EAST END OF LONDON PHOTO GALLERY & COMMENTARY
London's East End Synagogues, cemeteries and more......
My personal journey through the Jewish East End of London
Yehuda Leib (Lewis) Levene 1884 – 1954, Rabbi of Jubilee Street
Zionist Great Synagogue (This article and
photo was given to me by Rabbi Levene's grandson, Avraham - Phil)
Rabbi Yehuda Leib (Lewis) Levene was the Rabbi of Jubilee Street
Zionist Great Synagogue during the years 1914-1954. He was my
grandfather, and I was eight when he passed away, so I do have fond
memories of him.
Rabbi Levene grew up in a village named Paritz in "White Russia".
At an early age he went to study in the Yeshiva of the Chafetz Chaim
in Radin, where he became a Rabbi and was known as the "Paritz
Matmid", i.e. one who is very dedicated to his studies.
At some point he was drafted into the Russian army, where one of his
sons, my uncle, told me he became a "barabamchik", a drummer. At
some point one of his friends in the army made plans to desert, and
my grandfather overheard officers discussing the intended desertion,
so he naturally warned his friend that he was about to be caught.
This warning also became known to the officers, and so my
grandfather also had to desert. He did so, and left Russia for
England at around the turn of the 20th century. Something of the
Russian army apparently stuck to him, because according to my uncle,
when elderly, and walking with the aid of a walking-stick, he would
occasionally lift up the walking-stick and playfully point it as if
it was a rifle ...
Upon his arrival in England, he sent for his then fiancée, who would
become my grandmother, Chaya Bina of the House of Gurevitch, which
is the Russian pronunciation of the name of the famous Horowitz
family, of which she was a scion.
My grand-parents had 14 children of whom 10 survived namely 2 boys
and 8 girls, one of them my mother. The two boys both became
doctors, Moshe/Max Levene would become the President of the
Oncologists Society of doctors (when young I would call him 'my
oncle the oncologist'),and his younger brother Yechiel/Charles was
for many years a Professor of Medicine at Cambridge University.
While still in Russia, my grandfather had a very good friend named
Rabbi Arieh Levene (no initial relation), who would later emigrate
to what was then Palestine. He would later assist the Jewish
resistance movements fighting against the British White Paper that
prevented immigration to Israel of Holocaust survivors, by visiting
those of them in prison. This same Rabbi Arieh Levene would
eventually become known throughout Israel as 'the Rabbi of the
prisoners', but even more, would become renowned as a Zadik, a
Rabbi Arieh Levene is relevant to my grandfather's history, for they
became in-laws; Rabbi Arieh’s first-born son, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov
Levene would marry my Aunty Stella. This is why I earlier wrote in
brackets "no initial relation".
A second relevance of this relationship was made clear to me in an
unusual way. My grandfather published a book - in Hebrew - of his
shul sermons in the late twenties. The front of the book contained
three 'haskamot', the traditional authorization of a religious book
that it was 'acceptable' doctrine-wise, and commenting on the wisdom
and scholarship of the author. The three 'haskamot' were from Rabbi
Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, later to become the first Chief Rabbi
of Eretz Yisrael, Rabbi Issar Zalman Meltzer, and Rabbi Arieh Levene.
In the fifties and early sixties there were still quite a few copies
of the book lying around. The reason for this was that it was known
that whenever my grandfather gave someone a copy of his book he was
very careful to correct by hand one specific printing mistake. When
he died, nobody in the family knew what the mistake was, and so for
more than ten years no further copies of the book were distributed.
I came to Israel from London in 1964. In 1966 I began studying in
Rabbi Kook's Yeshiva in Jerusalem, and at that time I began the
habit of visiting Rabbi Arieh Levene at his small house ('room'
would be more appropriate here) in Jerusalem, every Friday morning.
On one of these visits I happened to ask Rabbi Arieh if by chance he
knew what was the mistake in my grandfather's book that he always
corrected. He, and his son-in-law who was in the room at the time,
both began laughing. I was puzzled, until I received the answer: the
mistake was in the 'haskama' written by Rabbi Arieh - although his
name was also Levene, he was not of the tribe of the Levites, and
had been incorrectly credited as if he had been. It was the word
"Levi" preceding Rabbi Arieh's surname that my grandfather always
took trouble to remove!
My mother, who was a nursing sister at the London Jewish Hospital
during WWII told me that my grandfather also served as the district
Rabbi: whenever a question of Jewish Law arose in the hospital, my
mother was dispatched to her father to obtain a rabbinic ruling on
Rabbi Levene possessed a sense of humor that occasionally found its
way into his sermons. At the end of his book of sermons, he added a
few paragraphs of commentaries on Jewish subjects, some of them
humorous in nature. One such item is as follows: when Jacob is about
to lie down to sleep before dreaming of the angels ascending and
descending the sky-bound ladder, he says "what a fearful place -
this can be nothing but the House of G-d". My grandfather wryly
commented on this, saying that some people can stay up all night,
playing cards or other valueless activities. But as soon as they
enter a synagogue they feel tired and may even fall asleep. So it
was with Jacob ... he felt tired, so understood that he must be in
the House of G-d!
A final word about the name of his synagogue - The Jubilee Street
Zionist Great Synagogue. Today there would appear to be nothing
unusual about that name. I once sat down with back-copies of the
Jewish Chronicle and looked through the period covering the time
between the start of World War I and the start of World War II. To
my great surprise, I discovered that the Balfour Declaration of 1917
giving British support to the establishment of a Jewish State in
Palestine was received very negatively by Anglo-Jewry (as
represented by the Jewish Chronicle). Although this was not stated
explicitly, it seems that Anglo-Jewry feared that it would be
"advised" to go to Palestine, to build its own state. Thus the name
"Zionist Great Synagogue" would appear to be a brave statement of
opposition to a position held by Anglo-Jewry at large.
Today the majority of Rabbi Levene's grand-children live religious
lives of varying degrees in Israel. Three of his daughters are alive
today: my Mother - Lilian Reiss (in Israel), Norma Witler (in
England) and Gail Mendelow (in Australia). Rabbi Levene and his wife
Chaya Bina, are buried in the Sanhedria cemetery in Jerusalem, as
are his oldest daughter Kitty, his two sons Moshe and Yechiel, and
his daughter Stella together with her husband Rabbi Chaim Yaakov
Levene, son of the Zadik Rabbi Arieh Levene, who is also buried
With apologies to Shakespeare, these were people who did no evil,
but their good was not interred in their bones: it lingers on,
According to an article in the Jewish Chronicle of 26th August 1955, Jubilee Street Great Zionist Synagogue was founded in 1918 and was
originally located at 165 Jubilee Street. It was demolished to
make way for the Sidney Street housing Estate. A new synagogue
was opened in 1955 a few yards away from the original. It was
hoped that other synagogues would merge with it to form one large
synagogue, but it was not to be. Jubilee Street synagogue
closed in the mid 1960s and amalgamated with the East London Central
synagogue in nearby Nelson Street. Rabbi and Mrs Levene lived at
142 Stepney Green. They were buried at the Federation of
Synagogue's cemetery in Edmonton. In 1990 their family
arranged for them to be taken to their final resting place at the
Sanhedrian cemetery in Jerusalem. A present day view of Jubilee
Street is above left.
photos to enlarge)