There certainly are techniques that you have to learn to become a good photographer. Composition, lighting, what lens to use, at what exposure.
But to be a good portrait photographer, to be able to look through a camera at a stranger’s face and know how to convey the essence of that stranger so that other strangers will look at it and know her, demands that and more.
To take a good portrait, it is good to have lived enough yourself so that you can really see the person at the other end of your camera.
By the time Doris Levin of Fort Lee went to eastern Europe in 2002 to photograph Jews there, she was in her mid-70s. Now, with some of her work on display at the Jewish Home in Rockleigh, she looks back on a long, eventful, risk-taking, both joy- and grief-marked life.
Doris Levin was born Doris Levine in January 1927 in Long Branch. Her mother, Fannie, was born in Brooklyn but her father, William, never was clear on where he was from. “Minsk, Pinsk, what’s the difference,” she remembers him saying. He never was more clear than that. She never learned exactly where her father was born. “That’s part of the reason why I took those pictures,” she said. “I wanted to go back to see where my roots are.”
Her grandparents lived in Long Branch too; “My grandfather, Max, who died when I was very young, studied Torah all day,” she said. Her grandmother, Lillian, ran a kuchelein, a kind of boarding house for beachgoing Jewish vacationers. The guests would rent rooms and cook for themselves in one of the house’s two kitchens, one for meat, the other for dairy.
Doris grew up Orthodox in a small — “There were only two Jewish kids in my class” — but vital Jewish community; her father, who owned a used-car dealership, was the treasurer of their shul, Congregation Sons of Israel. Her mother was a homemaker, and Doris and her brother, Jerry, went to public school.
“Looking back, I see that it was a nice childhood,” Ms. Levin said. “I went to the beach every day in the summer; I learned to swim at an early age. I guess we were fairly well off — my parents sent me to Seashore Day Camp. It was $50 for the whole summer — but this was in the 1930s. That was a lot of money then.”
In 1945, Ms. Levin went to off to college — to Drexel University in Philadelphia, where she studied home economics. Although it was not a time when every graduating high school senior — let alone every graduating female high school senior — went to college, “I can never remember not thinking that I’d go,” she said. “I always knew that I would go.”
She was a home economics major. That was not a course of study specifically for women planning to graduate with the Mrs. degree; Ms. Levin chose it “because I wanted to be a buyer at a department store,” she said. The program offered classes in “fabric, manufacturing, and clothing construction,” she said.
When she headed off to school, it was with her ration cards in hand; World War II had just ended, but rationing had not. “And there were not a lot of boys around,” she said. But soon the former servicemen came pouring into the school, and she met one of them, Morton Levin.
Mr. Levin enlisted in the army as soon as he could, and he served for four years. “Those were different times then,” Ms. Levin said. “Boys volunteered. He wanted to join the Marines, but they didn’t take him. Had he joined the Marines, he never would have come back.
“He was in Okinawa during the war,” she continued. “He always said that he was glad that we dropped the bomb on Japan, because we were scheduled to invade,” and he would have been in one of the first waves to go in.
They met cute. “Mort was 25 when I met him, and he was very serious,” Ms. Levin said. “I was young. We met in the library. I was registering late, and he couldn’t get over anyone doing that. Registering late.”
They were attracted to each other, but neither took any action. A few months later, Mr. Levin joined a fraternity brother and his date at a nightclub to see a promising new trio. Needless to say, that date was Doris. At the end of the evening, Mr. Levin asked his friend if he could take her back home. “We went out the next weekend, and never dated anyone else ever again,” Ms. Levin quoted her husband as saying.
Doris Levine and Morton Levin married in 1947 (“I just dropped an e,” she said); when Mr. Levin died in 2009, they had been married for 62 years.
And that up-and-coming trio? Nat King Cole.
After they graduated from Drexel — his degree was in industrial engineering — the couple moved to New York, where he earned a master’s in retailing and she worked in Ohrbach’s in Union Square. “We lived at 96th Street off Central Park West, in a walk-up,” she said. “The rent was $50 a month.”
Altogether, the family moved 19 times. Much of Mr. Levin’s early career was with Allied Department stores, which was responsible for some of those moves. The Levins went to Cleveland, where the first of their five children, Jackie, was born, in 1951. They went back to Long Branch to take over Ms. Levin’s family business, and then back to Allied in Levittown, Pennsylvania. They also lived in Philadelphia, in Reading, Pennsylvania, in Westfield, New Jersey, and in Springfield, Ohio.
