Seymour J. Levine, an aeronautical engineer who supported Jewish literacy both in his family’s Manhattan Judaica business and as a private donor of Jewish books, died Oct. 23 in his home in Jerusalem, where he moved 18 years ago. He was 90.
A native of the Lower East Side and former resident of Rockland County’s Monsey, Mr. Levine was the third-generation owner of J. Levine Books & Judaica, which was founded a century ago on the Lower East Side and now is located in mid-Manhattan. He was also an experienced cantor, serving as the High Holy Days chazzan at various congregations, including the Actors Temple in Manhattan.
Mr. Levine, a graduate of Seward Park High School in Manhattan, studied aeronautical engineering at the City College of New York, served in the U.S. Army, worked briefly as a designer for the Air Force, then agreed to join the family business, which was then headed by his father, Joseph Levine.
The family’s Judaica firm was founded in 1905 by Joseph Levine’s father-in-law, Rabbi Hirsch Landy, a Torah scribe from Lithuania who had started selling the scrolls he produced; in 1920 Joseph Levine incorporated and expanded the business.
Though Seymour Levine had an aptitude for mathematics and science, he decided to enter the Judaica business because “he wanted to help the family,” says his son, Danny Levine, the firm’s current owner. “He had a sense that this was his calling.”
Working with his brothers Harold and Melvin, handling the business and public relations side of the business, Seymour Levine started to travel to rabbinical conferences and other major Jewish gathering saround the country to exhibit his wares. He also put his engineering background to use, designing a set of interlocking Torah staves, which kept the parchment in place, and he produced his firm’s annual promotional calendar.
He also quietly assisted other people who shared his interests.
Aaron Lansky, the founder of the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Mass., who has played a major part in an ongoing renaissance in Yiddish studies, writes of a book-collecting mission he made to New York City in 1975 to find a home for old Yiddish books. He and two friends made the trip in a borrowed van. They had little initial success, finding few books and little interest.
“All was not lost, though,” he writes in “Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books” (Algonquin Books, 2004).
“There was still one more name on out list: J. Levine on Eldridge Street,” Lansky writes. “We rang the bell, stepped through a heavy steel door, and informed the owner, [Seymour] Levine, a dignified man with a kind face and reassuring smile, that we were students in search of Yiddish books.”
“Yiddish books?” Mr. Levine asked. “I think I can help you. Follow me, please.”
He led them to a collection of his late father’s Yiddish books in the basement and was pleased to donate them, just glad that they would be read.
“My father wanted to make a difference in the world,” Danny Levine says.
After retiring from his full-time position at the business, Seymour Levine fulfilled his lifelong dream of settling in Israel with his wife, Goldie, who died in 2002.
Mr. Levine is survived by, in addition to his son Danny, two daughters, Helen Berman of Herzliya, Israel, and Rebecca Sprung of Jerusalem; 13 grandchildren and 21 great-grandchildren.
Two weeks after Mr. Levine died, a grandson, Hart Levine, was married. Mr. Levine’s 50-year-old tallit, freshly cleaned and brought from Jerusalem, was hung on the chupah, just beneath the canopy that covered the couple. “It felt,” said Danny Levine, “as if” the spirit of his father “was hovering over the wedding.”