Israeli documentary remembers Jerusalem’s saintly Reb Aryeh

by Gil Zohar Chicago Jewish Star, May 8th, 2009

Non-partisan neutrality and selflessness are values that have gone out of fashion in contemporary Israel. Filmmaker Moshe Alafi’s hour-long documentary One ofthe Lamed Vav - Reb Aryeh Levin describes an angelic figure in Jerusalem during the final years of Ottoman rule, the British Mandate and the early years of the state whose life was the personification of those today obscure qualities. Alafi’s film documents the compelling story of Aryeh Levin (1885-1969), Judaism's Mahatma Gandhi - a saintly rabbi who stood up to the might of the British Empire in Palestine armed only with love and non-violence. Though the subject of Simcha Raz’s 1976 biography A Tzaddik In Our Time, Rabbi Levin is largely forgotten today. It is hoped this film will help correct this injustice, even as it subtly critiques that selfishness has become a core value in the modern world. The title One of the Lamed Vav refers to the widely-held mystical concept in the Talmud (Tractates Sanhedrin 97b and Sukkah 45b) that there are 36 hidden tzadikim (righteous people) in the world but for whose merit all life would come to an end. The two Hebrew letters for 36 are lamed, which has the numerical value of 30, and vav, which is six. Hence, these 36 are referred to in Hebrew as the Lamed-Vav Tzadikim. Universally known as Reb Aryeh, the Czarist Russia-born Levin was an Orthodox rabbi and disciple of Abraham Isaac ha-Cohen Kook (1865–1935) – whom theBritish appointed as Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi of Palestine. Reb Aryeh was known as the “Tzadik of Jerusalem” for his untiring work on behalf of the poor and thesick. More poignant though was his second title, the "Father of Prisoners", for his visits to members of the Jewish underground (and common criminals) incarcerated by the British in Jerusalem’s Central Prison. Beginning in 1927 Rabbi Levin began visiting political prisoners, i.e. those members of the Haganah, and later the Palmach, Irgun and Lehi arrested for possessing guns or who otherwise ran afoul of His Majesty’s Government in Palestine by seeking statehood. In 1931 the British requested that Chief Rabbi Kook appoint a prison chaplain who would visit the captives in Jerusalem on the Sabbath. Kook turned to Reb Levin, who was working as the principal at the Etz Chaim Talmud Torah on Jaffa Road. Levin accepted the position on the condition that he would not receive any compensation from the British. It was the first of his many acts of passive resistance that made him a beloved figure in prestate Israel. Alafi takes viewers into the Russian Compound jail during the brutal years of the British occupation. (Today the site is preserved as the Underground Prisoners Museum.)

Through the film’s interviews with now elderly freedom fighters and Reb Aryeh’s grandchildren, and cinematic recreations, viewers join the Father ofthe Prisoners; for the next 17 years without fail, Levin trekked every Saturday morning and holiday from his house in Nachlaot to the Russian Compound, wherethe main Jerusalem prison was located. There he prayed with the inmates, sat and talked with each one, acted as an emissary between them and their families, and inspired them with his belief that there was a higher authority than King George. Remarkably the rabbi never tried to force his religious values; at most he gave the prisoners a Book of Psalms to read. The inmates were captivated by his warmth and sincerity, and the respect with which he treated them. At one point, Arab prisoners became jealous of their Jewish cellmates, for their mufti’s visits were aloof and cold. As the film lovingly recreates, Rav Aryeh would take each inmate’s hand and cup it inside his own. Slowly he would rub and squeeze the prisoner’s hand as he sat and talked with him. His eyes radiated love, as he spoke simple words of encouragement. Those visits made an indelible impression on the inmates. One of them serving a life term turned to a fellow prisoner and asked him “What time is it?” He answered him: “What does it matter to you? You are here for life; months, days, hours - time makes no difference.” The former answered, “Yes, but I am counting towards Reb Aryeh's visit. On Sunday to Tuesday we say to ourselves Reb Aryeh was just here two days ago, and on Wednesday and Thursday Reb Aryeh will be here in just two days.” Alafi documents how Reb Levin risked prison himself by carrying forbidden messages – which had been secreted inside the prison’s Torah cabinet. As well, he violated curfew laws to walk to the Central Prison. Once he aided and abetted an escaped prisoner by having his daughter walk with the man as if the two were a married couple. The most heartbreaking situation Rabbi Levin encountered was the predicament of the Prisoners of Zion condemned to death. Reb Aryeh made every effort to appeal the sentences and reduce the punishment. Once he even threw himself in front of the High Commissioner’s limousine in order to present his petition to him. Concerning those heroes he could not save from execution, including Dov Gruner, Moshe Barzani and Meir Feinstein, Reb Aryeh declared: “None of us has any idea how high is the spiritual rank of these martyrs.” In the end, the British never succeeded in hanging any Jewish prisoners in Jerusalem. In a heavily armed convoy Gruner was transferred to the notorious Acre Prison where he was hanged on April 19, 1947 together with fellow Irgun fighters Yehiel Dresner, Mordechai Alkahi and Eleazar Kashani. Four days later, Meir Feinstein and Moshe Barazani, respectively combatants of the Irgun and Lehi, cheated the noose in Jerusalem's Central Prison by blowing themselves up with a grenade that had been smuggled into the jail inside a basket of oranges. At Passover 1955, 1,500 former Prisoners of Zion gathered to celebrate Reb Aryeh’s 70th

birthday. One of them addressed him: “Dear rabbi and teacher, We have come to bless you on this day. For we remember your great kindness in coming to us in our places of darkness. We remember every word you uttered, every tear you shed, every prayer you said for the imprisoned and the fallen, for the bereaved parents and families. We filled the prisons in the land, Latrun, Akko and Bethlehem, and the detention camps abroad in Sudan, Kenya and Eritrea, because we plowed a furrow of freedom and liberation so that a free state and a free people might arise. And you, dear rabbi, watered that furrow with your tears and prayers." To see One of the Lamed Vav, with its loving tribute to the diminutive Reb Aryeh, is to be reminded that we stand on the shoulders of giants. Thirty-six of them. 30 – One of the Lamed Vav - Reb Aryeh Levin was produced in 2003 and screened at film festivals in San Francisco, Austin, New Jersey and Pittsburgh. The documentary is now being re-released by 12 Tribe Films Foundation. For more information see www.12TribeFilms.org or contact Avi Abelow at avi@12TribeFilms.org.