|PHOTOS BY JERRY SZUBIN|
So you walk into the big, airy, neat, well-furnished Cresskill apartment, full of pale winter sun, and it’s almost like walking into Scheherazade’s rooms.
Presiding over this comfortable, profoundly suburban setting, Shlomo Lev spins stories, one after the other, improbable but true, of times and places close enough to us for us to know they were real, but far enough away to be mythic nonetheless.
Mr. Lev is a small-boned, taut, wiry man, muscular still, even at 87. His close-cropped white hair, white mustache and carefully trimmed beard, and light eyes, his blue jeans and windbreaker make him look less like Shloime Levitsky, as he once was, and more like a retired British sailor about to head out to the pub with his mates in a 1950s movie.
So why is he showing you what looks like a very fancy pair of men’s underpants?
Mr. Lev is many things, but most profoundly he is a storyteller. He was an adventurer, a roamer, a brave, reckless man living in a time of great excitement, possibility, horror, and opportunity. He and Israel were young together. His stories certainly would fill a book; to retell all of them would take more space than a newspaper possibly could offer. But here are some of them.
It is possible to tell Mr. Lev’s story chronologically, and I will try. But first, the underpants.
The shorts, scrupulously clean, kept in a baggie, look new. That’s because they’re made of very fine cotton. Fine Egyptian cotton, in fact. Mr. Lev sewed them himself, when he was in prison in Egypt, just a few years before the Suez crisis.
When you know what they are, you can see the material’s first life in its second one. The fly has a row of small, neat buttons, paired with equally neat buttonholes. Those were from a shirt; Mr. Lev had removed, shortened, and replaced the plackets.
He’d been a sailor, his ship was captured, and he and his mates found themselves in jail. (Details will follow.) The prisoners were given no supplies, but someone had left a shirt, and he always had been handy.
How did he get a needle? “I got friendly with an Egyptian prisoner,” he said. The Israelis were kept one to a cell and not allowed out, but the Egyptians were allowed a bit more freedom. The two were able to do each other small favors – Mr. Lev got the needle and a short time with a pencil stub, in return for some halvah.
Shlomo Levitsky was born in Odessa in 1927. When he was a child, the family moved to Olevsk, a town outside Kiev. “I was the last son in a big family,” he said. “I was born blue. They didn’t know if my mother would survive, so they didn’t care about me. They wanted to save her. So my father’s mother took me, with all the tumult in the house, and she put me in a drawer, and she gave me sugar water.” She saved him, and his mother survived as well.
His father, Jacob, was the town’s only rabbi but it had many shuls, divided by social class or trade. “There was the one for the rich people, the one for the tailors, the one for the shoemakers,” Mr. Lev said. Rabbi Levitsky would go from shul to shul, a rabbinic circuit rider.
“My father was a Hebrew scholar; of course he knew Yiddish, but he also knew beautiful Hebrew,” his son said.
“I was very wild,” Mr. Lev said. “I grew up crazy.” He has stories of running a sewing-machine needle through his finger when he was 4, and another of burning his right hand so badly that he became a leftie, although he knew from playing soccer that he naturally would favor his right hand.
Here is one of his many stories of his early childhood: “We had a cow, and every morning the shepherd would come to take the cows to pasture, and he would bring them back every evening. Every cow knew her own house. My mother used to milk our cow when it came back. She would lock the door to the house, and hang the key to the house on the nail in the shed. She took me with her. I said I wanted to go back to the house, but she said ‘Wait until I finish.’ I didn’t want to wait, so I grabbed the key from the nail and ran.
“I am running,” he said, dropping into the present tense as he remembers. “My mother is running after me. I can still see the street. I turn right, and I run. It is dark. We don’t have electricity. I get scared, and I drop the key.”
He remembers everyone searching in the dark for the key – eventually, of course, they found it.
