clearly between the lines of personal accounts of individuals in the Orthodox community who lived through that period. As Bertrand Russell would say, knowledge by description can never match knowledge by experience.
Often overlooked, and certainly insufficiently appreciated by the youth of our current Orthodox community who live in the relative comfort of an affluent Orthodoxy blessed with schools, synagogues, summer camps, sefarim stores, kosher restaurants and pizzerias galore, is the relative isolation and consequent struggle of the observant Orthodox in the pre-World War II era. One of the most significant aspects of Ivriah Levine’s autobiography is the picture she paints of this community with its strange combination of ignorance and petty politics commingled with deep faith, singular fortitude and great self-sacrifice. From the tale of two grandmothers, one immigrant and one native-born, both of whom prayed regularly three times daily, to the depiction of parents stimulated by general culture but rooted in Jewish tradition, who paid meticulous attention to the schooling of their children and who exhibited awe and reverence for Torah sages, and of the uncle who fasted every Monday and Thursday as long as his three sons were in the army during the Second World War, we are afforded a glimpse into the deep piety and steadfastness of God-fearing individuals who strove to raise their families and build an Orthodox infrastructure in the secular cultural milieu of mainstream America.
And then we read of the following decades, of the American rabbinate in suburbia in the fifties (“Small-town life in Lindenhurst was suffocating”). Ah, the drudgery, the inanities, the tragicomic mixture of observance and laxity, the indignities and the pseudo-honors, the potpourri of daily activities, from Alef Bet for tots to programs for senior citizens, to the hassles of mustering a minyan or representing Jews at a Memorial Day parade or rotary club. The young Rabbi Levine and his helpmeet endured it all. Some choice vignettes: Was there space in the shul that could serve as a study? “Rabbi, you mean you didn’t graduate yet?” Assuring that refreshments at meetings were kosher, “Rabbi, it was a wonderful evening. Your strudel was delicious.” Reading the Declaration of Independence of the State of Israel in Sephardit, “Too bad this nice rabbi can’t read Hebrew.” Outside the shul surrounded by children, “What a nice rabbi you have. He pays so much attention to the children.” “You fool, they’re all his own.” One cannot but empathize with the pain of organizing a Simchat Torah celebration for one hundred children accompanied by only a bare quorum of adults at the yom tov service. Then, gradually, the change: the move to Forest Hills, New York, and a different array of activities for a congregation of shomrei Shabbat, the changing complexion of the community, growing observance and growing affluence and ostentation. And apart from all of this, the real work: teaching, founding day schools and always, always finding time for continued study and scholarship—the scholarship that led Rabbi Levine to a life in academia and an appointment to the faculty of Yeshiva University.
Rabbi Levine was a remarkable presence at Stern College for Women and played an unparalleled role during the school’s formative years. It was his effort to raise the bar academically in Jewish studies, his zeal, his scope and vision, that transformed the college into a Torah institution. A singularly dedicated teacher who took an abiding interest in the welfare of his charges and, unconcerned with being politically correct, when necessary challenged the administration on their behalf, Rabbi Levine remains a source of inspiration to his students throughout their lives. The pages of this book that record reminiscences of his teaching years are particularly poignant because Rabbi Levine’s unique contribution has been inadequately acknowledged in the milestone celebrations and historical accounts of Stern College.
The concluding section of the volume focuses on Emunah activities. Although frequently underestimated, the contributions of volunteer organizations are considerable. In consonance with the teachings of our Sages, “Aser beshevil shetitasher, Tithe so that you yourself shall be enriched,” not the least of these contributions is the gain to the participants themselves. From childhood observations of her family’s involvement in charitable endeavors on behalf of the struggling Orthodox community—the fundraising and “soirees” for the Crown Heights mikvah and the early, tentative steps of the fledgling Young Israel movement—to organization of cultural and religious activities for fellow teenagers and young adults, to manifold and varied obligations as hostess and lecturer while yet a young rebbetzin and founder of what later became the Hebrew Academy of Nassau County, to what grew to be a full-time life of service to Emunah women from her Jerusalem base, Mrs. Levine is steeped in the ethos of volunteer organizations and not at all blind to the shoals of organizational politics. If the detailed account in this segment is on occasion less than entrancing, and the total recall of all persons involved courts boredom, this flaw, too, emanates from a keen sensitivity: a generosity of spirit and the basic lesson Ivriah Levine learned well as a novice rebbetzin—the absolute obligation to express appreciation and thanks to those who work hard, without overlooking any person.
Finally, it should be noted that, in the best of ways, this is very much a woman’s book, a work suffused with unabashed emotion and imbued with the expression of two loves: love of family and ahavat Eretz Yisrael.. The story attests to the devotion of a granddaughter, daughter, wife, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, to the anguish of widowhood, to the pride in banim ubnei banim oskim beTorah, the profound Torah scholarship of progeny, and to the wisdom of a matriarch who lovingly embraces the variegated members of a growing clan. And ahavat Eretz Yisrael: Love of the Land of Israel permeates the narrative. We witness a many-splendored love for a country planted in a young Orthodox girl in America in her earliest childhood, ignited by first sight of Palestine in the thirties, enriched by presence in the Land in times of peril in ’48 and ’67, and not one whit eroded during the years of life in Israel until the present.
This sincere book merits attentive reading. The sincerity of its author, honored this past Yom Yerushalayim (5766/2005) with the coveted Yakir Yerushalayim award for contributions to the welfare of Israeli citizens and dissemination of religious and universal values, is palpable on every page.
Dr. Bleich is professor of Judaic studies at Touro College.