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In Search of Laeb Levovsky

by Judge Sandra Mazer Moss

Summer 2006, Vol. 69, No. 2

Mourner’s Kaddish is chanted when a person is in mourning, or on the anniversary of the death of a family member. The prayer expresses the mourner’s love of God and acceptance of God’s will, even while the mourner is feeling great loss and sorrow over the death of a loved one.

Mourner’s Kaddish begins:

Magnified and sanctified be the great name of God throughout the world which He hath created according to His will. May He establish His kingdom during the days of your life and during the life of all the house of Israel, speedily, yea, soon; and say ye, Amen.

The Congregation responds:

May His great name be blessed for ever and ever.

I wanted to say Kaddish for Laeb Levovsky in Odessa, the city where he lived and worked. And I wanted to discover what great dreams he held in his young heart, what made him “tick,” what drove him to leave his home and travel across the globe to find a better way of life. I wanted to find out what events shaped his thinking and developed the convictions that led him to help found the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in Philadelphia and to serve time in Moyamensing Prison in support of those convictions.

I knew Laeb Levovsky as an older man (he lived to be 102) whose ideals of equality and justice shaped my own. But I knew him as Louis Levin. He was my “Pop,” my grandfather.

On January 11, 1984, the day I was sworn in as a judge in the First Judicial District of Pennsylvania, Pop put on my robe for me. On that day, he told me that as a boy in Russia he never dreamed a relative of his would ever appear in court as an attorney, let alone preside over one as a judge.

I knew Louis Levin. Now I wanted to get to know Laeb Levovsky. To that end my husband, Bill, and I planned a trip to Ukraine. We booked a Riverboat tour, sailing down the Dnieper River from Kiev to Odessa, with stops in towns and villages along the way. Pop had talked about swimming in the Dnieper, fishing along its banks and cutting ice in winter to preserve food. That seemed like a good place to start.

Forty-five Americans joined the tour; twenty-five were Jewish, and we bonded immediately. Everyone was there for the same reason. We wanted to trace our roots, to see where our families originated. Our guide, Alla, was sensitive to our needs and tailored the trip accordingly.

One thing struck me initially: how similar Ukrainian culture was to my grandparents’ way of life, a way of life I had come to know. I ate every conceivable type of borscht-beet, cabbage and schav-stuffed peppers and cabbage, brisket and chicken, done just like my Bubby used to make, with lots of schmaltz. We also learned that Ukrainians are not Russians. They are vehement on that point. Their language is different. Their architecture is also different. The gold domes you see in Moscow and St. Petersburg are onion-shaped. In Ukraine, they are pear-shaped, a subtle but significant difference.

Music abounded everywhere. In Odessa there was even a violinist playing on the sidewalk. And the sounds were hauntingly familiar, particularly those made by the balalaika and the bandura, Ukraine’s national instrument. (In my family, the word “bondura” meant a big thing or a big deal, and it must have come from this large string instrument.) Evening dances resembled those at every Bar Mitzvah and wedding I had ever attended. I danced more horas in those two weeks than I had in the previous two years.

Our first stop was Kiev, which was very badly damaged during World War II. Kiev, which had been rebuilt by the Soviets, looked very institutional; the graceful European architecture of an earlier time no longer existed. Fortunately, several magnificent churches remained. There are about 500,000 Jews presently living in Ukraine; 100,000 live in Kiev. There were more than 300,000 Jews in Kiev prior to the Nazi invasion. We visited Babi Yar, where the Nazis slaughtered more than 32,000 Jews. Our bus followed the same route that men, women and children were forced to walk, the same route they were told would take them to a railway depot where they would be deported to German work camps. We knew better.

Twenty-five of us stood around the largest ravine and said Kaddish for our relatives or neighbors of our relatives who died because they did not have the opportunity to flee in time. I brought two Kaddish books on the trip and made copies we all shared. As we chanted, the only sounds were the whistle of wind, the chirping of birds and our own muted voices.

All Ukrainian synagogues were closed by the Soviet government in 1917 and then used for secular purposes, such as government offices and recreational centers. Our guide told us she had been forced to play soccer in her local synagogue. The synagogues were reopened in 1991.

There are two synagogues operating in Kiev today. We visited both. The first was a little red synagogue with a marvelous false front door, so that when the Cossacks pounded and hacked at the large and imposing false door, the congregation could escape through the real, rather innocuous, side door. The second, the Brodsky Synagogue, named for a noted Jewish philanthropist, was much larger and more ornate. The congregation was also the most affluent I saw throughout our trip. We were welcomed warmly and offered tea and cake. We also visited the gift shop, which was stocked with local art and crafts. I bought a lovely painting of the synagogue with congregants streaming down the steps and along the street.

