Marlin Levin can’t believe he’s 90 years old, but then, neither do most people
who meet him.
The trim, alert former journalist for The Jerusalem Post
and Time magazine may have slowed down a bit since he was traipsing the country
sending dispatches via the postal system back in the pre-email days, but he can
still recall in minute detail events that took place decades earlier, when he
was part of the story of Israel’s founding.
That doesn’t mean that Levin
is spending his time living in the past. Along with his wife, Betty, with whom
he shares a comfortable apartment in a leafy complex in Jerusalem’s Beit Hakerem
neighborhood, he still takes advantage of the many diverse options that
Jerusalem – his hometown of 65 years – has to offer. Welcoming visitors one
recent morning, the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania native relaxes in his favorite
living-room recliner and recalls an eventful lifetime guided by a belief in the
just cause of Zionism and the overriding journalistic doctrine of fairness, two
signposts that have affected everything that he’s done.
“The short story
of why I came to Israel is that I was a Zionist, and I thought I should be
here,” says Levin in a clear, engaged manner. That thought was fortified by his
experiences in World War II, where after three years into a journalism degree at
Temple University, he was drafted into the US army and served on General Dwight
D. Eisenhower’s staff at the advance communications headquarters in Versailles
as a cryptographer.
“I spent time in Germany, France and Japan, and after
the war, and after I had seen what had happened to the Jews, I knew that they
had to have their own state, and that I should be there too,” he
But first, Levin completed his degree at Temple and began working
He found a kindred soul in Betty Schoffman, and six weeks
after their wedding in August 1947, Levin realized his ambition by moving to
Claiming that he’s been a journalist ever since the age of 12
when he wrote his cousin’s bar-mitzva speech, Levin was planning to break into
the field in Palestine, being one of the few people around with a journalism
degree. But he was taken aback by how fast things happened.
first Saturday night in Jerusalem, my wife and I took a walk downtown on Jaffa
Road to what was going on, and we ran into Mordechai Chertoff, a colleague of
her time she spent studying at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York,” he
“After they talked for a while, he looked at me and asked me what I
did. And I told him I was a journalist. He grabbed me by the shoulder and said,
‘come with me.’” Chertoff, a young American journalist who had also recently
immigrated to Palestine, dragged Levin to the offices of The Palestine Post
where he worked, and introduced him to the paper’s founding editor, Gershon
“Agron was editing copy, and smoking a long cigarette,” recalls
Levin. “He looked up at me, asked me what I did, and told me to get in the
newsroom. “I had only been in the country for three days, so I told him that I needed a
little time to see the country. He asked me how long, I said three weeks, and he
said, ‘OK, come back in three weeks.’” Both Levin and Agron kept their side of
the bargain, and Levin’s new position at the Post as a copy editor “rewriting
the bad English of some of the German refugees who wrote for them” sparked a
13-year tenure at the paper.
But it wasn’t without almost immediate,
life-threatening obstacles. February 1, 1948 started as a typical night at the
paper’s offices off of Zion Square, with the copy editing staff putting together
the next morning’s edition chronicling the ongoing struggles between the ruling
British, and the Jewish and Arab inhabitants of the land.
Agron was in
Tel Aviv for the evening, and it being Sunday, a traditionally slow news day,
the level of commotion in the newsroom was on a low burner. Levin described what
“I generally sat opposite the window, but that night I
decided to sit over in the corner in someone else’s seat who had also gone to
Tel Aviv that night. Just before 11 p.m., there was a tremendous blast – I
thought somebody had thrown a hand grenade.” Levin was mistaken,
The noise was from a stolen British police car loaded with half
a ton of TNT which exploded outside, destroying the two adjacent buildings and
setting fire to the Post’s press and offices.
According to Jerusalem Post
historian Alexander Zvielli, the building survived the blast, perhaps because it
was built in 1933 following an earthquake, and the owner had invested in an
especially reinforced steel construction. But the flying pieces of lead,
shattered glass and ensuing fire killed and maimed many of the editorial staff
and press workers. According to Levin, his inexplicable decision to change seats
may have saved his life.
“A huge chunk of iron blasted through the window
and lodged in the wall right behind my desk. If I had been sitting there, I
would have been decapitated.”
