Page 153 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 40

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HAROLD U. RIBALOW
A Lament fo r Meyer Levin
I t
w a s
in
1946, shortly after the end of World War II. I was
covering a Zionist convention in New York City when a stocky,
soft-voiced man sat down next to me and, almost in a whisper,
said, “May I sit here? My name is Meyer Levin.”
I was astonished at the diffidence of the man. He was, after all, a
famous novelist. His
The Old Bunch ,
published some nine years
earlier, already was one of the finest novels ever written about
American Jews, their problems of identity and their conflicts
within American society.
We began to talk and discussed, among other subjects, Henry
Roth’s
Call It Sleep
, then in obscurity but, I was delighted to
discover, a book Levin (and I) felt was a major American work of
fiction. I mention this aside because a few years later I invited
Levin to write about Roth’s novel for
Congress Weekly,
of which I
was managing editor, and his piece, I felt, played a role in the
re-issuance and the renascence of
Call It Sleep.
Since that first meeting, we became good friends, and when
Meyer Levin died in Israel on July 9, 1981, my sense of grief was
strong — not only because a fine talent was gone, but because,
somehow, his life was enmeshed in controversy, his reputation
often diminished by small-minded, snide and cruel critics who
neither understood him nor liked the idea that he was so deeply
involved in Jewish life both in America and Israel.
For more than fifty years, Levin devoted himself to writing on
Jewish themes and fighting for causes of major importance to the
Jewish people. He was a journalist and playwright, an autobiog­
rapher and historian, a novelist of course, a filmmaker and pro­
ducer, a lecturer and educator.
The casual reader probably will associate Levin’s name with
The
Old Bunch,
which followed the lives and careers of a group of
young Chicagoans, Levin himself being born and raised in
Chicago. Even in 1937, Levin attracted controversy. He wrote
some scenes which irritated the ADL, which did not understand
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