We visited that synagogue on September 11 and were told there would be an unveiling of a monument dedicated to the Americans who died on that terrible day. The Jewish community in Kiev had contributed so generously that the monument was placed just a few blocks from the Brodsky Synagogue. We were invited to attend. The governor of Colorado represented the United States. (Please don’t ask why. I couldn’t even get a straight answer from him!) We were all ushered into the VIP section and introduced to the governor. Victor Yushenko, then president of Ukraine, gave the main address, which was not translated; we all stood right behind his Honor Guard, and he acknowledged our presence with a nod. I wondered what Laeb Levovsky would have said to that—his granddaughter acknowledged as a dignitary representing the United States of America! And I wondered if he could ever imagine a Jewish community not only with enough financial resources to help build a monument, but also to warrant a major political appearance by the Ukrainian president as well. A friend saved a newspaper article reporting on this event for me. We were referred to as “foreign diplomats!”

Leaving Kiev, we sailed to the village of Kanev, which I learned was in Pop’s province. Pop was born in a village called Uman, which was near the rail line from Kiev to Odessa. As such, it has grown into a small city and is a center for Hassidic sects, as a famous Rebbe is buried there. As we pulled into the harbor, I watched women still kneeling by the banks washing their clothes. I wondered whether this was the town where Laeb Levovsky swam and fished. Kanev is about forty or fifty miles from Uman, and if he wanted to travel by boat or use the river in any way, Kanev would have been the closest place. That afternoon, local farmers prepared a picnic for us on the riverbank. Platters laden with steaming fish, stuffed peppers and cabbage, fresh tomatoes, eggplant, mashed potatoes and zucchini were passed from table to table. I couldn’t help but notice the potatoes were lumpy, just like my mom’s. Homemade wine and vodka (the national drink) flowed faster than the river. Soon the musicians arrived and the afternoon air was filled with the sounds of balalaikas and banduras. Filled with food and wine, our group rose and danced among the tables, holding hands and kicking up dirt as we went. I wondered whether Laeb Levovsky had danced in these fields with a local “madel” (young woman). And as I looked out at the fields, still fertile with crops, I suddenly realized why Pop eventually chose the farming community of Vineland, New Jersey, as the place to raise his family.

After lunch, the artisans arrived with beautiful embroidered tablecloths, crocheted shawls and woodcarvings. I bought a shawl for my daughter and a carved wooden basket for myself to remember this wonderful day.

Jews are returning to these little towns along the Dnieper. In Kremenchug, our next stop, almost half the population is Jewish. So it was a particular pleasure to visit two schools and a hospital there. We were entertained by a delightful group of pre-teens who sang and danced. One lovely young woman even had orange streaks running through her sandy hair; she wouldn’t have looked out of place on South Street in Philadelphia.

Best of all, we had the privilege of coming upon a synagogue in progress. The building was finished outside through the generosity of a Baltimore family. Inside, members were busily painting walls and scrubbing windows. They needed some furniture moved and, of course, we helped. Yiddish really is a universal language! Before leaving, we all filled the shining new Tzedakah box with donations and gave our business cards for when they needed more. I knew Laeb Levovsky would approve.

Mourner’s Kaddish continues:

Exalted and honored by the name of the Holy One, blessed be He, whose glory transcends, yea, is beyond all blessings and hymns, praises and consolations which are uttered In the world; and say ye, Amen.

As we wended our way down the Dnieper toward the Black Sea, I thought more and more about Odessa, the last of our eight stops. Why had Laeb Levovsky chosen to live and work there instead of Kiev, which was larger and closer to home? If Uman was a growing community, why not just stay there?

The answer soon became apparent. Odessa is a beautiful resort city that, because it was not hit as hard as Sevastopol, the home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet that was literally flattened, still retains its old-world charm. The graceful historic buildings painted in pastel hues are adorned with lovely gingerbread trim and bas reliefs. As we walked a broad promenade along the bay from the Courthouse to City Hall, our guide explained that in 1905 a sailors’ strike on the ship Potemkin, supported by local sympathizers, ended with czarist troops massacring several thousand citizens on what came to be known as the Potemkin Steps. From that time on, Odessa became a hotbed of revolution. Now it all became clear. The 1905 Potemkin massacre, plus the severe pogroms of 1902 and 1910, attracted the young, idealistic Laeb Levovsky to Odessa where, as Pop later told me, he worked in The Hardware Store (I guess there was only one in those days).

The friends with whom we traveled had arranged a private tour of Odessa’s Jewish community. We spent time in a relief center where we watched senior citizens learning traditional dances, which they would perform during the center’s Rosh Hashanah celebration for a thousand needy people. We saw photos of clothing drives, food distribution centers and home health care services. Since alcoholism and drug addiction have hit Odessa’s Jewish population as hard as any in Ukraine, there are special services offered to families facing these crippling diseases, especially children who are left behind. We visited the Jewish cemetery that had been refurbished after World War II, since it had been desecrated by Romanian soldiers who planned to use if for themselves. Ukrainian Jews customarily place photographs and carvings of themselves upon their tombstones. One man had a somber carving of himself in a business suit on one side of his headstone. On the reverse side, he designated a life-size carving of himself in full duck-hunting gear, a rifle in his arms and a cigarette dangling from his mouth. I’ve never before laughed in a cemetery, but this and other photographs made me chuckle at how some Ukrainian Jews chose to be remembered.