Already possessed with a seasoned
journalist’s instincts, despite the chaos, flames and darkness engulfing the
newsroom, the first thing an unhurt Levin did before helping the wounded was to
rip the copy he was working on out of his typewriter.
Zvielli, it was also a stroke of luck that that the main rotary press, situated
below street level, needed little attention and could be repaired quickly. In
his account of the act of terror, he wrote, “Acting editor Ted Lurie swiftly
arranged for the lead story to be set at two other presses in town, and for the
set-up pages to be brought to the rotary press by hand.
Thus the Post
appeared as usual in the morning. The edition was smaller, only two pages. But
it was an important victory in the newspaper’s main objective – not to be
silenced – even for a single day.”
Nobody ever took responsibility for
the bombing (Arab leader Abd al-Kadir al- Husseini claimed responsibility for
the bombing, but some claim that two British army deserters were also
However, years later, Levin had an uncomfortable close
“I was attending a Time conference in Beirut for Middle East
correspondents,” he said. “As we were sitting around the table just talking, one
of the Lebanese participants mentioned that he had been involved in the bombing
of the Post building.
I just kept quiet – I knew I was in enemy
But back in Israel, it was familiar territory, a country he
grew intimately familiar with and became an expert in. Promoted at the renamed
Jerusalem Post to news editor and then diplomatic editor, Levin flourished in
the tumultuous early years of the state, developing a reputation for excellence
in journalism, while he and Betty raised three Sabra children.
1958, a serendipitous opportunity materialized that altered Levin’s future
magazine’s Israel correspondent Roy Ellison (a former Post staffer)
called Levin to ask him as favor.
“He said he was going to London for a
few months and asked if I could fill in for him,” says Levin. “I was too busy
and said no, but he insisted saying I just had to take their cable address in
the US and if they had any questions about events here, to answer
Well, the next morning, I did get a cable from them, asking me if
I’d travel to Beersheba to write an archeological story. As it happened, I
didn’t have anything to do that day, so I took a taxi down, wrote the story and
sent if off at the post office. And that was it.
“Two weeks later, I got
a copy of the magazine from Time
, a letter thanking me for the story, and check.
The check was as much as my whole month’s salary at the Post.”
began suggesting more stories to his US editors, and because Israel had been an
undercovered area until then, they accepted every idea.
work, Levin set up a stringers’ bureau of other freelancers and spread the work
It proved to be the seed that sprouted into Time
’s first Israel
bureau, established in 1960 with Levin, having left the Post
, at the
was crazy for Israel stories in those days, and we did the
most fantastic pieces,” he says, recalling his first big piece, the trial of
He covered such history-making events as the discovery of
the Dead Sea Scrolls, five Israel-Arab wars, the Eichmann trial and Anwar
Sadat’s 1977 peace mission.
“One day, there was a witness giving
testimony at the trial, speaking in Yiddish. She was telling the most horrendous
stories, how bodies had fallen on top of her, and I looked around and saw that
the other correspondents covering it were crying. And naturally, I was among
In addition to other landmark events like Israel’s momentous wars,
the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the 1977 Sadat-Begin meetings, Levin
says that he especially remembers his encounters with founding prime minister
“One day in 1956, I saw that strange things were
happening – things were quiet but there were all kinds of infiltrations from
Jordan and we were expecting a war,” says Levin. “Men were leaving their jobs to
go to reserve duty and other moves were at play, so I decided to go see
Ben-Gurion. I waited for hours on the steps of the Jewish Agency building for
him to come out.
“At around 2 a.m., he finally emerges and he sees me –
he knew me by then – and I asked him, ‘Mr. Ben-Gurion, what’s happening?’ He
smiled and said, ‘You let me worry about that – go home and go to sleep.’ The
next day, the Sinai campaign of 1956 started.”
Aside from a four-year
stint as a staffer at the Time Boston
bureau between 1976 and 1980, Levin
remained at the Time
helm in Jerusalem until his retirement in 1990. Having
experienced Israel’s entire existence – as a citizen and as a journalist – Levin
looks back on his lifetime here with a mixture of amazement, pride and
“Of course, I feel disappointed that we’re still not at
peace with our neighbors.
We haven’t had a day of peace since we arrived
in the country in 1947,” he says.
“On the other hand, we’ve taken in
millions of people and absorbed them. Ben- Gurion once told me that Israel won’t
be a real state until we have eight million Jews living in it. We’re almost