The Levins’ first three children were challengingly close in age. Billy was born in 1952, and Freda in 1953. Then they took a short breather — Melissa was born in 1958, and Mindy in 1960. Each child was born in a different place. (“Billy once asked me, ‘Mom, if we move, does that mean we’re having another baby?’” Ms. Levin said.)
Mr. Levin grew up an observant Conservative Jew, and the family always joined the local Conservative shul. When her children were young, Ms. Levin did not have a full-time job outside her home — “I did serious full-time parenting,” she said — but she often gave cooking demonstrations for synagogue sisterhoods. She knew about cooking from college, and about kashrut from home. “I wouldn’t have chosen to keep kosher, but that was part of the deal for marrying Mort,” she said. She has a pile of hand-made, mimeographed booklets from those demonstrations. All name her as “Mrs. Morton Levin,” and the menus offer such ambitious meals as roast goose, preceded by chopped goose liver.
In the 1960s, Mr. Levin began working with computers, not as a programmer but as a retail adviser, deciding what kinds of information manufacturers and store managers would need. Then, deciding to leave retailing entirely, “he decided that because he liked to ski, we should live in an area that offered skiing,” Ms. Levin said.
They moved to West Hartford, Connecticut — You can ski near there. Who knew? — and bought a franchise hamburger restaurant called Burger Chef. “He kept kosher — he never ate in them,” Ms. Levin said. “They were doing okay until a McDonalds moved in down the street. Then we closed them.”
By that time, their oldest children were in college and Ms. Levin went to work. They lived in suburban Boston then, and she became kitchen manager at the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Hospital.
Next, they decided to move to New York’s Westchester County. They bought a bookstore, the Paperback Booksmith, in the Cross County Mall in Yonkers, and then another Paperback Booksmith in White Plains. Eventually, they bought one in Fishkill, N.Y., too. “We always were optimistic,” Ms. Levin said. “We always thought things would be good.”
Business, in the pre-Amazon age, was good. “In 1981, we bought a small book distribution company,” she continued. “It was the Regent Book Company, first in Hillsdale, then we moved it to Lodi. We were going to buy books to distribute to our bookstores.
“When we got the bookstores, I went to work with my husband. He had the retail experience and I didn’t, so we decided that he would be the boss, and I was a worker. But when we bought Regent, he sent me to run it.
“I did well. One day, I just said to myself, ‘I’m smart too!’ I always thought that my husband was the smart one, and then one day I woke up. Regent was doing really well — and I woke up.
“It was almost like an epiphany.”
But just as Ms. Levin started gaining self-confidence, the bookstores started doing less well. There was landlord trouble, and other, bigger stores were muscling in, and it was time to end that business. The family focused on Regent, Ms. Levin’s baby. Working with her middle daughter, Frayda Levy — “a political conservative who worked for Reagan in the White House” but left politics after that presidency ended — they made Regent thrive. “It was stressful,” Ms. Levin said.
Ms. Levin discovered that not only would computers help her run her business — this was in the early 1990s, when business owners were making that discovery one at a time, often reluctantly — but she had an affinity for them. She computerized her business records and even commissioned and ran an early website. “I went to Long Island City, to a place with geeky guys — and geeky women — and one of them told me that for $100 he would build me a website. I gave him $100, and he built it.”
Eventually, Amazon did in Regent, as it had so many other businesses. By that time, the Levins were ready to retire.
The Levins’ oldest child, Jackie, had made aliyah to marry a kibbutznik, Aryeh Shani. She moved to Kibbutz Afek, and the couple had four daughters. In the early 1990s, the family came back to the States for a few years. Doris and Mort moved to Manhattan so the girls could go to school in Scarsdale; when Jackie’s family returned to Israel, Doris and Mort decided that they preferred city life. They stayed in Manhattan until they made their last move, to Fort Lee, in 2003.
This is where the story takes a tragic turn. Three of the Levins’ children — Jackie, William, and Melissa — have died, each of a different cancer. Jackie, the Israeli, died in 1993; William, an emergency room doctor who lived in Englewood, died a few years later, and Melissa, an artist, just last October. Doris Levin has endured all this, as well as her husband’s death.
