“My grandfather lived in one small room on the street that now bears his name. In my teens I was privileged to stay with him there during several summers when I came to Israel. It was then that I decided to try to emulate him in every way I could.
“My grandfather would be the first to greet anyone he met in the street. It was impossible to say Shalom to him before he said it to you.
“My grandfather was a brilliant educator who could see into the hearts of children. One day in Yeshiva Etz Chaim, where Reb Aryeh was the dean of students, they served chocolate pudding for dessert after lunch. One little boy loved it so much
that after he finished his pudding, he ran back to the end of the line to get another helping.
The server, remembering him from the first time, gave him a slap and yelled at him: ‘You already had one; there are others who didn’t get yet!’ Hurt and embarrassed in front of all his friends, the boy kicked at the cart holding the chocolate puddings. Down it went, and all the puddings splashed on the floor. ‘Now you’re in big trouble,’ they all told him. ‘Tomorrow, when Reb Aryeh is here, he’ll decide whether or not to expel you from the yeshiva.’
“That night the boy didn’t sleep a wink. In school in the morning, he heard his friends whispering behind his back, ‘They’re going to throw him out.’
When Reb Aryeh arrived, he called the boy into his office and asked him, ‘Tell me, is it true what they say you did yesterday?’ The boy answered, ‘Yes.’ ‘Will you ever do such a thing again?’ asked Reb Aryeh gently.
‘Never,’ promised the boy. Then Reb Aryeh opened his closet and took out two chocolate puddings. One he gave to the boy, and one he took for himself. ‘I also love chocolate pudding,’ said Reb Aryeh. Then they sat and ate their chocolate puddings
“Many years later, the same boy told me how in that moment he realized the power that a teacher can have; how one person can change the life of another. He himself went on to become one of Israel’s leading educators.”
“My grandfather owned very little in a physical sense and lived extremely modestly. In the center of his one room was a small table covered with an oilcloth with a few rickety chairs alongside it. There was a bed on each side of the room as well as two old bookcases with his sefarim – Jewish holy books – and a wooden closet which held his frockcoat and shirt. On either windowsill was a tin box in which he kept his
shtreimel. Finally, there was a battered green painted desk with drawers containing paper, bottles of ink, and dip pens, at which he would write notes in his very compact and very beautiful handwriting. At the back of the room was a tiny alcove that served as a kitchen and an even tinier bathroom.
We settled into a daily routine. Without waking me, my grandfather would get up very early in the morning to Daven at the vasikin minyan. After he returned, he woke me around 8:00 am saying, ‘Binyominke, what time do they Daven in your fathers Shul in New Jersey?’ When I answered that there was a minyan as late as eight o’clock, he would say, ‘If you run now, you can still make it.’
“When I came back from shul, he cooked my breakfast. I would go up to my aunt’s apartment to get an egg and then he would fry it with olive oil on a finicky kerosene primus stove, in an ancient pan that I imagined had been used in the Beit Hamikdash!
After breakfast, we learned together. For decades he had been the mashgiach ruchani – spiritual supervisor – at Jerusalem’s venerable Eitz Chaim Yeshiva and
he had an extraordinary talent for engaging youngsters. The memory I savor most of that whole summer is of those hours when he learned with me with such a pleasant approach and a wonderful sense of humor.
“One of the things I loved about staying with Reb Aryeh was the extraordinary array of people who came to see him. They would come for a beracha – a blessing, for advice, or just to talk. People from all sectors of Israeli life, men and women, came in need of prayers. There were those who were yearning for children, or who had children who were not yet married, or children who were ill, G-d forbid, or who were suffering themselves. The links he had made with former members of the underground were very strong and many of them often dropped by to feel the warmth of his hand and to receive his beracha.
One day two Chassidim knocked at the door to tell him the Gerer Rebbe was on his way and then they stood guard while Reb Aryeh and the Rebbe spoke.
