In a better, more just world, Joel Levine would still be alive today. He would be spending nights making plans with his wife, Ellen, to make Aliyah to Israel. He would be relaxing after a long day at his accounting job in Marblehead, and opening up the Talmud to study the Gemara. He would be talking on the phone with his daughters, Sara and Rachel, and asking how their day went. He would be sitting down in front of his grand piano, playing an intricate classical piece and making it look easy.
Last Thursday, the light grew dimmer across the North Shore as word spread that Joel had passed after a brief illness. In the small but tight Orthodox Jewish community, there were few words to describe the collective loss.
Then on Sunday, as 20 family members and friends gathered to say goodbye at his funeral in Everett, there were mostly tears against a biting wind. Tears for this modest, red-bearded man who always had a smile on his face. Tears for this Springfield native who arrived at Brandeis in the 1970s and insisted on sitting next to Ellen – the first night she arrived – and winning her over with his knowledge of classical music and overall charm. Tears for this guy who never uttered a word of lashon hara, gossip or derogatory speech about anyone, and was always present when someone needed to make a minyan to say Kaddish.
It wasn’t an easy life. There was never a lot of money: family, faith, and character were their riches. “We were always in debt and never cared,” Ellen told us as we stood by Joel’s grave on Sunday. In his early years, he had placed a bust of Beethoven on his piano in Springfield, and proceeded to learn all of the composer’s sonatas. He had a music degree from Brandeis and made a living adding numbers. Ellen is a professional musician who also teaches violin.
I first met them around 25 years ago. We were a part of a group of younger families that had moved to Lynn. We marveled at the late Rabbi Samuel Zaitchik’s sermons. Most of us eventually shifted over to Chabad in Swampscott. We liked the intimacy, lack of bureaucracy, and the davening.
Soon, Joel became a fixture there. Wrapped in his heavy tallit, with his siddur just inches from his eyes, Joel followed every sentence and word. And if a person mispronounced a word or a vowel while reading the Torah, we could all count on Joel to announce the word. In another shul, others would take it personally, but Joel’s intention was pure: He was doing what he could do to correct the world.
If you were new to the shul, or if someone looked like they were hungry, Joel would pull them aside and politely offer up an invitation for a Shabbat meal. These were multi-course feasts, with colorful salads, hummus, platters of meat, single-malt scotch, and always a d’var Torah.
During these meals, time seemed to stand still and there was no talk about the stock market, or who was getting rich in the neighborhood or what new expensive toy they were about to buy. The conversation was always about family, about children, about simchas, about Israel.
His favorite holiday was Sukkot, and he spent nearly every waking moment in his sukkah. Each year, he’d ask me to come over and say L’Chaim with him, and many years I obliged. Our conversation followed the same themes: family, faith, Torah, and Israel. He knew I had a passion for Israel and over the last several years we discussed plans to make Aliyah.
On Sunday, Ellen told us that the last 12 months had been their happiest year together. Despite the pandemic, they had made much progress preparing to sell their house and planned to move to Jerusalem to spend the rest of their lives.
This week, people converged upon the Levine house in Swampscott to attend the shiva and help make a minyan so his family could say Kaddish. On the deck where his sukkah had stood just a few weeks ago, Hebrew prayers of consolation drifted up into the inky night. I found it hard to concentrate on the prayers and instead held a vision of Joel: smiling, nodding, and settling down at the dining room table to learn more Talmud.
There will always be tears in the community for Joel, and just as many moments of gratitude for what our dear friend taught us about morality and kindness. Shalom, dear Joel, may your memory be a blessing, and when I reach your beloved Jerusalem next, I will consider it a blessing from you as well.