He also remembers the time his sister Rachel, then 14, was alone in their house, with bread dough rising, soon to be baked. “She was all by herself at home, and a Gentile, a big guy, walked in. He was so hungry it was as if there was a famine. He started to eat the dough. So Rachel grabbed him, and started yelling to the neighbors. It was a boy, Volodya, next door – he wasn’t Jewish – and she started to call for him. She was holding the guy by the throat, and then he ran away.”
Mr. Lev’s mother, Babel, was an only child. “Her father had a big house, with horses, and when the revolution started he donated his horses to the Red Army,” he said. “All my mother’s siblings died at birth, so her parents went to the big rebbe and asked him what to do. He said ‘Give your baby the name Bobbe'” – grandmother – “‘instead of a name like Esther, so that she will live to be a bobbe.’
“They believed it, so they did.” Sort of. “They called her Babel.”
Mr. Lev’s father wanted to get the family out of Russia via Poland, and then go on to Palestine. That’s why the family ended up in Olevsk. “My father was a Zionist,” his son said. “He had a brother in Chicago, but he didn’t want to go there. He figured he would sneak across the border, but when he gets there, some commissars stop the train. When they see a man with a beard, they ask, ‘Where are you going? What are you doing?’ You could not travel in Russia in those days. So they arrested him.
“He was worried. It was a small town, and the whole jail was in one room. My father looked through the window and saw a little Jewish boy, so he called to him and said to tell people that the rabbi is arrested. The boy told his father, and the father told the big shots from the Jewish community, and they went to the commissar and said ‘Why did you arrest the rabbi? We sent away for a rabbi!’
“So they let him out, and he brought his family there. So now we were in Olevsk.” They waited for passports to Palestine.
Shloime had been a fearless child, but when he was about 5, something spooked him. It was early in the morning, still dark, and he passed by a wooden fence, thinking about how something might reach out and grab him, when he saw a black form coming toward him, stark against the white snow. He screamed, and after that, “I was scared of everything. No one knew what to do.
“They called for a witch doctor, an old lady. They put me on a table. She had a little roll in her hand, and she was going on top of me, and they turned me around on my stomach and she said to me, ‘I am throwing it out and the dogs will eat, and you will never be scared no more.’
“And then I threw up – my mother used to say that she had given me a little too much.
“And after this I was not ever afraid of anything.”
In 1933 their passports came, and Mr. Lev’s mother and father, and the five children still at home, all left from Odessa by ship, stopping at Constantinople and then Yaffa. Mr. Lev, then 6, spent the rest of his childhood in Givat Ram; his father bought a printing press there. His brother ran the business; “my father used to print rabbinical books. He was an editor, and he was the rabbi of Givat Ram.
“My father was a really nice person,” Mr. Lev said.
Growing up in Mandatory Palestine, Mr. Lev was a very physical young man, and he was deeply involved with youth movements. “One time, it was 1941 or 42, we went for a weekend to a kibbutz. In the evening, there was a group of young people we didn’t know. It was the Palmach. We would sit around a bonfire, and they would tell us about their adventures, about how they went to Masada.
“In those days, only the Palmach could get to Masada. It impressed me.” (The Palmach was an elite force within the Haganah. All of it was illegal, and joining was by invitation.)
“We came back, and I finished school.” Some time passed. Mr. Lev turned 16. World War II raged.
The atmosphere then was tense, he said. “It was hard to describe. The Germans were in El Alamein. They were aiming to get Egypt, take Palestine, take Syria. They wanted to get to the oilfields of Iraq.
“So I said to my friend Shuka, ‘Let’s go join the British army.'” Shuka was a few years older than Mr. Lev; his father owned a barbershop in the British army headquarters in Tel Aviv, and Shuka worked there. Mr. Lev worked in his family’s print shop. “We went to the induction center in Tel Aviv. I wanted to fight the Germans. A lot of people were going to join the Jewish Brigade, but I was too young. But at 16 you could join the navy.
