Jewish geography’s a real thing. Talk to someone long enough — which usually isn’t very long at all — and you realize that you have at least one person in common. A friend, a relative, the friend of a friend. Something. Because after all, there aren’t that many Jews in the world.
So it’s not so surprising that the three men, all born in the 1930s, who met at the Kaplen JCC on the Palisades in Tenafly, learned that they had a great deal in common. They each spent at least one year at the same school.
A primary school. (Wait. What’s that? You mean an elementary school, right? Well, no.)
A primary school, moreover, in the London neighborhood of Stoke Newington — part of the borough of Hackney. It’s a place that probably resembled New York City’s outer boroughs, when most Jews had moved on from the Lower East Side but not yet made it out to even the closest ring of suburbs.
These three men — Jeffrey Levene and Malcolm Galatin of Tenafly, and Jeffrey Kane of Fort Lee but until a few years ago also of Tenafly — went to the same primary school in London. All three experienced the blitz (although with a child’s rather than an adult’s understanding of the bombing to which London was subjected). All were evacuated to the country.
The Jewish world is in some ways a very small one.
Mr. Levene, Mr. Kane, and Dr. Galatin all have lived in Tenafly and been members of the JCC for decades, and they’d seen each other around during that time, but they only properly met and realized how much background they shared in the last few months.
He was in a gym class, “chatting up Jeff’s wife, Arleene, and she said, ‘You sound English,’” Mr. Levene, whose accent indeed is unmistakably British, said. “I said, ‘I am,’ and she said, ‘So’s my husband.’ And there was another lady, Beatrice, in the same exercise class, who husband is from London, and is about my age. We’d known each other for some time, but we never knew where anybody was from.
Then Arleene said, ‘My husband is from Stoke Newington,’ and I said, ‘So am I!’
“And then Beatrice said, ‘My husband is too!’”
So the three couples — that included Mr. Levene’s wife, Edith — had dinner together. Fish and chips, of course, the three men said. “And most of us had beer.” They went to “the Irish place in Englewood,” Mr. Levene added. Since then, they’d been sharing and unearthing memories.
In many ways, English and American Jews share a history. Although many Jews arrived in the United States in two earlier waves of immigration — and most of the first wave were Sephardic and the second were German — still, most American Jews arrived from eastern Europe in a flood that began around 1880.
A similar thing happened in England.
A large number of Jews settled in London’s East End — “because the prevailing winds came from the west, so the atmosphere there in the East End,” with all the city particulates and sewage and general bad smells the winds had picked up on its way across the city flaunting themselves there, “was the worst,” Dr. Galatin said. And of course, the smellier, dirtier, and more undesirable a neighborhood is, the cheaper it is — and the more it tends to attract refugees and immigrants.
In a generation or so, the Jews moved out and on. Stoke Newington was one of the transitional neighborhoods that attracted many families but did not hold onto them for many generations. “By now it has become gentrified,” Dr. Galatin said. (In fact, according to the internet, Stoke Newington now is actively trendy and parts of it are becoming prohibitively expensive. Think Lower East Side.) “And there is a big Indian community there now too,” he added.
In what was another typical pattern, none of the three men’s families stayed in Stoke Newington. Rather, they moved to other parts of London when the boys were young. Still, all of them have vivid memories of their time in the borough.
“It was comparable in size to Tenafly,” Mr. Levene said. “And I think that somewhere between 15 to 20 percent of the residents were Jewish.” Challenged on that statistic by the other two — to be fair, none of the three of them really knew how many people lived there or what percentage of them were Jewish — Mr. Levene resorted to argument by anecdote. “All the people I knew were Jewish,” he said.
In a discussion that often centered on landmarks the three shared — remember the theater? Which club did you go to? Which shul? What school? — each of the men described his family’s path to London, as well as his own out of it.
Mr. Levene was born in 1934, Mr. Kane in 1936, and Dr. Galatin — “You’re such a baby!” — in 1939.