Ms. Levin’s Fort Lee apartment is stunning. It is so filled with light that it seems nothing could be hidden in it ever. On the west side, it offers a sweet but unspectacular view of suburban streets, but from the north and east the Hudson glistens and ships hulk by and traffic on the West Side Highway glitters and the great gray George Washington Bridge arches up and swoops down and then arches up again. There is both constant serenity and constant motion. The apartment is full of photographs and artwork, much of it by Melissa Levin. Pictures of her five children, five grandchildren, and five great grandchildren are everywhere.
When you first walk into her apartment, the photos Ms. Levin took in Eastern Europe stare at you, demanding that you stare back.
Ms. Levin first started taking pictures when her children were young. “My mother went to visit Germany, and brought me a good German camera,” she said. “I realized that I had to learn to use it. In those days, nothing was automatic.” That meant that there was a lot to learn.
She studied at the International Center for Photography in Manhattan. “I took to it immediately,” she said. “I felt like I had to learn more. I had to understand light better. And my daughter Melissa, who was the artist, always encouraged me to be creative.”
When she went to Kibbutz Afek, Ms. Levin talked to many people there. Eventually, she took their pictures. “I’m interested in people,” she said. The kibbutz is a very closed society, and does not welcome outsiders, she said; her son-in-law was born into it, which gave her some entrée, but after that she had to earn people’s trust.
She was drawn to photograph older people. She was attracted to the stories in their faces. She has an album — beautifully printed pictures tacked to lusciously heavy off-white paper in a sturdily bound book — with the photos on the right and the stories on the left. Some of the photos do not come with stories. Some of the people who are pictured chose not to tell their stories; others, suffering from Alzheimer’s, no longer remember them. But each has a face.
In 2001, Doris and Morton Levin went on a tour of eastern Europe led by the author Chaim Potok. In Vilna, they met Dovid Katz, the Yiddishist we profiled in this newspaper a few weeks ago. “We sort of became friends, and he told us about the dire straits” in which the people whose Yiddish dialects he was collecting found themselves.
These rapidly aging Jews were not Holocaust survivors but refugees. They had fled before the Nazis invaded Lithuania in June 22, 1941, spent the war in Tashkent or the Urals or other obscure points further north or east, and then trickled back home after the war. “They got a pension from the Soviet Union, but then, after the fall of the Soviet Union, inflation set in, and their pensions were about $10 a month,” Ms. Levin said. “They couldn’t afford their medications. They couldn’t always afford food.” Because they weren’t Holocaust survivors, they didn’t get reparations. They were old and mainly forgotten. Ms. Levin was moved by them. She hoped to photograph them and use the images to raise money for them.
So she and her daughter Jackie’s youngest daughter, Shachar Shani, went back to Vilna. (Ms. Shani was so moved by the experience that she decided to become a professional photographer, and studied at the ORT school in Haifa. That, in turn, led to Ms. Levin’s involvement with ORT, and eventually to a three-year term as president of the Fort Lee chapter.)
“I took a woman I had met at International Center for Photography, who did lighting, with me, and a translator and a driver, and Dovid gave me a list of people to see and helped arrange the appointments for me,” Ms. Levin said. “There were five of us.
“It was an amazing experience meeting these people and learning their stories,” she continued. “And it really took a lot of guts on my part. I wanted to get out of my comfort zone. I thought I could do it.” She was about 76 years old then.
Ms. Levin compared the experience of photographing older people at Kibbutz Afek with the ones she took in Lithuania. The difference was stark, she said.
“The people in the kibbutz were happy with their lives. They had been poor, but they lived Jewish lives, and they lived well. They felt that they had found paradise.” The eastern Europeans were nowhere near paradise. They had chosen to go back home rather than to Israel, and now they were suffering.
“I asked them what their Jewish lives were like, and I looked for Jewish things in their homes,” Ms. Levin said. “I came to the conclusion that what the Germans had started, the communists finished. They did not have a Jewish life there.”
She never was able to raise money for the Jews she photographed, but their pictures are now on permanent display at the Jewish Home in Rockleigh. The exhibit, which opened last Sunday, is in memory of her daughter Melissa, who taught her about light.
“I wanted these photographs in the Jewish Home because I wanted those people whose pictures I took to have a Jewish home in a Jewish home,” Ms. Levin said. “I really wanted them finally to have a Jewish home.”