My Tribute to Cantor Gershon Levin z"l (zichrono livracha - may his memory be a blessing)

This is the eulogy I gave today at Cantor Gershon Levin's funeral. He left an indelible mark on the life of Shaare Tefila congregation. His 39 years of service were filled with a passion for Judaism and a love of Yiddishkeit. He was truly a "mensch" and he will be missed by all.

Cantor Gershon Levin
אליעזר גרשון בן יוסף אלטער ופריידא
May 27, 2014

אמת כי אתה הוא יוצרם ויודע יצרם כי הם בשר ודם. אדם יסודו מעפר וסופו לעפר. בנפשו יביא לחמו. משול כחרס הנשבר, כחציר יבש וכציץ נובל, כצל עובר וכענן כלה, וכרוח נושבת, וכאבק פורח, וכחלום יעוף. ואתה הוא מלך אל חי וקים.
“Truly You are Creator, and know the weakness of Your creatures, who are but flesh and blood. Man’s origin is dust and his end is dust. He spends his life earning bread. He is like a clay vessel, easily broken, like withering grass, a fading flower, a passing shadow, a fugitive cloud, a fleeting breeze, scattering dust, a vanishing dream. But You are King, Eternal God.” (High Holiday Musaf liturgy)

How do we begin to come to terms with the passing of our beloved Cantor Gershon Levin? How do we properly recognize his warmth, his charm, his powerful voice, his inspiration, his spirituality, his “menschlichkeit”? How do we bid farewell to a man who has been part of our shul since 1966 – his voice ever present either from the bima for 39 of those years or from that seat right here in the front.

To help me articulate my thoughts I was drawn to this passage from the High Holiday “machzor”. It’s from the dramatic section known as the “u-ne-tah-neh to-kef”. As we stand with the ark open the prayer leader chants this prayer which expresses a traditional understanding of the meaning of life. This paragraph recognizes that life is fleeting. We do our best to provide for ourselves and our family, but ultimately our fate is in God’s hands. I was drawn to this passage for several reasons – the first being that it is exactly Gershon’s perspective on life. Gershon was raised in a very traditional home in Jerusalem. He was a teenager when the state of Israel was declared and he served in the army. After the war of independence he trained in the choir of the Great Synagogue in Jerusalem and with the liturgical skills he gained and his powerfully beautiful voice he came to the U.S. to serve as a cantor in congregations in Miami and Knoxville, TN before coming to Shaare Tefila. His religious outlook and his musical talent combined to make him the perfect cantor – one who completely embodies the sentiment of the prayer book and serves as a role model for religious living.

This passage, and its place in the High Holiday musaf service, also reminds us that the Cantor’s most prominent role during the year is the High Holiday service. It is the time at which he or she can show off vocal skills – from the high and quiet “avak po-ray-ach” to the dramatic “berosh Hashanah yikateivoon”. Gershon certainly had those skills navigating the powerful liturgy while masterfully directing our volunteer choir. Every cantor though has to balance between the musical artistry that could cause one to be vain and the spiritual humility to lead one in prayer. For Gershon it was never a balancing act. He always clearly understood his role in the congregation and he took his job of being a “shaliach tzibur” -  the representative of the community – quite seriously. You never saw his face when he davenned because he was always facing the ark – but I saw the closed eyes, the smile or the frown reflecting his knowledge of the siddur and his effort in translating his passion into his voice. He never failed in moving us to tears or lifting us in joy by reciting the “el maleh” at a funeral or the “sheva berachot” at a wedding.

But I think I ultimately chose this passage because it reflects another aspect of who Gershon was. This is the section that he would always sing in duet with his daughter Dahlia. For my first few years working with Gershon it was pure joy listening to them sing together. Their harmonies were beautiful and it elevated the spirituality of the prayer. I could see the deep and beautiful connection they had that reflected total understanding. A raise of an eyebrow or a twitch of a finger and the two would be in musical harmony. But then after Yuval died this duet took on much more profound and emotional meaning.  A Father and daughter singing together about  “Man’s end is dust”  while mourning for a son and brother and while Gershon’s wife Susan and Yuval’s grandmother Frances Berger were singing along in the choir added a whole new dimension to the prayer. The prayer came to life through Gershon and Dahlia and their continued singing of it year after year affirmed for us our fervent plea that our life should be entrusted to God. Even now 9 years after the last time Gershon and Dahlia  sang this duet I am still moved to tears standing close to the ark as this section is sung – because for me this prayer has deep religious meaning as embodied in Gershon’s life.

Gershon was my mentor and my colleague. He took a young 32 year old rabbi and gently and lovingly trained him in the intricacies of the liturgy. His knowledge of Torah and his expertise in Jewish customs provided me with insights I never learned in rabbinical school. Thanks to Gershon he made me a better rabbi.
Tomorrow (May 28) is Yom Yershalyim – the 28th of Iyar – the day during the Six Day War when the city of Jerusalem was unified under Israeli control. That day is one of great celebration in the Jewish Zionist world for it represents a miraculous event – almost as if the Messiah was at hand. Today we mourn the death of this Yerushalmi – Jerusalemite – who through his own life and career tried to make us feel true joy - as if the Messiah were at hand. Gershon Levin embodied his religious outlook. He brought joy to our lives. His love of family and his love of music enabled us to articulate our feelings and emotions in truly deep and spiritual ways. We only pray Susan, Noam and Dahlia will be comforted by the music of their life with Gershon. May his grandchildren and extended family be forever blessed by his memory. And may we be inspired to respond to life with as much passion and feeling as Gershon. Then his memory will always be a blessing.

תהי נשמתו צרורה בצרור החיים – May Gershon’s soul be bound in the bond of eternal life. Amen.


  1. Gershon was an inspiration to us all. What a wonderful tribute to his life. Your eulogy is so moving. I could hear you speaking, I could hear Gershon and Dahlia chanting together, I could hear Susan and Frances, and I could feel the spirituality and love in all of their voices. With tears in my eyes, a lump in my throat and love in my heart, a hearty yasher koach to you. May Gershon's soul be blessed as he now truly walks with G-D. We miss our Shaare Tefila Family. We love you. Eddie & Celia and Family

  2. Touching eulogy. Thank you for capturing my thoughts - and probably everyone's thoughts who knew Cantor Levin. Sorry I could not be there in person.
    A story about Cantor Levin that you may not have heard before: When he came from Knoxville to interview at Shaare Tefila, he stayed at our house. [My father, Arthur, was on the committee tasked with identifying and recruiting the next cantor.] Being in a strange city for interviews, including, of course, leading services, must have been a stressful time for Cantor Levin, but you'd never have known it. He seemed to take everything in stride. I remember him playing catch with me during his brief stay at our house (without a baseball glove, which amazed me at that age). He was in no hurry, just happy to be in the moment (now that I write this, it seems obvious). That game of catch is still etched in my mind like it just happened - he was so kind to play with me when there must have been more pressing things on his mind that day.
    - Herb Bresler


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