Dr. Galatin’s mother had been born in London, and his father was from Poland but was taken to England when he was young. That was true of Mr. Kane’s parents as well; Mr. Levene’s family parents both were first-generation London-born, but their families were from eastern Europe.
Mr. Kane, unlike his two compatriots, does not have a British accent. That’s because his mother took him to the United States when he was 4 years old — “we were on the last convoy from England,” he said — and they lived on Broadway at 110th Street for a few years. But then “in 1944, my father wrote to us that the war was over,” and they went home. His father was wrong. “That’s when the buzz bombs started” — that’s the projectile also called the doodlebug — “and then the V-2 bombs.” Those were early long-range guided ballistic missiles.
“We had an air raid shelter at the end of our garden, but it was damp, and I don’t think we ever used it,” Mr. Kane said.
The other two men didn’t use bomb shelters much either. “My bedroom was basically a metal box,” Mr. Levene said. “I woke up in the morning, and the window was blown out, and there was stuff all over. But I slept through it.”
Dr. Galatin did go to an air raid shelter at least once. “My earliest memories are being in a shelter,” he said. “It was under a fruit market in Spitalfields with my mother and her father. I have no memories at all of being scared. I wasn’t scared. Some of it was an adventure. I remember running around with my friends looking for pieces of shrapnel after a raid.
“I remember my parents taking me out in the middle of the night when the sirens were going off.
“I very clearly remember sitting under a table in our kitchen in Evering Road in Stoke Newington. I remember hearing planes go overhead, and telling her, ‘Those are ours,” Dr. Galatin said. “They’re not Jerrys.’” (Jerry was a disparaging World War I-vintage term for a German.)
That small child reassuring his mother that the airplanes overhead were not flown by the Germans who were intent on destroying their city and killing them was “wearing my dressing gown, with a bunny rabbit on the pocket,” he added.
It’s not that he wasn’t afraid of anything, Dr. Galatin said. He was. “My major fear was of barbers. I was afraid of getting my hair cut.
“That’s how a child’s mind works.”
Dr. Galatin was evacuated to the country, but as a small child he was able to go with his family; his is not the story we often hear, about older children sent off to the countryside to deal with their fears and loneliness by themselves. Instead, his extended family “had rented a large house, right on the edge of an airfield in a town called Farnborough, in Hampshire.” Everyone chipped in toward the rent; everyone lived there except the men who were in the armed forces. “My father was not because he was not born in England,” Dr. Galatin said. “He wasn’t allowed to go into the armed forces.”
He was lucky that he hadn’t been interned; many Jewish men who were born in Germany or Eastern Europe were, on the ironic suspicion that they might be Nazis. “Some of my family was interned, and my father’s younger brothers were sent to Canada,” Mr. Kane said.
“We were evacuated to Berkhamsted,” Mr. Levene said. That’s a charming, wealthy old town “not that far from London,” he added. “A lot of people from Stoke Newington were evacuated there, including an aunt of mine.”
It was many of the townspeople’s first experience with Jews. “They were surprised that we didn’t have horns,” Mr. Levene said. “I went to church on Sundays — the people we were living with went, and we went with them.
“It was fun.”
He went to Sunday school at church, and “I was a star pupil there,” he said.
All three of the men came from families that were deeply aware of being Jewish and observant on and off — the shuls they went to on the holidays and occasionally otherwise were Orthodox. In that, they were similar to their counterparts in New York and Newark. There were some Liberal Jews in London then — but there weren’t many, and they weren’t in Stoke Newington.
“We were always members of a shul, and we kept kosher at home,” Dr. Galatin said. That was the Shackleford Lane Synagogue, which now is the Shackleford Lane Mosque. “It was peculiar — we’d go to shul, and then we’d go out and eat everything. We went to shul — and then we’d go out to see a movie. We did keep the Jewish holidays.
“I went to Hebrew school, and I sang in the shul choir. I started as a soprano and I graduated eventually to becoming an alto. We got paid two and sixpence a month to sing.”
