When she died at the end of December 2020, social worker Marva Previn Levine not only left a big gap in the heart of her husband, Bill Levine, and other family members, but also created a void in the lives of her many friends and those of her colleagues who, like her, were alumni of the Wurzweiler School of Social Work in New York.
Ordinarily, at least a hundred people would have come to her funeral, or to the shiva or both, but COVID limitations on social gatherings were in force, so the funeral was small and the shiva barely took place. There were many heartwarming messages on her Facebook page from people who loved and admired her, but as comforting as this was to her husband and her son, Josh, who lives in California, it was not the same as people coming together and sharing memories of her.
Almost a month later, Nechama Munk, director of Wurzweiler’s master’s program, sent out a message that there would be a Zoom memorial for Marva on January 25. Alumni in America and Israel participated, but it was still not the same as an in-person gathering.
Barbara Shaw, a longtime friend of both Marva and Bill Levine, decided to organize a small gathering on February 28, the date being Marva’s birthday.
Fewer than a dozen people were invited to the Levine home in Abu Tor. Some of them did not know each other, and even those who did were not all in the same social circles – yet each of them regarded Marva as a cherished friend, and while there was a common thread in their extolling of her inner and outer beauty, her wisdom, her ever-present smile, her ability to relate to other people and to listen to them, her elegance, her sophistication and her contagious laughter, each had a different story to tell of their relationship with her.
Shaw had met her when Marva was a new immigrant – and there had been instant chemistry. Someone else spoke of the book club to which Marva had belonged, and how she always saw more depth in any book than did anyone else, and was always the last to comment. Someone else mentioned daily telephone conversations over the years. Someone else recalled how much fun they had after drinking a little too much wine at a Hadassah event, and getting up on stage to sing “Hernando’s Hideaway.” Yet another person spoke of how, when she worked for AACI, Marva always knew how to tackle any challenge.
Someone else, who was aware that Marva suffered from cancer, said that although he and his wife often socialized with Marva and Bill and had long telephone conversations with her, if she ever mentioned her illness, it was in a matter-of-fact manner. She never complained, she was never sorry for herself.
For Marva and Bill, it was a second marriage for each in which they enjoyed 22 years of great happiness together.
Bill said that because of her, he had become a better person, a better father and a better grandfather. But then he surprised everybody by telling them something of Marva’s background which none of her friends had ever known. Everyone present was aware of the fact that she had converted to Judaism when she married her first husband. According to Bill, the first husband’s family didn’t care much whether or not she converted, but she decided to undergo an Orthodox conversion, because it was in her nature that if she did something, she did it properly.
The couple came to Israel. She wanted to stay. Her first husband did not, and they returned to America, where, among other things, Marva became a successful businesswoman. When she eventually returned to Israel, she came alone.
After a while she met Bill, and they started going to lectures and other cultural events together, and then decided to get married. Just before the marriage, Marva handed Bill a document, told him to read it, and left the room.
Although she had never discussed it with him before, she was descended from the founding fathers of America. One of her ancestors had been responsible for organizing the sailing of the Mayflower, and had married the youngest woman on board. Other ancestors – both male and female – represented signposts in American history. One lot of ancestors had traveled by covered wagon to a tiny town in Kansas near the Oklahoma border. The town’s population till today numbers 200. It wasn’t a place where Marva wanted to stay. She wanted to be in the big city where she could be her own person.
After her first visit to Israel, she wanted to spend her life in Jerusalem. When she finally came to live in Israel permanently, she would go from time to time to America to visit her son and her brother, who still lives in Kansas. She never stayed for more than a week, said a friend, who often chided her for not spending more time in America, given the length and expense of the journey. Marva’s response was always the same. She had to get back to Israel. She had to get back to Bill.
For Bill Levine, the gathering at his home, where everything is still reminiscent of Marva, the coming together of some of her friends, who all scrupulously kept their masks on, was extremely meaningful – and that’s why it occupies the space of this column.
Shiva is a wonderful Jewish custom in helping mourners to deal with their grief, to hear things about their loved ones which they did not know before, to share common memories and to gradually adjust to the new status quo in their lives.
During the pandemic, there have been Zoom shivas, but they cannot compensate for an embrace, a kiss on the cheek, a handshake, and a human presence in the living room of the mourner(s).
A lot of people have refrained from in-person attendance at a shiva. If it’s possible, go in person. Call the house of mourning and ask if it’s convenient for them that you visit, and what time they would like you to come. You cannot begin to imagine how great a mitzvah you will be performing.