“So if you want to go to the navy, there was a sign up in a corner, and there was a little room, and we were standing there, looking in. We didn’t know what to do. And I see that the door to this little room in the corner was open, and a fellow looked at us and waved us over.” Mr. Lev gestured, showing how he had waved. “So we go in. This fellow later became Ben-Gurion’s secretary. But he said ‘What are you doing here?’ and I said ‘We don’t know what to join.’ And he said ‘The navy’s not for you. Why don’t you join the Palmach?’
“We knew the Palmach. It sounded like a good adventure. They go to Masada! He said, ‘We will fight the Germans from here, not from there.’ I said okay, so he gave us money for a bus to go to Givat Chayim.
“He didn’t give us any names. He just said that when we got there, we’d find them.”
Shuka didn’t go – his father bribed him not to with a gold watch, Mr. Lev said. But he told his parents that he was going to a kibbutz – which was true enough – and got on the bus.
“All right,” he said. “I am going to Givat Chayim all by myself. I don’t know where, but I will smell it.”
When he got to the kibbutz, he was sent to another one, and then to another. “When I came to that kibbutz, near Kfar Saba, I saw tents. I got to the head tent, and I saw people sleeping with their rifles. I could see that this was the right place.”
He was in the Palmach.
Mr. Lev was in Pluga Dalet, “all city kids,” he said. “Our company was from all over. One of the fellows became a Supreme Court judge, and one became a famous scientist. I was really a street kid, so the training” – climbing ropes, running on building ledges – “was nothing for me.”
At their swearing in, he said, the 10 top athletes from each of Pluga Dalet’s three companies competed against each other. He was not on the team, which had trained hard, but one of the members of his company’s team “got cold feet,” and he had to take over. “I was the smallest, but they said it didn’t matter. They said I just had to run.” But no. There was a three-mile run, carrying a rifle, and then a climb over the kibbutz’s gate. Then there was a rope tied to two trees; contestants had to cross it. And then they had to come down from a rope tied to a water tower, hand over hand, carrying a rifle. He went last. He hadn’t trained for this at all.
“Now here I come, the little fellow. The rifle is getting bigger and bigger, getting bigger than me. It was so quiet. And when I came down, everyone applauded.” And then they had to swim.
“In the evening, there was a big fire, and we swore allegiance to the Palmach.”
Pluga Dalet had tommy guns, which was illegal. The British found the guns and arrested the young men. Mr. Lev found himself in a detention camp in Latrun; eventually he was released.
Mr. Lev had enlisted in the Palmach for the standard two years, but when his hitch was over, he was not ready to leave for a more standard job. “Men went on to good careers, but I didn’t want to go home,” he said. So he transferred from the Palmach to the Palyam, its smaller, newer, less-well-known naval division. “There was a course,” he said. “All about everything to do with boats. We learned geography, navigation, all the things we needed.”
Despite his naval training, Mr. Lev’s next assignment was to accompany Jews as they attempted to enter Palestine illegally. They would bring in new olim from Syria and Lebanon and bus them to the kibbutzim. Next, they went to Caesarea, where new immigrants escaping Europe were hoping for new lives in Palestine. At first, they would go out to the larger ships with little Arab boats, and transfer the olim.
Among the ships whose passengers they smuggled to shore was the Hannah Senesh. “The ship landed in Nahariyah,” he said. “The beach there – you go two steps into the water, and it’s very deep.
“It was Christmas Day 1946. The British were there. So we organized the prostitutes and told them to keep the British busy. Everyone wanted to help, so they kept them drinking and singing. And meanwhile the ship was at anchor, we tied it up. It came in very close and we tied it up with a big rope.” Then they fetched the immigrants.
It was not well organized, Mr. Lev said, and it was frightening for the passengers, who had already faced ordeal after ordeal on their way out of blood-soaked Europe. One woman started to scream, and another to slip away into the strong current. But all 150 passengers survived, and all managed to blend into Palestine.
