If you saw Harold and Philip Levine on the street in Old Katamon, they might pass by without drawing your attention. The nonagenarians look like your two typical Jewish men.
But these brothers are anything but ordinary: they were among Israel’s first lone soldier volunteers and original Zionists who have managed to keep their passion for the Jewish state alive for nearly a century.
On a warm Jerusalem morning, Harold welcomed The Jerusalem Post into his home on the fifth floor of Hamoshava, a senior living facility in the heart of Old Katamon. His brother lives in the same building.
“My father was a big Zionist,” Harold says, flipping through an album of childhood photos. “I’ve indoctrinated my kids, too.”
Over smiles and cracked voices, Harold and Philip were eager to share details about their first experiences in Israel, which were in the fall of 1948, when they came to the newly formed Jewish state and joined the IDF.
Philip came first, traveling on an old presidential yacht that had been sold for scrap. After a months-long journey that left him at sea during the reading of the Declaration of Independence, he was stationed in Beersheba. He worked for the air force’s decoding department.
Harold came a few months later.
“My parents had two children, me and my younger brother,” Harold recalled. “Philip was already in Israel, so I asked my dad, ‘Do you want me to put myself in danger, too?’ And he said, ‘As your mother’s husband, I would say no. But if I were you, I would go.’”
And so Harold did go. Trained as a dentist, he became a part of the IDF’s mobile dentistry unit. He would travel around the country in a small van that was equipped like a full dental office, treating the mouths of Israel’s soldiers.
Before leaving for Israel, Harold collected clothing and guns and canned food items to bring to the folks who were working to establish the state, and to exchange for money. He then boarded a ship – he paid $50 for the journey – and spent weeks at sea, including a stop in Canada.
“But one morning, I woke up and there was Jaffa Port,” he said.
In Israel in 1948, food was short and tough to come by. He recalled how for Passover he and his brother traveled to Nazareth and bartered some of the canned goods he had brought from the States for a box of eggs and two live chickens. He then drove the chickens back to Jerusalem in the dentistry van – “Oh that was a mess to clean up” – to be slaughtered and cooked.
After around 15 months of volunteering, both men returned to the States. Philip came back to volunteer both during the Six Day War and the Yom Kippur War. He made aliyah after the Yom Kippur War.
Harold started raising his family in the States, but he and his wife would travel to Israel for at least two to four months a year around the holidays. Then, when he turned 85 and learned his wife had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, the couple decided to make aliyah, too.
Harold made aliyah through Nefesh B’Nefesh. That was more than eight years ago. His wife has since died; they were married for 64 years. Philip’s wife is dead, too.
But the brothers and their large families keep each other company. Philip has 28 grandchildren and Harold 16.
“We sometimes eat together,” Philip said with a chuckle. “But he leads his own life and I lead mine. We have plenty of grandchildren to go around.”
They still recall their pasts fondly and with excitement.
“We participated in some of the greatest adventures of all time – it is unbelievable,” says Harold. “A lot of people we loved fell along the way, but it is so special to know we were a part of building this state.”
He jokes about how, when he went to visit Philip in Beersheba in 1948, there was not even a toilet.
“And look at it now,” says Philip. “Every day there is something new coming up.”
The brothers know they are a dying breed of original lone soldiers, those who came and did not just volunteer, but fought hard and with their all their hearts for the founding and flourishing of the Jewish state.
Yet they also praise those who come from around the world today. They say that while lone soldier service is different in 2019 than in 1949, these volunteers remain essential for the safety and security of Israel.
And in their 90s, they say there is not much that they would change about their pasts.
Said Philip, “Living here is a fulfillment of our ideals and dreams, and I think we are both very happy here.”
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