We also visited Odessa’s Holocaust Memorial, which was funded by a survivor who now lives in Israel. Situated in a small park that had been the site of a deportation zone, the sculptures are surrounded by barbed wire. They are heartbreaking, especially one of a mother stooping to cover her child’s eyes. As we followed the stone path leading from the monument, we realized it forms an arrow. This, our guide explained, points in the direction where Jews were transported. Along the path are lovely trees planted in honor of those Ukrainians who risked their lives to save Jewish families from the death camps.

Yes, we also visited the two working synagogues (there were four large and about fifteen small congregations before 1941). I said Kaddish in the main Temple for Max and Frima Levovsky, Pop’s parents, whom he brought to the United States after World War I, and for my other grandfather and great-grandparents. But most of all, I said Kaddish for Laeb Levovsky, the young revolutionary who learned in Odessa how to organize and mobilize, which allowed him to become an effective Union leader after he came to Philadelphia in 1912.

In the 1960s when Nakita Khrushchev came to bang his shoe at the United Nations, my brother, whose sense of humor is a bit perverse, announced at a family dinner, “Pop, did you hear? Khrushchev had a press conference today. He said he came to the United States looking for Laeb Levovsky.”

Pop jumped up like he’d been shot from a cannon. “Laeb Levovsky,” he shouted, “I’m Laeb Levovsky!” I realized Pop was seriously worried. If I hadn’t stopped the joke, poor Pop would have gone into hiding. Apparently, Laeb Levovsky had not left Odessa under the happiest of circumstances.

On the way to our riverboat that last day in Odessa, I walked down the promenade and picked up a handful of stones. During the High Holidays this year, I will take them to the Alliance Cemetery in a sleepy little town along the Maurice River in South Jersey, and I will place them on the graves of my great-grandparents and on the grave of Louis Levin. Then Pop will know Laeb Levovsky’s young dreams of social and religious freedom have come true, not only in the United States but in Ukraine as well.

Mourner’s Kaddish concludes:

May there be abundant peace from heaven, and life for us and for all Israel; and say ye, Amen. May He who establisheth peace in the heavens, grant peace unto us and unto all Israel; and say ye, Amen.

I knew Louis Levin. Now I know Laeb Levovsky. May they both rest in peace. AMEN.


Louis Levin was born Laeb Levovsky on November 23, 1891 in Uman, Ukraine. The son of an itinerant bootmaker and local politician, Pop was drawn to Odessa, the center of anti-czarist sentiment. His revolutionary activities caused his immigration to the United States in 1912.

Pop secured work in a clothing factory and with several other workers founded the local International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union in Philadelphia.

On November 24, 1915 he married Dora Levin, a factory worker with whom he rode the trolley. They settled in South Philadelphia, just blocks from where I live today. Life was hard, money was scarce and two children were born within the first several years of marriage. Yet, Pop managed to help his parents, sister and brother escape to America.

At the same time, Pop’s union activities escalated, leading to arrests, convictions and prison time at Moyamensing Prison. When he was released, my grandmother insisted they relocate to another jurisdiction. In 1925, Pop capitulated and moved his young family to Vineland, New Jersey, a hotbed of radicalism. But, as my grandmother said, a lot safer than Philadelphia.

Once there, Pop opened a general store and settled down to raise his four children. He did, however, continue to pursue his political and social ideologies. “I attended politcal meetings,” he later confessed to me, “but I never carried a card.”

In 1958 his beloved Dora died. The next year, his son Jules, to whom Pop had passed the politcal torch, divorced but retained custody of his children. Since Jules was becoming nationally known (he ran for U.S. President on the Socialist Labor ticket), Pop moved in and began to raise his second family.

In 1970 Pop, then pushing 80, volunteered three days a week at the Jewish Family Service. As he described it, he drove old people to the doctor. Since he spoke fluent Yiddish and Russian, Pop was indispensable as a translator. Two days a week he babysat my two children while I worked and attended law school as a single mom. He also bought my law books and stocked my refrigerator to make sure I could afford to stay in school.

By 1980, his babysitting services were no longer needed. Pop joined a local theater group. His most famous role was as Tevye in “Fiddler on the Roof.” Except for the violinist, he explained, the play accurately portrayed his early life in Ukraine. At age 95, Pop reluctantly retired from the Jewish Family Service. He did, however, continue his theatrical career until the early 1990s.

Pop died March 1, 1994 at the age of 102. I was a pallbearer at his funeral. He had carried me all my life. It seemed appropriate to return the favor.