And then, as the operation got bigger, the British worked harder to stop them.
Mr. Lev had many adventures. One involved an attempt to smuggle new olim from Tel Aviv, but the British heard about it, and blockaded them. He and some friends – including the later-famous actor Shaike Ophir – took a rowboat out on the Yarkon River. Their job was to throw explosives onto the British patrol boat as it passed by them.
As they waited for their prey to approach, they heard explosions over Tel Aviv, caused, they later learned, by a firefight between the British and Jews; what they knew at the time was that they had to abort their mission. The British soldiers on their boat were on alert, holding their machine guns ready. It was not a good time to throw explosives at them. Mr. Lev and his friends scattered; he and one other man went to his sister’s house. She thought that he was safe in a kibbutz, so many whispered explanations and other complications followed, but they got away safely.
In 1947, Mr. Lev was transferred to the reserves and went back to work in his family print shop; his commander in the reserves was Yitzhak Rabin. When the United Nation’s partition plan was announced, shooting broke out. “I was standing on the machine, putting paper in, when a fellow stopped by the door and said, ‘Hey, Shloimeleh, we are going to fight. What are you doing here?’ I stopped the machine, and my brother said, ‘Where are you going?’ and I said ‘I am going to headquarters.’ That was it.”
He escorted convoys to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. “We brought food, water, oil – the basics. We had to escort them because when you go to Jerusalem, there are mountains on both sides. They, the Arabs, they were sitting on top of the mountain and shooting down. In those days, we didn’t have the policy of attacking them. We just protected the convoy.
“Sugar would come in big sacks, so we would hide in the middle of the sacks and shoot from there.” Soon those convoys were protected by armored-truck escorts.
Mr. Lev would sleep at home whenever possible, even if he had to be out very early. “I never kissed my mother goodbye,” he said. “I’m not superstitious, but I believed that if I kissed her goodbye, I wouldn’t come back.”
It was during this period that he was on a mission to blow up an ice factory that had housed Arabs who ambushed and killed Jews. He was sneaking through an orchard when “all of a sudden I feel a bullet in my hip,” he said. “It didn’t hurt much, but I saw the blood.” He had to escape through enemy fire; “you go between the trees and you hear the bullets, ching ching ching, in the trees. And then we came to the highway, and we had to cross it. I am still walking with the bullet, and bleeding, and we come to a stop where you have to go across a highway, and they are shooting with machine guns.
“I say to myself, you better go, and I keep losing blood. I zoom over the highway, and then I walked, and when I came to Mikvah Israel, the agricultural school that was our base, I see the Israeli ambulance.
“Then I pass out.
“Something helped me to get through that. I know it. And then I woke up in the ambulance, and I felt good. They took me to the hospital in Tel Aviv, and I see a lot of people. They took me off in a stretcher, and they say ‘Look at him. He’s smiling.’
“And I was smiling.”
Mr. Lev was in the hospital for two weeks, and then he was sent to a convalescent home. “The bullet went through one side of my body and out the other side,” he said. “And I had to carry around a cushion, because I couldn’t sit without one. I had no meat on my behind.”
As he was convalescing, he heard rumors about a coming battle in Jerusalem, and that his company was gathering in Hadera. “I had to go there, so I hitchhiked there. With my cushion.
“The road to Jerusalem was blocked. I walked around to look for my company. The company’s nurse was the one who put me in the convalescent home. She said, ‘Where are you going?’ I said, ‘I am going to join the company.'” The nurse told him that he shouldn’t, and he told her that he had to. So she talked him into going home for the seder – it was almost Pesach – and coming back to fight once it was over. “So I did,” Mr. Lev said.
He ended up fighting on the Israeli Burma Road, which allowed Jewish convoys to bypass Arab blockades.
