by Herbert J. Levine (Sarasota, FL)
Born down the street from Boston’s Old North Church, my grandfather Hyman was the first American-born child of Jacob and Jennie, so his family fondly called him Hyman-in-America. His mother was one of two sisters Levine who married two brothers Krasnapolsky, who had the good sense to take their wives’ last name, so that their American children didn’t grow up with names like Hymie and Morris Krasnapolsky.
I never met this grandfather for whom I was named, Herbert having substituted for Hyman, because my mother didn’t want the bullies calling me Hymie (they Herbie’d me instead). He had seven brothers and two sisters. The brothers mostly died of heart disease, so we Levines watch our cholesterol. I wear a gold ring that was his, a mermaid ringing its edge, with a garnet in its tail, and our shared initials in Chinese-y script in the middle. I have the well-worn tefillin that he received for his bar mitzvah and used all his life, quite small and still useable more than a hundred years later. I had his Hamilton gold pocket watch until our house was robbed and also the pin from his fraternal order, the Knights of Pythias, which featured a medieval-looking helmet and crossed lances, pinned to a velvet cloth in a leather folder, one of my childhood treasures.
This order that was so important to him, the Knights of Pythias, took as its founding myth the legendary story of two friends, Damon and Pythias, students of the Greek philosopher and mathematician, Pythagoras. The story goes that Pythias, sentenced to death by a tyrant, asked to go home to settle his affairs and was allowed to do so only because his friend Damon stood surety for him until his return. That he did return so impressed the tyrant that he freed the loyal pair and kept them on as counselors to his court. The motto of the latter-days Pythians is the founder’s creed: “If fraternal love held all men bound, how beautiful this world would be,” which goes a long way to explaining why my father so often quoted to me that part of Polonius’s speech on male friendship, which he described as his father’s favorite: “The friends thou hast, and their adoption tried,/ Grapple them to thy soul with hoops of steel.”
When my father gave me an edition of the Twelve Minor Prophets for my Bar Mitzvah, he said his father had given him the book and told him to make his philosophy of life from each of the prophets. At that time, Martin Luther King was quoting Micah in his world-shaking speeches: “Let justice flow like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream,” so it seemed a powerful idea to me. Both my father and my Levine grandmother loved to quote another of Micah’s memorable utterances, “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” so it’s likely that this verse also summed up my grandfather’s creed.
Grandfather Hyman was something of an orator, so was designated to give the annual Yom Kippur appeal at the community’s one synagogue, even though he was neither a successful businessman (he worked at a coal company weighing the coal trucks before and after their deliveries), nor renowned for scholarship or piety. Apparently, his oratorical flair was what was called for. His surviving books also show his affinity for oratory – Emerson’s Essays, which were first delivered as public addresses, and Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, in which the poet presents himself as a grand teacher to America and the world.
Whitman, who loved laborers, might have celebrated him as a jack of all trades. There’s a picture of him smiling broadly wearing a carpenter’s belt with a hammer suspended from it and behind him, one of the bunks at Camp Young Judea that he had helped to build, which generations of his descendants have attended.
As I grew older, I heard darker stories — that he had to be carried home drunk from a Simchat Torah eve festivity, that he had occasionally snuck out with Gentile friends on a Saturday night to eat non-kosher food in Boston’s Chinatown. Fifty years later, my father was still burdened by these memories. Nevertheless, he felt compelled to pass them on as the shadow of his father’s legacy.
Toward the end of his life, Hyman had a stroke and sought to recover his faculties by practicing penmanship. We have in his hand a short popular poem that he copied in an elegant, calligraphic script. This poem can be found on the Internet, under the words of its refrain, “All I Got Was Words.” The stanzas speak to me of his life – like the poem’s anonymous speaker, he got no fine clothes from his parents; they gave him no car nor sent him to college. What he got were words that embody a way of life, “Zog dem emes,/ Gib Tzedakah,/ Hub rachmones/ Zei a mensch.” –Tell the truth, give to the poor what is just. Have compassion. Be a mensch, the sort of person with whom one is proud to be associated
Herbert J. Levine published his first book of poetry, Words for Blessing the World, at the age of 67. His previous books were scholarly treatments of Yeats and Psalms. To learn more about Herb and his work, visit:https://benyehudapress.com/books/words-blessing-world/