MANALAPAN, N.J. – Yehuda and I come from a chain of successful merchants who valued excellence and education.
His father and my mother were first cousins. They didn’t know what to make of a journalist, even one with master’s degrees from two of the country’s best universities.
Yehuda inherited brilliance on both sides. His mother was one of the first women graduates of Cornell Law School, from which Yehuda dropped out to fight in World War II.
We met, I think, in 1959. He and his (then) wife, Idell, flew in from Israel, where they lived, arriving with a record he had just produced called “Sounds of Jerusalem.” It opened with the Muslim call to prayer and followed Jerusalem’s day through sound – church bells, more calls to prayer, traffic, more bells, hondeling (bartering), horns honking, some Hebrew, some Yiddish, more prayers. I’d never heard anything so hypnotic.
When Adolf Eichmann was captured by the Israelis and brought to Jerusalem for trial in 1961, Yehuda broadcast the trial in English for Kol Yisrael, the Israeli radio station. His recording of that broadcast, “Six Million Accuse,” was nominated for a Grammy in 1963. Finally, everyone in the family knew he was the best at what he did.
After I became the editor of a Jewish community newspaper in New Jersey, I learned “Yehuda stories” from colleagues across the country: about his work smuggling Holocaust survivors to what was then the British Protectorate of Palestine; how he walked back and forth across Europe, bringing Jews to Marseilles where they could get on a boat to Haifa; how the Israeli army didn’t want him, despite his facility in Hebrew, English and Arabic, because of his age, so he went to several recruitment centers until he found someone who let him sign up.
He graciously referred to me as “The Great Editor of the East.” He, of course, was “The Great Editor of the West.” We parried, shared and critiqued each other’s work for decades. He garnered praise and won awards. He handled all with grace and skepticism.
He had two great loves: his family and Israel. When he and Idell divorced, they remained friends, ensuring that their three children understood the term “no fault.” When he and Rosemarie married and had a child, one of the elder three children often babysat. All four children, of course, are brilliant. The grandchildren’s accomplishments stunned him.
Although he stopped living in Israel, he never stopped loving the country. He visited as often as he could, railing against policies and politicians, but never losing his connection to the people and the land.
Yehuda liked nothing better than a laugh, especially at his own expense. There was the Bedouin sheik who quietly signaled to his tribe that Colonel Lev was not to be taken seriously. There was that U-Haul that he careened across the country. There was the time he lost so much weight that when he stood up to give a speech his pants fell down. He told each one with relish.
But his ability to teach was the facet most under-appreciated. Every time we saw him, he left us intellectually floundering in his wake. One tutorial occurred during a glorious sail around Block Island. Yugoslavia was in the headlines. Everyone else aboard was trying to figure out the difference between the Serbs and the Croats, which were Communist and which were Catholics, why were they fighting and what was Herzegovina.
Yehuda said, “It’s easy, really.” In five minutes he explained every aspect so that we all understood it. Then he went home. What followed was sort of like that bit from “The Court Jester” – the one where Danny Kaye and his jousting adversary are trying to remember which drink is poisoned. They keep repeating sequentially more mashed-up versions of: “The pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle; the chalice from the palace has the brew that is true.”
That was us. Now he’s no longer here to re-explain it.
They say only tzaddiks (righteous ones) die on Shabbat. He would have laughed at that. But he did, and the timing was perfect. The day’s parashah was R’eih, roughly translated as an imperative: see. Few saw as much as he did, appreciated the blessings all around him, did everything within his power to right wrongs, loved so completely and lived so fully and were loved in return.
He taught just by breathing. He saved the lives of hundreds who never knew his name. He didn’t care. His actions and writing were governed solely by what he thought was right.
It was an honor to know him.
JoAnn Abraham (Abraham.firstname.lastname@example.org), a cousin and former colleague of Yehuda Lev’s, lives in New Jersey.
Editor’s Note: The family of Yehuda Lev welcomes hearing from readers who have memories of him that they would like to share. Send to email@example.com.