It was during that time – during which his wound opened and forced him into more convalescence – that the State of Israel was declared. “And then Ben-Gurion said no more Palmach, and that’s it.
“So when I heard that they would have a navy, I said, all right, I will join the Israeli navy. And then they started the merchant marine, and I said, all right, I will join it.” He joined as a deckboy, Mr. Lev said. That was the only job available. “I never looked down on any job,” he said. “Nothing is below me. And everyone on the ship said, ‘Shlomo is a famous fighter, come down from Jerusalem.’ They had a lot of respect for me.
“The ship once had all its cargo in the front, so it leaned in front, and there was only one rudder. It was very hard to steer. So because I was a deckboy – but a deckboy with a reputation – they put me on the wheel.
“The captain was a Jew from Hungary. Hungary has no navy. He was a big snob. I was standing at the wheel, moving it like this” – he mimed large-scale turns, hand over hand over hand – “and the ship goes like this.” He mimicked a ship fishtailing. “But I learned after a few minutes how to do it, how to turn it ahead of time.
“The captain looks at me, says, ‘You don’t turn the wheel so much,’ gives me a push, and grabs it. And then it turns all the way around, so he gives it back to me. I took the wheel and continued on to Haifa.
“When we got to Haifa, the captain came over to me on the deck and said, ‘From now on, you are an able seaman.'”
For two years, Mr. Lev worked for the Norwegian merchant marine. “I sailed from the Far East to India,” he said; he also went to North and South America, and to Australia. When they stopped, priests often would board the ship to offer spiritual succor to the sailors. They would often talk to him first, he said; with his pale skin, blond hair, and blue eyes, “I looked Norwegian.”
In January 1954, Mr. Lev had taken a job filling in for sailors on shore leave when an old friend, “an old fighter,” said, “Shloimeleh, come with me, we have a job to do.” Mr. Lev didn’t know what the job was, but he told his parents that he was leaving, and followed his friend.
They flew to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, got a ship, changed its flag to Israel’s, “boarded it, and sailed to the Suez Canal through the Red Sea,” he said. Israel had opened a slaughterhouse and meat-canning factory in Addis, and their job was to escort the shochet and mashgiach there, and then to bring a load of canned meat home.
“On the way from Lod, we were supposed to fly over Eilat, and a fire started in one engine. The plane had only two engines. The shochet and the mashgiach were sitting on the floor, saying tehillim. We were laughing. The plane made a big U-turn and went back to Lod, and then next day we flew again.
“But the trip started off with bad luck.”
They sailed up to the Suez Canal on their ship, the Bat Galim – daughter of the waves. “When we got there, the captain tells me to hoist the Israeli flag, I do, and the Egyptians go crazy.
“There was all kinds of commotion.” The 10 sailors were arrested and taken to Cairo. “Even the soldiers who took us there told us they felt sorry for us,” he said. “They knew they were taking us to hell.”
When they got to their destination – a prison whose name Mr. Lev does not know – “there was a fellow outside like the giant from Babi Yaga. A huge, huge man.
“We were on the truck, which was covered, and they take off the bag, and you have to get out from the back of the truck, and each one who gets out gets hit. We were 10 and there were a million of them and they hit and hit and hit. They put everyone in handcuffs, but I was the last one, and they didn’t have handcuffs for me, so they left me alone.
“They took each of us separately to the office where a big fellow was sitting, and they made us take off all our rings, your watches, everything.” He had a pinkie ring from his fiancÃ©e, but somehow it was overlooked, as was the single dollar bill in the inside pocket in the leg of his jeans.
“They were hitting us, hitting us, hitting us,” he said.
Each of the Israelis was shoved along by two Egyptians, one holding him on either side.
Once he was in his cell, Mr. Lev laid down and slept. “I never in my life have felt sorry for myself,” he said. “Every time I got in trouble, I said all right. But I felt sorry for some of the others, two of them survivors of the Holocaust, with numbers. They had already gone through horror.