Oh! So do you sing now? “I don’t sing now and I couldn’t sing then,” Dr. Galatin said.
“We were not so religious,” Mr. Kane said. “Religion was going to my grandparents’ shul on the High Holy Days,” Mr. Levene added. “I was the oldest grandchild on my mother’s side, so they made a big fuss over me.” And he loved it, he said.
“We all went to cheder until our bar mitzvah,” Dr. Galatin said; each of them became bar mitzvah, Mr. Kane added.
Each of the three took a different path to Tenafly.
Primary school, back then, was for 5- to 11-year-olds. (The British education system has changed since then.) At 11, students took the 11 plus exam, which filtered them into different kinds of schools and basically told most of them where they’d be for the rest of their lives.
The top scorers went to grammar schools, the next group to comprehensive schools, and the third to trade schools.
Mr. Levene, the oldest of them, went to a grammar school, the Sloane School; after he graduated, he became an articled clerk in a firm of chartered accountants (properly pronounced “clark,” as the Lord Admiral in Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore” sang in “When I was a lad.” Like Mr. Levene, the admiral began his career as an articled clark. And chartered accountants basically are British CPAs.)
After taking and passing the exams to become a chartered accountant (“It’s quite an exam — I lost my hair while I was studying,” he reported), Mr. Levene joined the Royal Air Force for two years of mandatory national service.
“I was an air radar mechanic, and I was posted to Germany,” he said. “This was in the late 1950s. At the station I was posted to, the officers’ mess accounts were messed up, and they asked me if I would work on them instead of air radars. And I said yes, gladly.
“My best friends were the barmen and the cooks. We ate and drank well.”
Jews in the British armed forces gathered for something called the Moral Leadership Course, which met over the Jewish holidays. “We had a wonderful rabbi, and he knew all the Jews in the British service in Germany,” Mr. Levene said. He met two of his oldest friends there; all three couples are still in touch, although a coldness between the two women still in Britain means that when he goes to visit there, he cannot see both couples together but must apportion his time between the two.
Soon Mr. Levene, young and restless, went to Canada, worked in Toronto, “was about to go back to England, and then I saw an ad in the paper. They needed accountants in South America. I contacted the local office — it was Price Waterhouse — and they sent me to New York for interviews, accepted me, and I had the choice of Venezuela or Colombia. First, I had to do six months of indoctrination — and yes, that was their word — into their style of accounting.
“It was a great place to work.
“A month before I was supposed to go, I met Edith, and my proposal essentially was ‘Don’t you want to marry me and go to Venezuela?’”
She did, and so the former Edith Levine changed a letter in her name and became Edith Levene, and the couple moved to Caracas. “After two years, she missed her family and wanted to come home,” Mr. Levene said. “We had an apartment in Englewood for a year or so, and then we moved to Tenafly, where her sister lived.” They lived in the same house for 45 years, brought up their two children there, and then downsized about five years ago.
Mr. Levene holds American citizenship. “I became an American when Newt Gingrich became powerful, and it looked as if he was going to do what Trump says he’s going to do,” he said. His life was in this country by then, and he did not want to risk it. “At that point you couldn’t have dual citizenship with England, so I am now entirely an American,” he said.
Mr. Levene, a trim, visibly fit man, is a serious folk dancer; “I started dancing the week after I came to New York,” he said, and he has not stopped. He worked with Michael Herman, a major figure in the folk dance world, and then with Karl Finger, a similarly looming figure in that world. His commitment to folk dancing took him to Bulgaria, and he still dances twice a week; “the JCC has terrific classes,” he said.
Mr. Kane, who has a degree in business, and his wife, Arleene Migdal Kane, have moved around the world; they have lived in Bangkok, Singapore, and Manila, and in Mexico and London. He worked for a trading company specializing in chemicals. In 1980, the Kanes moved to Tenafly, where their three children, who all were born in the United States, went to high school.
He holds joint citizenship, which was possible when he applied for his American passport. “It’s handy to have both,” he said. “My son lives in England now, and we go there at least twice a year.”