On another occasion, one time an American came who spoke only English, and so I served as the interpreter. Usually my grandfather would insist on accompanying his guests along the way when they left. But this time he was some pain, so he asked me
to walk the visitor out. Innocently making conversation, I asked the man what he did for a living. ‘Oh,’ he said, ‘I’m the publisher of the New York Times.’ Mr. Arthur Hays Sulzberger was a reform Jew. He had heard what a special individual my grandfather was and came to see for himself.
“It was his outstanding middos that made Reb Aryeh so famous. He had an amazing instinct in dealing with people. Walking with him through the streets of Jerusalem was an adventure in and of itself as everyone knew who he was and saw in him the way they thought a Rav ought to be.
No one was ever able to greet him before he said hello to them, and he would stop to chat with each orphan or widow whom he recognized.
“An eyewitness told me a story that perfectly illustrates how my grandfather was always on the lookout for any mitzvah he could do. Walking one day past the old Shaare Zedek Hospital building on Rechov Yafo, he noticed an attendant wheeling a body out of the cheder taharah – the purification room – where the deceased were prepared for burial. Ascertaining from the attendant that the deceased was a
woman and that she had no relatives to accompany her to her final resting place, Reb Aryeh began giving a hesped – a eulogy – on the spot, for this woman he did not know. Recognizing him, people stopped to listen and a large crowd gathered. When he finished, he encouraged the crowd to fulfill the mitzvah of halvayat hamet – accompanying the dead. In her lifetime, would this woman ever have imagined that she would merit a funeral oration from the Tzaddik of Jerusalem or that such a large
crowd would attend her burial? But this was typical of Reb Aryeh, walking the streets of Jerusalem and looking to see where he could do mitzvos.
“Someone else once told me that as a young man he decided to rebel and gave up wearing a kippah. One day he saw my grandfather walking towards him and remembering that Reb Aryeh was at his brit milah and his bar mitzvah, he tried to sneak away down a side street, so that the Rav shouldn’t see him bareheaded. But he was too slow, and my grandfather came up to him. ‘Tell me,’ he said, ‘did I ever do
anything to hurt you? Because I noticed you trying to avoid me.’
“Of course, the young man admitted that he didn’t want Reb Aryeh to see him without a kippah. ‘Your grandfather took my hands in his,’ he told me ‘and said,’ “’I’m a very short person; I can’t see what’s on top of your head. But I see what’s in your heart!’” ‘Everyone else was telling me that I was a disgrace; that I was embarrassing my family. But Reb Aryeh never said anything negative. It was the sweet and sincere words of your grandfather that convinced me to put the kippah back on my head.’
“Reb Aryeh was known as the Tzadik of Jerusalem, but he was also called the Father of the Prisoners. During the British Mandate, the prison in the Russian Compound in Jerusalem, which today is a museum, held many members of the Jewish underground, the Haganah, the Irgun and the Lehi, who had been found guilty of political or criminal offenses*** against the British army. His selfless acts of kindness to these prisoners made him a living legend.
Every Shabbat and Yom Tov morning, regardless of heat or cold, he would walk to the prison to daven with them. Each one of the inmates, whether religious,
secular or even anti-religious, looked forward to feeling the warmth of the handshake of this little rabbi with the long black coat and the long white beard who brought them such encouragement and showed them such compassion and love. From the prison he would hurry to the families of various prisoners to bring them news of their loved ones.
“The former Israeli politician, Geulah Cohen, who in pre-state Palestine had been a member of the Irgun and the Lehi was arrested by the British in 1946 and sent to the women’s prison in Bethlehem. Hearing that some Jewish women were imprisoned there, my grandfather started visiting them just as he regularly visited the male prisoners in Jerusalem. Years later Cohen told me that when Reb Aryeh came, ‘in his presence we all wanted to be better people.’
