Warren R. Johnson —
When our son Michael was very young, he had a very old friend. Everyone called his old friend Baba Levi. Not mister, not sir, but Baba. Baba is Persian for father, or even grandfather. He was so old that he remembered driving trucks from Baghdad to Tehran, before the First World War when trucks on the main roads joining the two cities were still rare. In the 1950s, he was a prominent merchant who had by then seen two world wars and was now helping Jews escape from Syria by bringing them to Tehran, from where they made their way to Israel. His home, for a while, was a way station on what Americans might call an Underground Railroad, denoting the back roads and cabins escaping American slaves used on their way North, often with the help of Quakers and Methodists.
Baba Levi was neither Quaker nor Methodist. He was Jewish, through and through. His late wife was Muslim, through and through. More out of devotion to her than for any other reason, he turned her prayer beads between his fingers, around and around. How fascinating, thought Michael, who borrowed the beads as soon as the old man set them aside for a moment. Because the beads were as big as small stones, they must be precious jewels, such as Ali Baba discovered in the cave he found.
“Jaani?” called Baba Levi, and sounded like he was asking for Johnny. “Why does your father call Michael, Johnny?” I asked Baba Levi’s daughter Louise. She laughed and said Jaani is an endearing term meaning sweetheart or darling. Endearing or not, her father did not get his beads back in a hurry. Only when Michael was asked to help the old man with his dinner, was he ready to hand over his treasure. Having recently suffered a stroke, the gentleman needed help feeding himself, and Michael was Jaani on the spot.
When shortly we visited Israel, my wife—Catholic for as long as she could remember—added a note to the Western (Wailing) Wall on behalf of Salim Levi. I shied away from the Wall, though Karin and I did go together to the Dome of the Rock. Some years earlier I shied away from the Berlin Wall, too. I was close to it, but did not touch it, just as I did not reach out to the Western Wall.
The following year, Baba Levi died. Because the Jewish Community in our city did not yet have a Rabbi, one had to be brought in from elsewhere to perform the funeral service. He was straight out of a Sholem Aleichem story, with a full, white beard and broad, fur hat. He began to speak. His syntax was Yiddish and so was his accent.
Reading from right to left, he began by saying we were gathered on account of Salim Levi’s death and continued, “Salim Levi iz geboren gevorn in heylikn shtot Baghdad un iz geshtorbn umbakant in Augsburg.” The leader of the Jewish Community ducked his head and looked a bit sheepish.
“What did he say?” Louise asked softly. Quietly I whispered, “He said, your father was born in the Holy City of Baghdad and died in Augsburg.” To reassure her brother, she repeated in Farsi what I said, and her brother nodded to confirm the truth of the statement. I neglected to repeat the last part, “where no one knew him.” It was not her father’s fault that no one knew him.
Some of the Ashkenazi members of the synagogue looked down on their Sephardic cousins. As one member told Louise’s brother, “You’re not real Jews.” To that, her brother replied, “While your father was sitting on his lazy backside in Eastern Europe doing nothing, my father was rescuing real Jews from Syria. “
Strictly speaking, whether one is Jewish depends on whether one’s mother was Jewish. However, neither did a strict distinction stop Nazis from murdering people in the millions, nor did it keep the Revolutionary Guard from turning against families whose fathers were Jewish, but whose mothers were not. After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the Jewish population of Iran declined sharply, largely due to the numbers who fled by way of the surrounding countries. Quite correctly, they took the Ayatollah’s threats seriously. That is why Salim Levi lived in Germany. No prayer beads would change the fact that when Salim Levi reached his 70th birthday he, like Lao-tzu at the same age, laced his shoes and fled the country, for “decency was on the wane just then, and bad times were gaining the upper hand.”
As if two old men were linked by fate, Michael’s grandfather, who lost his leg to a Russian tank, but survived the Second World War, died shortly after we came back from Jerusalem. Michael lost two old friends at almost the same time. At my father-in-law’s funeral, I wore a dark suit and dark-blue overcoat. For Salim Levi’s funeral, I added a wide brim black fedora. Ironically, Louise’s husband, as Protestant and Scottish as my grandmother, did not recognize me, but did comment to his wife, “What an elegant old Jew.” What a difference a hat makes.
Many thanks to Al Stein of Calgary, Canada, and Jeff Matthews of Naples, Italy, for their help with this essay.
Warren R. Johnson (Author) – Served in the U.S. Army in Germany in the late 1960s. He returned to the U.S. and attended Northern Illinois University under the G.I. Bill, earning his undergraduate degree in psychology and master’s degree in sociology. He then repatriated to Germany and taught college courses through the University of Maryland-Europe, mostly to U.S. service members and their families, for 40 years. He currently lives in Bavaria.
2 thoughts on “Elegant Old Men”
Most interesting Warren. Appreciated this very much. I’m also familiar with the false argument that some Jews are more Jewish than others, especially when uttered by Orthodox Jews in reference to any Jew not Orthodox, e.g., Reform, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, etc. But I also appreciate reading about all the interfaith/inter religion references you’ve noted as well.
An ethnic saying (can’t remember which): ‘When an old man dies, a library ceases to be available.’ Stories passed along are the next best.