Mr. Kane and his wife owned a house, set on many acres, in Vermont. “I had read an article in the New York Times saying that there was a shortage of goat meat,” he said. “And my land was perfect for goats — they could keep all the shrubbery down.”
So he bought a herd of goats — Boer goats, from South Africa, 300 at a time — and hired local people to help care for them. He also started to raise dogs — Maremmas, a breed of Italian sheepdogs — primarily to work with the goats, but also to sell.
That lasted for 15 years. “It was a losing proposition,” though, he said; eventually, the goats developed chlamydia, and the dream ended.
Now, the Kanes live in Fort Lee; they have three children.
Dr. Galatin, like Mr. Levene, took the 11 plus exam, and landed in a grammar school, the Central Foundation School, also known as the Cowper Street School and named after the poet William Cowper. From there he went to University College in London and the London School of Economics, earning a first class degree — he was the first in his family to go to college. “And then I decided that I wanted to go to America.”
There was a reason for that. “When I was 6, 7 years old, there was an exchange teacher from the United States, her name was Jo Basshe, and she always used to call me ‘Professor.’
“Of course I didn’t have a crush on her!”
“I did a lot of studying about the American political system; I could understand in principle how it could work, but I couldn’t fathom that it really would. So I was going to come here for a year to find out how it works.
“I had no money, so I applied for a fellowship. And I turned down one from Harvard — and accepted one from MIT, which had the best economics department in the world. I never worked so hard in my life.
“I was going to stay for a year, but I decided to stay and get my Ph.D. there, in economics.”
He wanted to become a university professor, but the terms of his visa demanded that he leave the country for two years. He went to Canada, where he taught at the University of Western Ontario, and he got married to Beatrice Skulsky, a “Brooklyn girl” whom he had met at Harvard — she was earning a Ph.D. in German literature.
When the Galatins returned to the United States, “my official designation was beneficiary alien,” he said. Later, he got a green card, and later still he became a citizen; like Mr. Kane, he has dual citizenship.
Dr. Galatin taught at the City College of New York for 42 years, and “ended up as the chairman of the college,” he said.
The Galatins first lived in Queens, “but I had a colleague who lived in Haworth, and we came out to see it, and I liked it here,” he said. “I liked all the trees. So we found a house in Tenafly and we lived there for 42 years. Two years ago, we moved to a different house.”
Dr. Beatrice Galatin taught at Columbia, but “after a while her field dried up,” her husband said. “German literature was not in great demand. She couldn’t continue to teach it — so she decided to change.
“She went to Fairleigh Dickson, got a degree in teaching, and taught in the inner city in Paterson for 23 years. She taught ESL in an elementary school, and she enjoyed it. She loved the kids, and she was very glad that she did it.”
The Galatins have three children; one of them, Elizabeth Seth, lives in Tenafly with her husband and children.
Dr. Galatin has begun to paint, mainly in acrylics, since he retired.
All the men have grandchildren; all love them dearly.
All of them retain their connections to the Jewish community. Each is active in the JCC; each, in his own way — and in ways that reflect parts of the community pretty accurately — has had ties to synagogue life as well. The Kanes belonged to Temple Sinai in Tenafly. Dr. Galatin’s family belongs to Temple Emanu-El in Englewood, before it moved to Closter; now they buy tickets there for High Holy Day seats. The Levenes belong to Emanu-El, and Mr. Levene “goes during the winter fairly frequently on Shabbes, because you can’t play tennis then,” he said.
The three men are easy together; their friendship is new and developing, but their shared memories — memories they share with just about no one else — clearly delight them. The similarities and differences between their lives and communities then and now might not fascinate them, but surely they fascinate us.
And who knows who else might have come from Stoke Newington? (“There is a guy from Tottenham” — another London neighborhood — “and that’s close enough,” Mr. Levene said.)
Sometimes it’s worth it to ask people where they come from. You’d be surprised at what you can learn.