Remembering Yehuda Lev

I first met Yehuda Lev at a job interview. It was September 1985. He had heard that we were planning to start a Jewish community newspaper, The Jewish Journal of Los Angeles, and that I had been appointed the editor. Yehuda had been publishing a community newsletter called “A Majority of One” and, as he told me, knew the LA Jewish community from the inside out. He had come to offer his services.

Before I could ask any questions, Yehuda proceeded to inform me that he should have been appointed editor, but had been passed over because he was too much of a gadfly. The “powers that be” in the Jewish community, especially The Jewish Federation and its Board of Directors, had probably vetoed him, he explained. And then, as if warning me to save my own skin, he added that they would voice their objections if I tried to hire him.

By powers that be he meant in no particular order, the heads of most Jewish organizations   in the city, the leaders of The Jewish Federation, some of the city’s rabbis and, in general, the “money elites” who dominated the Jewish community in Los Angeles. Not shy, Yehuda reeled off a list of names.

Given that introduction, I was not quite sure why he had showed up for an interview.

[Related: A self-written obituary: A Majority of One]

But that soon became apparent. He cared deeply about the community and the role that Jews played in Los Angeles. He made clear what that role should be.
Yehuda was intent on righting wrongs of social injustice and believed fervently that it was the responsibility of American Jews to lead in this effort; indeed it was more than a responsibility, but an obligation and a gift. And he felt that the enemy—for combatting injustice, for acting in a humane Jewish way—invariably could be located within the local (and national) Jewish bureaucracies. It seemed to me an old fashioned journalist’s take on society, a bit out of date and a bit naïve, albeit with his heart worn openly on his sleeve.

Yehuda certainly had the credentials to hold these views. Based in Europe and still a very young man, he had helped ferry European Jews, refugees from Germany’s concentration camps, to Palestine shortly after the Second World War. Later he had rushed to Israel to fight in the War of Independence. And then had remained as a journalist in the new State of Israel, fighting for social justice and battling against new Israeli bureaucrats and political leaders who sometimes appeared less than open with their citizens. Nearly forty years had passed, but he apparently was waging many of the same battles. Those were my first impressions.

I thought: This is not what I need.

But then he began to talk about his experience…with charm and humor and knowledge.  Finally, he pulled out a number of back issues of  “A Majority of One” and left them for me to glance at.

I took them home to read.

He was all the things that he had warned me about. But  he also knew the community, cared passionately about its place in these United States…and, most important of all for me, he was a wonderful writer.

[Related: Yehuda Lev, Jewish journalist and columnist, 86]

I had planned to put together a weekly newspaper whose reporters would be, above all, talented writers. Their voices—regardless of their opinion and point of view—-would be compelling. In my thinking they would hold the reader by the sheer grace and power of their writing so that a conversation would develop between writer and reader. And Yehuda’s voice was precisely what I had been seeking.

I hired him the next day.

And of course he was right.  He had cautioned against taking him on, warned that he would create dissension, mobilize opposition from people and groups whose support we needed. Sure enough over the years those same people that he had identified, asked, urged, demanded that we get rid of him.

What he had not told me, though, was how many readers (among them community leaders and bureaucrats) admired and cherished his column; how many saw him as a great resource in the Jewish Journal. What he had not told me was quite how generous and important a mentor to young journalists he would turn out to be. Or how gracious and witty and loyal a friend the newspaper and I had acquired.

He has long been missed—since his departure for Rhode Island so many years ago. It’s sad today to think of him leaving us with such finality.

I would like to add a coda: In retrospect, those early battles of his against social injustice and bureaucracies and “powers that be” no longer seem to me old fashioned. Today, as so many of Yehuda’s columns were when he wrote for The Jewish Journal, they appear to be right on the money.