ABOUT RAB LEV
The Early Years
Paul H. Levenson, aka Rab Lev, was born in Woodmere, New York.
He grew up in the Five Towns and remains a proud graduate of Harmony Haven Nursery School as well as Lawrence High School.
Pursuing that strong educational foundation, he attended Hobart College, Geneva, NY, where he was president of the Jewish club and an avid member of the college's choir and theater, singing in musicals such as “Beggar's Opera” and “Trial by Jury.” He graduated from Hobart with a BA in economics.
Rabbinic Inspirations and Aspirations
Rab Lev's interest in the rabbinate remains rooted with his parents, both of whom were very involved in Temple Jewish life. His mother, Evelyn (pictured at right), was an officer in Temple Israel's Sisterhood. Even though his father, Robert, was working hard in the New York garment industry, he held many positions in the congregation in Lawrence, NY, including treasurer and chairman of the religious school and music committees.
The one moment that crystallized Paul Levenson's desire to become a rabbi occurred during his last year at Hobart College:
I heard that a friend with a very Jewish name had decided to get baptized Episcopalian. Because I was so deeply Jewish, I was upset enough to ask him what he knew about Judaism and being Jewish. He told me his father was Jewish but his mother was Episcopalian, and he had decided to become a full participant in the church. He knew nothing about Judaism. I remember asking him if he wouldn't even take a look.
Paul decided right then and there that his job would be to educate Jews about the goodness of Judaism and to participate in Jewish life. His program at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion included two years in Cincinnati, a year studying full time in Jerusalem at Yeshiva Kol Torah and Hebrew University, and three years in HUC-JIR in New York.
Creative Inspirations and Aspirations
Rab Lev's great creative influence was his father Robert (pictured above, 1961) who, in his own youth was a proud member of the Tin Pan Alley group of writers and composers during and after World War I, publishing more than 40 songs, some of which are included in anthologies along with Irving Berlin and other well-known creative talents of that era.
Rab Lev also credits the musical inspirations of Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, Josh White, Theodore Bikel, and Shlomo Carlebach.
Sometimes Rab Lev gets the music by adapting old-time American folk songs that, in his teens, were the songs that he learned, memorized, and retains deep down inside.
One of the first Broadway shows he saw was “Sing Out, Sweet Land!” with Burl Ives singing, in his beautiful tenor voice, such well-known songs as “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (Rab Lev actually sang his Hebrew translation of this song on Israeli radio in 1956). Rab Lev was absolutely enthralled with Ives and American folk songs.
Rab Lev's biggest thrill is singing his songs that get people deeply involved. Throughout his career, starting in 1959, he has been very active in fair housing practices and in working to raise the civic, social, and legal status of black people in America. He marched in civil rights demonstrations and was at The Mall in Washington to hear Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “I Have a Dream” speech. He remains a staunch supporter of Israel in every way, even as he has worked with groups seeking rapprochement and peace with their neighbors:
I've always been a political and social activist. Because of my high profile I was often attacked for these positions, which, I'm proud to say, have always proved to be the right ones. In Talmudic times, 2,000 years ago, the rabbis, following the Biblical tradition, always stood up for the poor. We exist as a Jewish people because the great rabbis were realists about life, which is why, even today, we talk about Tikkun Olam, the need for us to help “repair God's world.”
“I do my best to be intensely present with everyone I meet. That is the main way I work as a rabbi to keep Judaism and the Jewish people alive through my teaching, through my personal and rabbinic presence. Singing Jewish songs is a very intense experience for me. My focus is on the situation right here and right now, with the thought in mind that what I do here and now will keep people Jewish for the next 30 years. For me, that’s an eternity.”