Jewish Week Travel Writer Gabe Levenson, 98

Sense of Jewish history and literary allusions filled his columns.

09/11/12
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Gabe Levenson, The Jewish Week’s longtime travel writer, who teased out poignant and lyrical Jewish stories from Aruba to Zurich, Brussels to the Berkshires, died Aug. 23 in Great Barrington, Mass. He was 98.

In a career in journalism that spanned more than 40 years, Mr. Levenson wrote for Jewish and non-Jewish papers. Before beginning his travel column in The Jewish Week in the early 1980s, he wrote for the Washington Jewish Week. Mr. Levenson also edited the Fire Island News, a seasonal weekly published from Memorial Day through Labor Day, from the early-1960s through the mid-’90s.

His prose style was idiosyncratic to the core, a mixture of wit, old-fashioned phrases that hearkened back to an earlier time and literary allusions that often sent copy editors scrambling for the dictionary and the poetry anthology.

In his hands, travel writing was more than about mere destinations. The Jewish past was always present in his pieces, and a sense of the history of the Jewish people, and their many wanderings, coursed through his columns. Some were tinged with sadness, others with wonder about how Jews had survived and the far-flung places where they landed.

In a column from January 1986, he describes Cordoba, Spain, the birthplace of the Jewish philosopher and physician Maimonides, this way: “Two-story white houses, their stucco walls laced with vines and the tendrils of rose bushes, line the narrow alleys of what once was the Juderia, the 11th-century Jewish quarter.” And then this bittersweet paragraph: “Around the corner, on the Calle de los Judios, is the tiny synagogue, the only one of many in Cordoba still standing. But here too, no Jews live in the city who might pray in it. It is also designated as a national monument.”

Nearly 20 years later, on the sun-warmed Caribbean island of Curacao, the story of the Spanish Jews reappears. On a 2004 visit to the Mikve-Israel Emanuel synagogue, Mr. Levenson wonders about the sand carpet covering the sanctuary floor. It recalls, the shul’s president says, the ordeal of the Spanish Jews secretly conducting prayer on the second floors of homes, above the eyes and ears of Inquisition agents, the sand muffling their davening.

A trip to Bennington, Vt., became for Mr. Levenson an opportunity to meditate on Robert Frost. “My woods,” he wrote, a nod to the iconic Vermonter’s “Stopping by Woods,” “were the snow-covered pine trees that line the curving Taconic Parkway. My vehicle, alas, was not a horse-drawn sleigh but a rented Ford Escort.”

In pursuit of a fresh take on a story, Mr. Levenson was not beyond a little verse of his own. Riffing on “the old jingle about Boston, the land of bean and cod, where Cabots speak only to Lowells, and Lowells speak only to God,” he composed a couplet or two, Judaizing the jingle, so to speak, to fit the excesses of the Hamptons: “So here’s to the heavenly Hamptons,/ Where caviar’s more common than cod,/ Where Spielberg talks only to Streisand,/ And Streisand talks only to God.”

But as far afield as he wandered, Mr. Levenson always seemed to return to the Berkshires in western Massachusetts; he reported often on their cultural richness, with an eye toward their many Jewish offerings, and reveled in the rolling hills that define the area’s beauty.

Mr. Levenson had a home in the southern Berkshires town of Sandisfield, one that rooted him to the area’s Jewish past. His home sat on land once owned by Jewish chicken farmers. A long line of wire coops, bending and twisting with the weight of age, stood at the far end of his property; they bore silent witness to a generation of Jews who worked with their hands and to Mr. Levenson’s fierce pride in his Jewish heritage.

Mr. Levenson, who was born in Newark, N.J., attended Cornell University and the Yale School of Drama, is survived by his wife, Fran, a former teacher and guidance counselor in the New York City public schools, two sons, Tim, a translator and interpreter living in Paris, and Miyan, a traffic/new anchor on various radio stations and photographer, a daughter, Deborah Levenson-Estrada, a professor of Latin American studies at Boston College, and four grandchildren.

Though he relished sitting in the shed at Tanglewood, the summer shrine to music in Lenox, Mr. Levenson, as a quasi-historian and as a Jew, wasn’t blind to the fact that the “Berkshire hills, once the exclusive summer playground of the Boston Brahmins, remained gentle, genteel and gentile — save for black domestics and Jewish peddlers and tradespeople — until 1935, two years after Hitler took power in Germany.” That was the year Serge Koussevitzky established Tanglewood as the home for his Boston Symphony Orchestra; the Berkshires were no longer a “judenfrai enclave.”

The cultural offerings there, though they came to reflect the changing times, seemed to sustain him, just as they startled him. Here’s the start of a 2000 column on the Berkshires that focused on the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art in North Adams and some of its avant-garde installations: “Seeing the six maple trees growing upside down at the entrance to Mass MoCA, I realized the cultural and arboreal landscape of the Berkshires had changed forever.” 

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09/12/2012 - 11:00

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