”The prisoners speak:
“The detention camp knew no happier days than those when Reb Aryeh came on a visit. Even the blind could perceive the Shechinah – the Divine presence entering with him. No bodyguards or secretary came with him. He came only with his heart, ready to move others and be moved. How happy he was to see us, like a child that finds its mother. He came laden with love, and left laden with love sevenfold, as everyone reciprocated and returned the affection that he gave. He came laden with greetings, messages and news from our families and left laden sevenfold with greetings, messages, and news. On a cold stormy day, when he himself came in a very thin frock coat, he once rubbed my hands and asked anxiously, ‘Why have you come out like this, without a proper overcoat? You are likely to catch cold!’ For a brief moment, I had the sensation that my mother and father were standing at my cradle covering me warmly and fondling me with affection.”
And yet another prisoner shares:
“When the Shabbat came, the joy of this holy day of rest was embodied for us in the prison, strange as it may seem, by a human being of flesh and blood. He was an ordinary everyday Jew that we would call ultra-Orthodox. Like all very devout Jews he wore a long black coat and on his head a black broad brimmed hat which he replaced on the Shabbat and festival days with the traditional shtreimel – round fur hat. There was always a wondrous aura about him. It was as if the rays of some splendid holy light had been captured or absorbed somewhere in the far past and now they were shining and streaming forth returning from the depths of the spirit that was embodied in this simple old fashioned Jew . His intense luminosity flowed from that inner spirit to the man’s countenance and from his face on outward to the world about him to serve the needs of human beings. Like the fire of the sun this luminosity would burst into our room within the prison walls to assure those who lived in its’ darkness that there are lights and radiances in the world which will never be extinguished.”
In the words of one of the prisoners:
“Life is neither gladness nor grief. It is a blend of the two. On the strength of his life wisdom, he came to the prison to recall to the inmates by his very presence that besides the darkness there is also light in this world of the blessed L-rd and the light can be formed in the very intensity of the darkness.
”Reb Aryeh was constantly working to improve conditions, both physical and spiritual, for Jewish prisoners during the British Mandate. In a letter to Reb Aryeh from the British Commissioner of Prisons, we see the deep respect for him.
“Sir, I have to acknowledge receipt of your letter dated 15th July, 1945, and to inform you that arrangements will be made in Jerusalem prison whereby the Jewish prisoners will be allowed to pray in community on Tisha B’ab, i.e. on the evening of Wednesday the 18th July, 1945, and on the morning of the 19th July, 1945.
“I have the honour to be, Sir, Your obedient servant, Muscott – Commissioner of Prisons.To: Rabbi Arieh Lewin, Mishkenoth, Jerusalem
The Rebbe sent a letter to Rabbi Aryeh Levin, known as “the Tzaddik of
Jerusalem”, applauding his efforts to assist prisoners and poor people. “It is
your great fortune that, by Divine Providence, you have the ability to do this,”
the Rebbe wrote. “Without a doubt, your Ahavat Yisroel will also bring the
people you are in contact with to have a greater love towards G-d and his
Torah.” 5 Av, 5715 – 1955 Igrot Kodesh Vol 11 Pg 311 (as seen in Here’s My
Story # 393)
Reb Aryeh Levin* by his grandson Rabbi Benji Levene**.
Compiled from a number of sources:
Tzaddik of Jerusalem by Yosef Ben Shlomo HaKohen at torah.org When I First Met My Grandfather by Rabbi Benji Levene as told to David Olivestone – Jewish Action Magazine Spring 2019 A Tzaddik in Our Time – the Life of Rabbi Aryeh Levin by Simcha Raz published by Feldheim Publishers
*Rav Aryeh Levin 1885-1969
**Rabbi Benji Levene received his rabbinical ordination from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate. He served in a number of educational positions in Israel. In 2014, he was chosen to become the rabbi of the Achdut Yisrael synagogue in Jerusalem, which was his grandfather’s synagogue.
*** During the early 1930’s many Jews tried to escape Europe due to persecution. Most countries refused to admit the refugees. Many wanted to go to the Land of Israel; however, the British only allowed a handful of immigrants to enter. Thus, a growing number of Jews in Israel joined the underground groups that sought to bring in illegal immigrants. When caught by the British they would be incarcerated in subhuman conditions and worse. Some of these political prisoners recorded their
memories of Reb Aryeh’s visits as seen above.