“I started laughing,” he said. “My mother used to say to me, in Yiddish, what are you doing, where are you crawling, with your crooked feet? So I am laying down in my cell, with only a blanket and a pail of water, thinking to myself, in Yiddish, what are you doing? Where are you crawling, with your crooked feet?
“I was thinking to myself, so you made your own bed, so you be happy.”
The 10 Israelis were imprisoned for three months, accused of killing a fisherman, held for two-weeks at a time, with their sentences always renewed before the earlier one ran out. After some time they were moved from the first jail to one for political prisoners, and their treatment improved.
“And then one day they put us on a train to Aza – it’s Gaza but the Egyptians called it Aza, and they held it then. They closed the windows, closed the blinds, so we couldn’t see, and then the train goes chika chika chika and we cross the Suez Canal going to Aza.” It was then that Mr. Lev remembered the dollar in his pants – it was worth something then – and asked one of his guards to use it to buy tea for all of them.
“They brought us to jail in Aza. It was New Year’s Eve 1955. We were sleeping on the floor in the jail, and then we hear all the bells ringing at midnight, and people yelling happy new year.
“The next day, an officer brought us to the road, and said, ‘Go. That is Israel.’ My brother was there, waiting for me.
“It was Shabbat when they released us.”
The Israelis took the newly freed Israeli sailors to their headquarters in central Tel Aviv, where they met family members. That included Mr. Lev’s elderly mother, who was Shabbat-observant and had walked miles to get there.
By then, Mr. Lev “decided that it is enough adventure.” He married Alma Feldner of Flatbush, whom he had met while he was in the Israeli merchant marine, in 1955, and the two moved back to her native Brooklyn. Ms. Lev, who since has retired, worked as a laboratory technologist, analyzing blood samples. The couple have three daughters – Ava Lev, Beverly Lev-Whitford, and Lily Lev-Glick, and four grandchildren. Just a few years ago, the Israeli government found him again, and awarded him with medals for his work defending the Jewish state.
But as it turned out, Mr. Lev had not come to the end of his adventures when he moved to the States. He went back to the trade in which he had grown up, and became a printer. He joined the union, and worked for a Yiddish newspaper, Der Morgen Zshurnal, the morning paper that competed with the Yiddish-language daily Forverts (the predecessor of today’s weekly Forward). He became a foreman. When the print shop closed, “I decided to go into business for myself, so I bought the things I needed, and opened a shop in Brooklyn. It was called Shalom Typographic.
“Then the Lubavitch wanted to start a weekly, and of course I knew exactly how to do it. So they started the Algemeiner, Yiddish. I printed it for about 10 years.
“And then,” he said, “the Satmar firebombed our shop.
“Why? The editor was writing editorials against the Satmar, and they were fighting each other.” Both Lubavitch and Satmar are chasidic groups, but they are very different from each other. The Lubavitch are outward-facing, worldly, and noncommittal on Zionism. The Satmar are inward, insular, and fervently anti-Zionist. They live close to each other in Brooklyn, and they tend not to approve of each other.
The police knew about the firebombing, but they “didn’t want to deal with it,” seeing it as a losing proposition, Mr. Lev said. There were people living on top of the shop, but they were not harmed; no one at all was hurt.
The firebombers did not win. (Had they known their opponent, they would have known that they could not win.) “The machinery was all ruined,” Mr. Lev said. “We had insurance, but we had to publish right away. So we rented another place, and I knew exactly what to do.”
He had kept copies of the pages and could reconstruct them. If the Russians and the Egyptians and the Arabs couldn’t get him, certainly Satmar didn’t stand a chance against Shlomo Lev.
Shlomo Lev retired, and about eight years ago he and Alma moved to Cresskill. His adventurous days might be behind him, but his storytelling skills are so strong that he, his family, and everyone else lucky enough to be regaled by them can be moved, inspired, amused, and amazed by them for years to come.